Did you see the news? The aurora will be visible across the northern parts of the globe! If you’re living in the northern part of the U.S. and want to see the northern lights in the USA, it’s totally possible. You just have to plan ahead to get to an ideal viewing spot.
Native peoples across the northern part of what is now the United States had myths and legends to explain the aurora. For example, the Mandan tribe of North Dakota thought the northern lights were the fires of great medicine men. On the other hand, the Makah Indians of Washington believed the lights were fires boiling a pot of whale blubber. These explanations show that the northern lights have long been visible in the U.S. In this post, we’ll share how you can see them too.
First, we’ll break down the basics of the aurora phenomenon. We’ll then provide tips on when you might see the northern lights throughout the year. Finally, we’ll end with a list of the best destinations to see the northern lights in the USA for every state where it’s possible. If you don’t see your state on the list, that means you’re too far south! You’ll need to travel further north, so start planning now.
What are the Northern Lights?
You likely already know what the northern lights (aurora borealis) are. In case you’re not familiar with the science behind this amazing astronomical phenomenon, here’s a quick explanation.
In short, the sun is constantly emitting particles. When electrically charged particles from the sun collide with gases in the earth’s atmosphere. As these collisions occur in different gases, light is produced in a variety of colors, depending on the altitude of these collisions. For example, at a certain altitude, oxygen produces the common red color seen in the aurora; lower, it produces the green most commonly seen in the night sky.
In the northern hemisphere, the northern lights are called aurora borealis. This name came from none other than Galileo, who named them after the Greek word for the north wind. If you’ve ever seen a picture of the aurora, you can understand why he thought they looked like the wind!
Best Time of Year to See the Northern Lights in the USA
Seasonality varies widely across the United States – even in the northern states we’re focusing on now. While Alaska has huge swings in both temperature and daylight, these aren’t quite as obvious in contiguous states. Generally speaking though, here’s the breakdown on when you’re most likely to see the northern lights in the USA.
- Autumn (September to November) – As soon as the autumnal equinox has passed, it’s ‘aurora season’ across the northern hemisphere. Weather in autumn can be pretty dynamic in these northern destinations. If you’re trying to plan an aurora-hunting trip in the autumn, be sure to check the forecast and plan for weather that changes quickly.
- Winter (December to February) – The long winter season is understandably the best opportunity to see the northern lights. From the long nights of December through February, you might be able to see the northern lights as long as you have a good northern view.
- Spring (March to May) – By the end of April, as Spring comes to the northern hemisphere, your chances of seeing the northern lights in the USA will become increasingly limited. Longer days and shorter nights make it less likely you’ll see the aurora than earlier in the year.
- Summer (June to August) – Summer, as you’d expect for most northern hemisphere destinations, is the wrong time of year to see the aurora. By the summer solstice, you can be pretty confident that the aurora will be invisible in the sky. You do have a chance of seeing the midnight sun in Alaska at least!
The Best Places to See the Northern Lights in the United States
While there are 50 states in the United States, you can’t see the northern lights in all of them. In fact, only a handful of states are far enough north to potentially see the aurora – and that only happens when the solar activity is particularly strong! For most of the places recommended below, you’ll need a clear view of the northern horizon to try and see the northern lights, since they’ll dance just above the horizon.
We tried to pick 1-2 spots in each of the 12 states where you can see the northern lights in the USA. These states are: Alaska, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin, and Vermont. Read on to learn the best places where you can see the aurora in America.
1. Fairbanks, Alaska
It’s almost impossible to choose just one great place to see the northern lights in Alaska. In fact, we have a whole separate post about seeing the aurora in Alaska – and it includes twenty one places!
If we have to pick just one, it’s gotta be Fairbanks. This interior city is located south of Arctic Circle. It’s one of the best – and furthest north – places to base yourself if you want to see the northern lights in the USA. Book a multi-night stay at either Borealis Basecamp or Chena Hot Springs Resort. You’ll be a bit out of town and ideally placed to see the aurora dancing overhead.
Pro-tip: Don’t forget to check the other 20 places to see the northern lights in Alaska!
2. Panhandle National Forest, Idaho
For those in the Pacific Northwest, don’t overlook Idaho as an aurora destination! Further inland than notoriously cloudy Washington, your chances for clear skies improve tremendously. by making the multi-hour drive for a weekend in Idaho’s northern panhandle.
Panhandle National Forests are a good bet to escape light pollution and see the northern lights in Idaho. Base yourself in Coeur d’Alene and stop by the Ranger’s Office in town to check out conditions before you head into the forest. You can also reserve a cabin in the Forests to get away from it all; call in advance to get recommendations on which ones might have good nearby views of the northern sky where you might see the northern lights.
3. Acadia National Park, Maine
New England is one of the most densely populated parts of the United States. That means that in the New England states, it’s hard to find a good dark sky!
If you’re willing to make the trek, Acadia National Park is one of the best destinations in the region. Because of its protection as a national park, there’s limited development and less light pollution. However, you will have to contend with the light from nearby communities like Bar Harbor when trying to view the northern sky from Cadillac Mountain.
Bundle up if you’re headed into Acadia to see the aurora; the wind comes roaring in off the Atlantic in the winter months. To start planning your trip, use our guide to stargazing in Acadia National Park.
4. Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan
Among northern states, Michigan was one of the first to embrace the dark sky preservation movement. Headlands International Dark Sky Park was one of the first ten dark sky parks in the world, established in 2011!
Today it’s a prime destination to try and see the northern lights. In fact, they have a whole section about it on their website! There, you’ll find suggestions on recommended forecast tools as well as a few tips to help you maximize your chances of seeing them. McGulpin Point and Johnson Point are both good viewing spots; McGulpin Point Lighthouse is just outside the park but also a good contender.
Stay in nearby Mackinaw Island – and don’t forget to try their famous fudge!
Headlands International Dark Sky Park is one of the stargazing locations featured in Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism!
STG Founder Valerie Stimac wrote Dark Skies in collaboration with Lonely Planet. You can get your copy here:
5. Cook County, Minnesota
Ask locals where to see the northern lights in Minnesota, and you’ll hear the same suggestion crop up: Cook County.
Cook County is Minnesota’s easternmost county, along the shore of Lake Superior. In fact, it’s the access point to Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park. (We would have added Isle Royale to this list, but it’s closed in the winter!)
Cook County is an ideal aurora destination because there are a few small communities, but otherwise relatively unspoiled forest and lakes. It’s easy to drive out along Gunflint Trail to find a spot to pull over and watch the the aurora dancing above a frozen lake. It’s a 1.25-hour drive from Grand Marais to the turnaround on Gunflint Trail. If you have the time and really want to escape the crowds, that’s the place.
6. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Voyageurs National Park is another great spot to see the northern lights in Minnesota. Located on the Minnesota-Canada border, this park is open year-round but with limited services.
All of the overnight accommodations in Voyageurs National Park require access to a boat or ferry, so if you’re planning a trip consider staying in the nearby town of International Falls. It’s only a 15-minute drive to the Rainy Falls Visitor Center where you can admire the northern sky and aurora from the coast.
7. Glacier National Park, Montana
As the second least densely populated state (after Alaska), Montana has a lot going for it if you’re chasing the aurora: there aren’t very many people! This means that many parts of the state will be good spots to try and see the northern lights in Montana. However, if you want to focus your trip on a specific destination, it’s gotta be Glacier National Park.
While parts of Glacier close in the winter, it’s still the best place to try and see the aurora in Montana since it’s protected, undeveloped, and unspoiled by light pollution. The National Park Service offers specific tips on planning your trip in the winter. Be sure to check out their website for the most up-to-date hours and times for facilities and services.
8. Mount Washington Valley, New Hampshire
Like Vermont at the end of this list, New Hampshire is a tricky spot to try and see the northern lights. There isn’t a lot of state far enough north to spot the aurora – and there’s a lot of development and light pollution to contend with.
One place locals recommend is the Mount Washington Valley. In the shadow of towering Mount Washington, local writer Dan Houdle recommends the following locations in the area: “Kancamagus Highway (Route 112), the Bretton Woods area, parts of Fryeburg, and the southern areas around Tamworth and Sandwich.” (source) His local advice is your best bet if the solar activity is strong and you’re in the area!
9. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Like Alaska and Montana, North Dakota is one of the least densely populated states in the United States. By day, this means you’ll see the wide open vistas of American Great Plains; at night, the lack of development ensures virtually no light pollution to interfere with stargazing or trying to see the aurora.
Since you can potentially see the northern lights almost anywhere in North Dakota, we’ve narrowed down our recommendation to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park is open year-round, as are the two campgrounds: Cottonwood Campground and Juniper Campground. Services are limited in the cold winter months, but you can set up camp in either one then relocate to a spot with a clear northern view once the sun goes down. Be sure to plan ahead for freezing temperatures, snow, and complete darkness if you’re trying to see the northern lights at Theodore Roosevelt National Park!
10. Olympic National Park, Washington
In the winter months, Washington State isn’t known for clear skies; the state’s reputation as a rainy and cloudy place is well-earned during the aurora-viewing season. However, if you’re going to see the northern lights in Washington, Olympic National Park is one of the best spots to see it when skies are clear.
Located across Puget Sound from bustling and bright Seattle, you can make your way to the small communities of Port Angeles or Sequim to base yourself for a weekend chasing the aurora. These towns on the Olympic Peninsula’s northern coast are in the ‘rain shadow’ of the mountains and have a good northern view if the weather cooperates.
Pro-tip: Colette’s Bed & Breakfast outside Port Angeles has a north-facing property that looks out over the Straight of Juan de Fuca toward Canada. You may even be able to see the northern lights from your room!
11. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin
Located along Wisconsin’s northern coast of Lake Superior, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is your best bet to try and see the northern lights in Wisconsin. While the island cruise providers don’t operate during the winter months, you can still see the aurora from the mainland parts of the park.
For creature comforts, base yourself in Ashland, Wisconsin and make the 30-minute drive (one way) to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore if the aurora forecast is promising.
12. Malletts Bay, Vermont
Malletts Bay is one of the dynamic coastal features of Vermont’s Lake Champlain shoreline, and a good spot to try the see the northern lights in Vermont. In fact, it’s a short 15-minute drive north from the Vermont capital of Burlington to the community that has developed here.
Head out onto the peninsula to Colchester Point, Causeway Park, or Mills Point to try and see the aurora in the northern sky. You’ll be looking toward Grande Isle/South Hero Island but there isn’t so much light pollution that you’ll miss the tell-tale dancing lights in the sky if they’re visible.
Do you have another favorite spot to see the northern lights in the USA? Let us know in the comments!
Featured photo credit: Mike Lewinski via Flickr