Photo credit: Ricardo Serpa
An Insider’s Guide to Seeing the Northern Lights in Alaska
April 16, 2019
One of the arctic’s most unforgettable outdoor experiences takes place in the dead of night, when the air is frigid and the ground frozen. But while the earth remains locked in winter’s grip, the sky comes alive in the vivid greens and reds of the aurora borealis. Known more commonly as the Northern Lights, these natural marvels top many travelers’ bucket lists. While northern Europe is a popular destination to catch a glimpse of this otherworldly phenomenon, it’s possible for U.S.-based travelers to see them without digging out the passport. In fact, a growing winter economy has cropped up in Alaska around tracking down the elusive aurora. And with that, here’s an insider’s guide to seeing the northern lights in Alaska.
A Bit of Background
A quick science lesson on how the Northern Lights are formed will enhance your appreciation of them. Some aspects of exactly how they happen are up for debate, but in the simplest terms, the phenomenon is created by the interaction between the sun’s solar winds and the earth’s magnetosphere. When the magnetosphere is disturbed by these winds, particles of protons and electrons are released and move into the upper atmosphere. They then discharge their energy and the resulting reaction creates the aurora. While green is the most common color, reds and blues can also be seen.
Planning Your Northern Lights Tour
The middle of winter may seem like the obvious time to see the Northern Lights in Alaska. However, the most dramatic activity occurs around the equinox in September and March. The cycle of the moon can also play a part. New moons—and the week preceding and following them—are an ideal time to see the Northern Lights, since the sky is darker.
On individual nights, the ideal time fluctuates. The highest levels of activity generally falls between 10pm and 2am, so if you’re not planning to stay up during that time, you can set an alarm every hour or two for a cursory check of the night sky. In addition, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks has an excellent online tool that offers aurora forecasts up to four weeks in advance. Bear in mind that, like the weather, aurora forecasts are not always 100 percent predictive.
Where to Go
The Northern Lights can be seen in September as far south as southeast Alaska. While the aurora is consistently present in the southeast region of the state throughout the winter, its propensity for precipitation means the sky is often blanketed in clouds. The capital of Anchorage in south-central Alaska is the easiest access point in the state. But there are street lights north and south of town for many miles that can make finding great displays challenging.
Located almost in the dead center of the state, Fairbanks is an old gold boom town that has persevered as Alaska’s second-largest city. A 45-minute flight from Anchorage, Fairbanks has the best combination of consistent auroras with reasonably easy access (at least by Alaskan standards). Because it has only a few outlying communities, it’s easier to get away from the lights of the city, which is critical for ideal aurora viewing.
Ambitious types willing to rough it a bit more can also consider several harder-to-reach destinations. The town of Barrow, located on the coast of the Arctic Ocean, receives year-round service from Alaska Airlines and has outdoor winter tours. For those who want to combine a wilderness experience with their aurora chasing, consider Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, the largest wilderness area in the United States at 13.2 million acres. Lodging is scarce but possible in the winter, and all ranger stations and visitor centers are closed. Accessibility is limited and motorists should be prepared with a well-equipped winter vehicle.
Where to Stay
As the aurora industry has grown, numerous lodges, tours, and resorts have sprung up to cater to the demand. For the independent traveler, it’s certainly possible to do it on your own. All you need is a solid aurora forecast and clear skies. For overall ambience, it’s tough to beat a pair of natural hot springs near Fairbanks. About 60 miles from town, Chena Hot Springs is the most popular and includes lodging options and nightly tours. Manly Hot Springs is four hours to the west and is well-suited for those who don’t need to be pampered with high-end amenities.
Several state and federal agencies provide and maintain a large number of cabins as far north as Fairbanks. These low-budget options start at around $45 a night and are generally accessible by hiking trails, though some are located along the road system. These rustic backcountry cabins are a solid option for visitors with some experience in winter travel. Be prepared to ski or snowshoe to reach them, and check the appropriate websites beforehand to see what is and isn’t offered, amenity-wise, during winter. But if you can deal with some rustic digs for a few days, these cabins, which are often available in winter, are just the spot to call home base for an unforgettable experience—and almost guaranteed sightings of these mesmerizing Northern Lights.
Traveling in Alaska in Winter
Alaska in winter is a gorgeous and dynamic landscape, and coupled with the midnight auroras, it can make it easy to forget that this is a land and climate not to be trifled with. Even experienced Alaskans can be vexed by slippery roads peppered with black ice and snow drifts, so it’s even more crucial that visitors come prepared. When traveling on snowy roads, take it slow or wait it out until a plow truck can come through. Monitor the weather forecast whenever possible. Bring blankets, hats, gloves, fluorescent flagging, water, and food. In the event you need to dig your car out of a snow berm, bring shovels and a bag of sand or gravel to give your tires (which should be studded) all the assistance possible. Bear in mind that cell phone service is not always reliable outside of towns. Leave a travel plan with someone and remember that some highways are sparsely traveled in winter; you may be waiting a long time for someone to drive by.
Lastly, keep your fuel tank more than half full whenever possible. If you’re stranded for the evening, you’ll want every drop of fuel to keep the heater going.
Written by David Cannamore for Knockaround.