The northern lights are one of the most mesmerizing and awe-inspiring natural phenomena in the world. Also known as the aurora borealis, these dancing waves of color and light pulsate through the skies in vibrant hues of green, yellow, blue, pink and violet, putting on a surreal show for spectators.
This dazzling spectacle in the sky is created by energized particles from the sun that reach speeds of up to 45 million mph as they crash into the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Since the planet is protected by its magnetic field, the particles are then rechanneled toward the poles, interacting with the atmosphere in that process. It’s this interaction of energy that creates the fluorescence, forming the aurora borealis.
The northern lights actually occur 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but you need to be at the right place at the right time to view them – preferably in what’s known as the auroral zone. This location falls within an area that covers a radius of approximately 1,550 miles around the North Pole. The night will need to be clear, and it’s best to view the aurora away from the light pollution of a city, ideally in a wilderness or dark sky location, if possible. Optimal viewing locales for the northern lights include destinations in Canada, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland, but you don’t even have to leave the U.S. to witness the show.
Alaska is one of the best places on Earth to catch the aurora borealis. The state is brimming with scenic destinations, exhilarating tours and top-notch hotels that offer myriad opportunities to see the northern lights. If this incredible natural phenomenon is at the top of your bucket list, it’s time to start planning your Alaska adventure.
(Note: Some of the following activities, attractions and locations may be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions, reservation requirements or mask mandates. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced aurora chaser, you’ll appreciate Explore Fairbanks’ real-time Aurora Tracker. This online reference shows up-to-the-minute information on the temperature, weather and likelihood of the best time to catch the northern lights in Fairbanks. Much of the data comes from one of the world’s foremost aurora research centers, the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks. To further assist in your search, you can also download the My Aurora Forecast & Alerts app on your smartphone.
For other parts of the state, the Geophysical Institute website’s Aurora Forecast has daily forecasts of geomagnetic activity up to three days in advance and taken at three-hour intervals. There’s also a summation on the webpage of whether the aurora will be active – or not – and where you’ll find the best visibility in Alaska.
If you’re headed to Alaska to catch a glimpse of the aurora, experts advise that the best time to see the northern lights in the Land of the Midnight Sun is from late August through April, with Fairbanks known as one of the top places in the world to watch the spectacular natural light show. And the further north you go – toward and above the Arctic Circle – the more time you’ll have for aurora hunting.
On the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year, which typically falls between Dec. 20 and 23 – Juneau (in southeastern Alaska) has six hours and 22 minutes of daylight. Further north, by approximately 730 miles, Fairbanks experiences three hours and 42 minutes of daylight. Meanwhile, Utqiagvik (also referred to as Barrow) sits about 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 500 miles north of Fairbanks; it experiences 67 days of darkness from Nov. 18 to Jan. 23, creating endless opportunities for viewing the northern lights.
(Jody Overstreet/Courtesy of State of Alaska)
No matter where you decide to travel to in Alaska in search of the aurora, you’ll be thrilled you made the trip once you see the show. Here are some of the best places to view the northern lights in Alaska.
Fairbanks, known as the Golden Heart of Alaska, sits at 65 degrees north latitude, making it an excellent choice for aurora hunters, especially first-timers. It’s easily accessible and offers plenty of accommodations, dining, attractions and aurora viewing, including northern lights tours. You can also be outside of Fairbanks within minutes to find excellent viewing locales. The city’s tourism website, Explore Fairbanks, advises that the best times for catching the northern lights in this area fall between Aug. 21 and April 21, during aurora season. Your chances of seeing the aurora borealis are excellent as the city sits where the activity of the polar lights is concentrated – under the ring-shaped zone known as the auroral oval. Local experts say that on clear evenings when the sky is very dark, you should be able to witness the skies light up on an average of four out of five nights in Fairbanks.
Talkeetna sits about 115 miles north of Anchorage in south-central Alaska, at the base of Denali, the tallest mountain peak in North America. With its old clapboard buildings, log cabins and roadhouse dating back to 1917, this historic town offers a lot of outdoor winter fun beyond chasing the aurora. Main Street is filled with galleries, shops, restaurants and a brewery. The quirky village, once a former mining town, was the inspiration for the imaginary borough of Cicely in the TV show “Northern Exposure.”
If you visit in December, check out the festivities at the monthlong Winterfest. This event features a parade of lights, a tree lighting ceremony and the Taste of Talkeetna food festival, plus entertaining events like the Bachelor Auction and the Wilderness Woman Competition. When it’s time to look up in the sky for the lights, local aurora hunters recommend heading out of town to Christiansen Lake or past the airport on Beaver Road. If you prefer to stay close by, look north into the sky toward Denali from Talkeetna Riverfront Park.
Denali National Park
Denali National Park is another top spot to view the northern lights in Alaska – not to mention one of the top tourist attractions in the U.S. The National Park Service says almost everywhere within the park is free from light pollution, so if the conditions are right (meaning that’s it’s clear and dark enough), you should be able to see the aurora borealis, especially when looking toward the northern horizon. However, when wintertime rolls around – from September or October through April – it’s more difficult to access parts of the park, even though it’s open year-round. Keep in mind, too, that the lodges closest to the park are closed from mid-September to mid-May.
If you still want to head to the park for aurora viewing, consider staying in the nearby town of Healy at Aurora Denali Lodge. Located less than 15 miles from the Denali National Park entrance, this property offers year-round accommodations equipped with queen-sized beds, smart TVs and private bathrooms. Rates at the lodge include a continental breakfast, free Wi-Fi, free parking and complimentary hot drinks. What’s more, the property says visitors can expect plenty of wildlife sightings, such as bears, moose, lynx, owls and snowshoe hares, just outside your door.
Coldfoot Camp is situated above the Arctic Circle in the Brooks Mountain Range, near the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The remote wilderness destination is ideal for aurora viewing since it sits directly under the auroral oval. It’s also the perfect locale for backcountry snowshoeing, wildlife viewing and dog mushing.
The Inn at Coldfoot Camp offers rustic accommodations located in trailers that once housed Alaskan pipeline workers. The rooms include two twin beds and a private bathroom and shower. Guests can dine at the on-site Trucker’s Café, which offers breakfast and dinner buffets in the summer months and all-day a la carte dining in the winter. And when you’re ready for a cold one at the end of the day, check out the Frozen Foot Saloon and order an Alaska-brewed beer. If you prefer camping and have your own gear, you can camp free of charge on the property. Coldfoot Camp also hosts a selection of year-round Arctic adventures and excursions, including a trip to the village of Wiseman for aurora viewing.
This small village of 12 full-time residents is located in Alaska’s Brooks Range, about 15 miles north of Coldfoot Camp, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 270 miles from Fairbanks. Wiseman is an off-the-grid wilderness retreat. The community sits directly under the auroral oval, making it one of the best places in Alaska to view the northern lights. You can expect to see the spectacle in the sky in Wiseman about 250 nights a year, especially between late August and mid-April. Wiseman has more sled dogs than people, and there are three properties to choose from for accommodations for your visit.
Arctic Hive is an excellent lodging option in this remote destination that’s only accessible by foot – jump to the section on top hotels for viewing the lights to read more about its snug cabins, aurora excursions and yoga studio. Meanwhile, you can drive to bed-and-breakfast Arctic Getaway, which sits between the middle fork of the Koyukuk River and Wiseman Creek, offering three cabins. While here, you can learn what it’s like to homestead in Alaska above the Arctic Circle and enjoy outdoor activities like dog sled rides across the vast wilderness, cross-country skiing, pack rafting and flightseeing by bush plane. Finally, Boreal Lodge (also reachable by vehicle) has several rental options, ranging from lodge rooms to larger cabins with living areas and kitchens.
Located in western Alaska overlooking the Norton Sound of the Bering Sea, Nome is the ending point for the more than 1,000-mile, 50-year-old Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race in March. Once the most populated city in Alaska, Nome had almost 20,000 residents and an average of 1,000 new people arriving daily during the height of the gold rush in 1899. Nome is a little quieter now, with a population of less than 4,000 residents.
If you’re in town to chase the lights, plan to stay at Aurora Inn & Suites, a 52-room hotel with views of the Bering Sea. Some of the best spots for viewing the aurora are about a mile outside of Nome. The hotel’s front desk staff can also provide you with additional tips during your stay. Plan your trip for mid-March to join in the festivities around town surrounding the end of the Iditarod.
Situated on the banks of the Arctic Ocean, Utqiagvik is the northernmost city in the U.S. The town, formerly known as Barrow, changed its name in 2016 back to Utqiagvik, its traditional Inupiaq name. Utqiagvik is only accessible by plane, and Alaska Airlines offers service from both Anchorage and Fairbanks. For accommodations, make reservations at a hotel named for its location – the Top of the World Hotel. The property’s comfortable rooms offer views of the Arctic Ocean; the on-site restaurant, Niggivikput (meaning “our place to eat”), serves traditional local dishes like reindeer soup. While you may be there for aurora hunting, don’t miss the excellent wildlife-viewing opportunities: You may see polar bears, caribou, foxes, bearded seals, whales, walruses, migratory birds and the great snowy owl on the tundra.
If you decide you want to experience the aurora borealis by joining a tour group, you’re in luck – Alaska boasts a variety of tours to choose from, led by expert guides and granting you easier access to many of the state’s remote destinations, often with other activities included. (And keep in mind that, on any tour or excursion, there’s no way to guarantee that the aurora will be visible.) Here are some of the best tours to see the northern lights in Alaska.
Arctic Dog Adventure Co.: Aurora Overnight Tour
Dog-sledding is one of the top winter activities in Alaska, and you can choose to do it by day or night. If you want to experience an Alaska dog-sledding adventure while chasing the aurora, then book a once-in-a-lifetime experience with Arctic Dog’s Aurora Overnight Tour. Highlights of this two-day, one-night excursion – which starts in Fairbanks – are dog mushing your own sled team and glamping in a heated tent under an aurora-filled sky. Other features of the tour include cold weather gear, a photography lesson and Alaska-inspired meals.
Alaska Wildlife Guide: Northern Lights & Murphy Dome Tour
Located around 20 miles northwest of the city, Murphy Dome is regarded as one of the best places to watch the northern lights in Fairbanks at nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. This location, once home to Murphy Dome Air Force Station with as many as 250 personnel stationed at the base, now houses a long-range radar station that detects military air threats from overseas. Alaska Wildlife Guide LLC leads 5.5-hour northern lights tours to Murphy Dome, typically from late August to early April – you can check with the company for day-to-day tour availability. Excursion prices include round-trip transportation from Fairbanks, 360-degree views of the north-facing sky, hot beverages and bottled water – in addition to (hopefully) hours of memorable aurora viewing.
Alaska Wildlife Guide: Northern Lights & Arctic Circle Tour
This full-day (14-hour) excursion, also offered by Alaska Wildlife Guide, begins in Fairbanks and crosses the Arctic Circle into Alaska’s vast and remote wilderness. The tour includes a drive along the more than 800-mile Trans-Alaskan Pipeline and a half-mile walk along the loop at Finger Mountain with views overlooking the Kanuti Flats (depending on the season). Your guide will also stop along the riverbank after crossing the Yukon River Bridge. During the tour, you’ll learn about the history of the pipeline and hear narratives around the other included stops. A snack and warm beverage are included; then, if conditions are just right, you’ll have the chance to see the brilliant light show dance across the dark, clear skies before you arrive back in Fairbanks at dawn.
SkyFire in Focus Tours: Aurora Photography & Viewing Tour
For a magical night under Fairbanks’ clear skies – and the opportunity to capture the captivating light show on camera – reserve a spot on the Aurora Photography and Viewing Tour. This small group excursion hosted by SkyFire in Focus Tours takes guests to the interior of Fairbanks, where you’ll learn about the solar activity overhead – and receive instructions on the best way to capture the phenomenon on your camera. Round-trip transportation from your hotel departs in late evening and you’ll return around 3 a.m., depending on the night’s aurora activity. You can bring your camera, tripod and other suggested equipment, or opt to rent from the tour group for the outing. Hot beverages are included so you can stay warm while hopefully getting to enjoy the lights. As with other aurora tours, the weather will determine if the tour departs that evening. You can also book a private experience for three to four people for more individualized attention.
Alaska Tours: Bettles Lodge Winter Adventure
The Alaska Tours company has multiple options for aurora seekers dreaming of viewing the northern lights. The outfitter offers everything from an evening outing in Fairbanks − or a daylong driving excursion from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle − to a scenic four-night rail journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks on the Alaska Railroad. The Bettles Lodge Winter Adventure is available January to March and August to December and includes two nights − or up to four evenings − at this wilderness lodge about 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle. During the winter days, enjoy outdoor Arctic sports such as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing or stay warm indoors chatting with other guests at the Aurora Lodge. In the evenings, you can bundle up and head outside at one of the best places in Alaska to see the spectacle in the sky. Prices include round-trip airfare between Fairbanks and Bettles, accommodations at the lodge, meals, a village tour and complimentary use of the Arctic gear (in season).
Alaska Photo Treks: Anchorage Aurora Quest
Alaska Photo Treks offers one of the best ways to see the northern lights in Anchorage – and you’ll even learn how to best photograph the aurora, which can be a challenge to capture digitally or on film. This experience, the Anchorage Aurora Quest, is available nightly (when conditions are right), typically from mid-August to mid-April. The approximately six-hour guided tour with a professional photographer explains the science behind the northern lights and provides photo tips for budding aurora photographers in a small-group format. Tourgoers are picked up from their hotel by the guide at about 10 p.m. and return around 4 a.m., though that time can vary based on the aurora forecast.
On the Alaska Photo Treks website, you’ll find a list of recommended camera equipment to bring. If you’re using a smartphone, the tour group suggests downloading an aurora app and bringing a tripod. The company also advises that you’ll be outdoors for about two hours, so you need to dress appropriately for the weather. For the best aurora viewing, the guides usually travel between one to three locations within a 70-mile radius of Anchorage. If you’re in town for an extended stay, Alaska Photo Treks also offers a four-day pass for even more nocturnal viewing of the auroral activity.
Chena Hot Springs Resort: Northern Lights and Best of Aurora tours
Chena Hot Springs Resort is known for its therapeutic waters and aurora-viewing opportunities. If you prefer to head out with a guide, rather than on your own, the property offers an extensive 12.5-hour Northern Lights Tour. This overnight excursion includes round-trip transportation from Fairbanks, a soak in the natural hot springs, an Aurora Ice Museum Tour, dinner at the resort and a 60-mile adventurous aurora-viewing tour on a snowcat.
For a northern lights tour that includes a few days at the property’s Moose Lodge accommodations – where you can stay warm while waiting for the show to begin – Chena Hot Springs has a three-day, two-night Best of Aurora package. This experience covers round-trip transportation from Fairbanks, passes for the hot springs, a dog sled or cart ride, an aurora-viewing tour by snowcat, five meals per person and other activities.
John Hall’s Alaska: Alaska’s Winter Wonders tour
For an extended land tour to chase the aurora – and experience Alaska’s magical winter wonderland − book a bucket list eight-day adventure with John Hall’s Alaska. The company’s Alaska’s Winter Wonders tour is offered twice in March and features up to seven nights of northern lights viewing, as well as adventure-filled days with skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoeing. You’ll also take an awe-inspiring flightseeing bush plane ride over Denali National Park, which includes a fly-by of the Foraker, Silverthorne, Hunter and Moose’s Tooth peaks before landing on the Great Gorge of Ruth Glacier – the deepest in the world.
If that’s not enough adventure, test your skills at dog mushing and curling or take an aerial tram ride. Travelers can also check out the local breweries or just sit back, relax and enjoy the spectacular views. Additional highlights include spending two evenings under the dancing night sky in one of the domed igloos at Borealis Basecamp, as well as lessons by renowned aurora photographer Frank Stelges of Aurora Bear Photography. Tour pricing includes all accommodations, meals, luxury land and small plane transportation, fully guided service, gratuities and baggage handling – plus a black subzero jacket to keep you warm during your Alaska adventure.
For additional opportunities for aurora viewing, book a voyage with a line that offers cruisetours, such as Holland America. These tours offer the best of both worlds, giving you time on land and at sea to view the dancing night sky. Holland America’s cruisetours range from overnight stays just 2 miles from Denali National Park at the McKinley Chalet Resort to a domed luxury train ride through Alaska’s backcountry on the McKinley Explorer. On a Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali, look for Alaska’s “Big Five”: grizzly bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep and wolves.
(Courtesy of Borealis Basecamp)
If you’re up for even more adventure, head into the rugged wilderness for several nights to watch the dancing lights at this locale outside of town. Borealis Basecamp is a remote 100-acre property that sits within a boreal forest 25 miles north of Fairbanks. The property features 20 individual igloos, resembling those you’d find at Arctic research stations and on polar expeditions. These spacious igloos have European-inspired interiors, 12-foot ceilings and curved 16-foot windows across each roof so that you can gaze up at the aurora and the starry night sky while snuggled up in your cozy bed. You’ll also enjoy many amenities you’d find in a hotel, including full bathrooms with toiletries and a selection of coffee, hot cocoa and tea.
This top-notch glamping destination also boasts a new village with five glass cubes perfect for aurora viewing. These accommodations are 12 feet tall, 13 feet wide and 32 feet long – and the northeastern wall is made of Arctic glass. Borealis Basecamp offers a variety of packages that include accommodations and activities like dog-sledding, UTV tours, helicopter sightseeing experiences and more.
Arctic Hive has the distinction of being the northernmost yoga studio in the U.S. Located outside of the village of Wiseman – between the Brooks Range, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Gates of the Arctic National Park – this basecamp is reachable only by foot. The heart of Arctic Hive is a common fiberglass lodge where guests gather for cooking and meals; it also has a geodesic dome for meditation, educational gatherings and other activities. Come winter the new two-story lodge will provide guests with more insight into the Arctic lifestyle and offer direct access to the majority of the property’s maintained winter trails for dog-sledding, cross-country and backcountry skiing, and snowshoeing. For accommodations, Arctic Hive offers four individual cozy cabins for overnight stays. Arctic Hive packages available include northern lights excursions, yoga, meals and various activities.
(Courtesy of Aurora Villa)
Located on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Aurora Villa offers seven luxurious guest rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows for viewing the northern lights in a cozy private space. The modern wooden cabin sits on 10 acres surrounded by forested hills, yet it’s close enough to the city (less than 15 miles northeast) to explore all that Fairbanks has to offer. When you’re not chasing the lights, head out to the local breweries and distilleries, or visit cultural attractions like the University of Alaska Museum of the North. You can even take a walk with the reindeer at Running Reindeer Ranch. For another unforgettable outdoor adventure, book a guided ice fishing tour – complete with heated cabins – with Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service.
Pike’s Waterfront Lodge
Located along the Chena River in Fairbanks, just minutes from Fairbanks International Airport, this property offers 180 rooms and 28 cabins for aurora-hunting adventurers. As a guest of the lodge, you can request that the front desk alert you when the northern lights appear – no matter the time of day or night. Pike’s Waterfront Lodge also offers amenities to keep guests warm while viewing the light show outdoors. You can share your excitement with other travelers while chatting by the fire pit on the riverfront deck. And if it’s too cold to stay outside, grab a spot in the heated glass conservatory and watch the colors dance across the sky from the comfort of the indoors.
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