Alaska: 7 Tips for Viewing the Northern Lights

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Alaska: 7 Tips for Viewing the Northern Lights

Watching the Northern Lights dance across the dark night sky is an amazing experience. It’s on most people’s Bucket List, as it well should be. My family and I were extremely fortunate to see the Aurora during our trip to Alaska last year and I’m here today to share with you some tips that will help you do the same.

Our own Aurora experience took place in the small Canadian town of Beaver Creek, just across the border from Alaska. This was during the first week of September, on our way back from Alaska. We were about to embark on our drive along the Alaska Highway back to the Lower 48 and figured we probably weren’t going to see any Aurora lights because it was too early in the year for that.

We were wrong. At around 11PM, as we were getting ready to go to bed, my husband looked out the window and saw a green shimmer in the sky. Naturally, we all hopped out of bed, dressed up and hurried outside. Yup, definitely northern lights! We went in the car and drove for 5 minutes to get away from the town lights.

It was so worth it! For the next 20 minutes, we stood there next to the car admiring the show. Neon green lights – sometimes turning color to other hues – covered the sky and danced in circles. It was amazing and one of the highlights of our road trip to Alaska.

So, I’m here to tell you that you can in fact see the Northern Lights even in September and share some tips on increasing your odds for seeing this natural wonder.

Tip #1- Stay away from the coast

Alaska has a long coastline. Many travel destinations are located along the coast. Juneau, Valdez and Seward, to name just a few. There’s a lot to do and see along the coast and I highly recommend visiting there, but it’s not a good spot for northern lights viewing.

Why? In a word – clouds.

The proximity to the ocean means these coastal towns are often rainy and cloudy, which could come in the way of seeing the Aurora, even when there’s plenty of solar activity. To increase your chances of seeing the lights, try Fairbanks, Denali National Park or even the Yukon. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get a cloudless night sky, but your odds for that will be much better.

Tip #2 Avoid summer

The further up north on the globe you move, the longer the days are in the summertime. In fact, the definition of the arctic circle is that you must have at least one night in the year where the sun never goes down. If the sun is up – you won’t be able to see that coveted light show you’re after. In order to see the Aurora properly, the sky needs to be as dark as possible.

While the sun does set below the horizon all year round in most populated areas of Alaska, it does that for a short period of time during summertime. Fairbanks has over 22 hours of daylight during June. Anchorage doesn’t fall much behind with over 19 hours. See the problem here? If you come in June or July, by the time the sun sets completely in the west, you’re going to start getting wisps of light in the east. The sky just won’t be dark enough for viewing the Aurora.

alaska northern lights

Alaska Northern Lights

The solution is to come when the days are much shorter. Winter time is ideal, but if you’re afraid of the cold, anytime between October and March can work.

Tip #3 Be prepared to stay up

Did we mention you need a dark sky? Unless you come in December or January, you may need to wait up for a bit. Even then, you can’t tell for sure when the lights will show up. It may happen at 11PM (as was the case for us in September) or it may happen at 2AM.

If the main purpose of your trip is Light Hunting, be prepared to stay up till the small hours of the night and catch up on your sleep hours during the day.

Tip #4 Southern regions can be better during spring and fall

You’re probably thinking you’ll get your best chance of seeing the northern lights by traveling as far up north as you can. I thought the same thing before our trip to Alaska. I learned from the locals – and from our own experience – that this isn’t true.

During winter time, you can see the lights from just about anywhere in Alaska, so there’s no need to travel too far up north. Fairbanks is a great location for Aurora watching, but mostly because it’s dry. If you catch a cloudless night, you can see them just fine from Anchorage or even Juneau.

During fall and spring, you actually have a better chance of watching the lights if you head to the south. Not too much, of course. You still want to be in Alaska or the Canadian Yukon, where the action is. However, the further up north you go, the longer the days are. Which means fewer hours of dark sky and a lesser chance of seeing the Aurora.

alaska northern lights

Alaska Northern Lights

Tip #5 Get the forecast

I don’t mean the weather forecast here. There are actual forecasts for northern light viewing. They rely on measuring solar activity and calculating the time it’s going to take these particles to reach the earth. You can try the Aurora Service website or this one by the University of Alaska.

In my experience, these forecasts are as accurate as weather forecasts. That is to say they’re not meaningless, they’re just not always right. We spent an extra day and night in Fort Nelson on our way back from Alaska, trying to catch another good Aurora show. The forecast websites raved on about an extra powerful solar storm the day before and predicted a magnificent Aurora.

The end result was disappointing. We weren’t even sure if the couple of wisps of lights we saw in the sky were actual Aurora lights or just figments of the imagination. So, do follow the forecast, but don’t rely on it too much.

Tip #6 Give it time

Just like with any other natural phenomenon, you need some luck here. Even on a year with great solar activity and a week with a good forecast, you may need to spend more than one night to experience a really good light show.

Be prepared to stay at the location of your choice for more than one night to increase your chances of seeing the northern lights properly.

Tip #7 Go with the pros

There are several companies in Alaska and the Yukon that offer northern lights packages. What they do is take you to a dark spot where they have a cabin or two. They will wait with you there through the night, usually offering hot drinks and refreshments, hoping that you’ll get to see the lights.

This is a good option if you just want to fly into Alaska or the Yukon for 2-3 days to view the Northern Lights. It saves you the need to rent your own vehicle and drive on the icy roads at night. They will get you to the spot safely and make sure you don’t freeze to death while trying to watch the lights.

Anne Moss

Anne Moss

Anne Moss blogs about travel at TripMemos.com. During the past decade, Anne and her family spent a total of 18 months traveling in 45 US states and several Canadian provinces and territories. You can read more of Anne’s Alaska tips and advice on her blog.

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