Unique aurora opportunities
It’s no secret that Alaska is one of the best places to view the aurora borealis, aka the northern lights. Travelers from all over the world come to Alaska from as early as mid-August through April to view them, and for good reason — this natural phenomenon is an unforgettable experience. The dancing waves of vibrant light in shades of green, yellow, white, pink and purple light up the night skies in a spectacular show.
As memorable and as frequent as they are, the northern lights can be unpredictable. We spoke with Donald Hampton, a space physicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, for the best tips and tricks to know before you book your trip.
1. Why is Alaska a good destination for viewing the northern lights? What are the best places in Alaska to view the northern lights?
The northern lights — or as we call them, aurora — occur in a region shaped like an oval that is centered on Earth’s magnetic pole. That oval is oriented with the sun, so it rotates with respect to the surface of the Earth every night. That oval tends to be about 20 to 25 degrees from the pole, which puts it across Alaska and much of Canada and Scandinavia. So for travelers, Alaska is a reasonably easy place to get to to see aurora on a regular basis in the winter.
2. What conditions create the best opportunities for seeing the northern lights?
Dark, mostly clear skies. You need the sun to be well below the horizon. We usually like civil twilight, when the sun is six degrees below the horizon. Observing in town is possible if the aurora is particularly bright, but it is better if you can get away from the light of streetlights and signs. If you can see lots of stars, that is good. Also, clouds are much lower in altitude than the aurora, so clouds get in the way of seeing aurora, though in some cases you can get interesting photos with the right types of clouds.
3. For those planning a trip to Alaska to view the northern lights, what planning tips do you have for the best chances of seeing them?
Statistically, there are two things to consider. The aurora displays tend to be a little better near the equinoxes in mid-September and mid-March, though that is not a large effect. In Alaska, the weather tends to be a bit clearer from January to March. Neither of these means that you won’t see aurora in November or October, but if you only have a limited time to see aurora, late February to mid-March is the best investment.
4. What makes viewing the northern lights such a magical experience?
The motion and vivid colors of a really active aurora are probably the greatest attraction. Even knowing a lot about auroras, I am still in awe of the grandeur and sweep of a good auroral display. Knowing that there are things out there much larger than us keeps us humble.
5. What resources can visitors use to stay updated on the latest aurora information and forecasts?
The Geophysical Institute and NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center have a few forecast products. Like any weather prediction, they improve as you get closer to the day of the prediction. So a week or two away from the day you want to watch aurora, the prediction is not great. The good thing about aurora, though, is that since it is driven by conditions of the solar wind (charged particles streaming out of the sun), you can very often look back 27 days — that’s the rotation period of the sun — and have a good sense of whether there will be good aurora that day. Once you are in Alaska, there are several cameras and real-time dashboards to look at. SpaceWeather.com has one, as does the NOAA website. The Geophysical Institute has a nice all-sky camera that you can look at to see what the aurora is like.
UNIQUE OVERNIGHT ACCOMMODATIONS
With optimal aurora viewing typically happening between the hours of 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., Alaska has a variety of unique accommodations that allow travelers to experience the beauty of the northern lights with ease and comfort, without the stress of researching, planning and chasing the northern lights on their own.
Due to its location under an auroral oval, Fairbanks is one of the best places in Alaska (and the world!) to view the northern lights and there are plenty of lodges and retreats that are ideal for catching a glimpse. Aurora Villa, an upscale bed and breakfast located on the outskirts of Fairbanks, is complete with floor-to-ceiling windows that provide guests a private and comfortable viewing experience right from the room.
Also located near Fairbanks and immersed in Alaska’s wilderness, Borealis Basecamp’s thoughtfully curated winter packages, ranging from two to four nights, allow travelers to enjoy the best of Alaska’s winter adventures by day and gaze at the northern lights by night from individual geodesic igloos. Or, travelers can opt for the cozy Pike’s Waterfront Lodge. Located along the Chena River, the lodge has a new aurora conservatory that gives guests a front-row seat to winter views and the northern lights from its three glass walls and glass ceiling.
The farther north travelers go, the better the northern lights show. Located at Mile 175 on the Dalton Highway north of Fairbanks, Coldfoot Camp provides an authentic look at Alaska life with easy access to adventure and world-class aurora viewing on its Arctic Village Aurora excursion. A little farther north, sixty-three miles above the Arctic Circle, sits Arctic Hive, a remote wilderness retreat with three cozy cabins and a dome building with a glass ceiling perfect for northern lights viewing. Arctic Hive is a great retreat for travelers looking to disconnect from life “out there” and connect with Alaska’s raw nature.
For more winter and aurora viewing trip ideas, check out these itineraries. Or go ahead and order an Alaska vacation planner. You’ll find even more reasons to visit Alaska inside.
Editor’s note: The health and safety of Alaska’s visitors and residents, along with its member businesses, remains a top priority to the Alaska Travel Industry Association throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Alaska tourism businesses are open under the Reopen Alaska Responsibly plan and can help you decide if it’s right for you to travel now or in the future. We encourage you to stay in touch with your travel providers for the latest updates and guidelines.