Viewing the Northern Lights in Alaska

When it comes to seeing the Northern Lights, Alaska and the Yukon are two of the best places in the world to see the Aurora Borealis. This is because they are very far north. So far north that both Alaska and the Yukon cross the Arctic Circle.

Thankfully, you don’t need to be north of the Arctic Circle to see Northern Lights solar activity. Fairbanks, and Denali National Park are both south of the Alaskan Arctic Circle but they are some of the best places to view the Aurora in North America.

For the best chances of seeing the Northern Lights in Alaska
These are the key ingredients:

  • Having clear skies – A cloudy night sky will block any chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
  • Choosing a good place to view from with limited light pollution.
  • Choose the right time – Early Spring in Alaska and the Yukon (March and April).
  • Wait for a Geo magnetic Storm or Solar Flares. See below for more details on Geo magnetic storms.

What makes Alaska a great destination for Aurora hunting?

If you’re wondering if Iceland or Alaska is better for viewing the Northern Lights. The answer is that both offer incredible opportunities. The ideal position for viewing the Aurora Borealis is north of 65 degrees latitude.

It will need to be a cloudless night and preferably away from city lights. These criteria make both Alaska and Iceland two of the best places to view the Northern Lights.

The main advantage for most North American travelers is that Alaska is much easier to visit, making it the better choice for travelers in the United States, Canada and Mexico. There are major airlines that fly to Fairbanks from all over America, including Alaska Airlines, Delta and United.

Alaska’s position close to the Auroral Oval is another reason it has a great view of the Northern Lights. The Auroral Oval is a huge ring above the Earth’s Geomagnetic North Pole created by the Earth’s magnetic fields. When plasma’s and electrons hit the atmosphere along these magnetic lines, they can produce these bright, amazing color displays. Learn more from NASA.

What is a Geo Magnetic Storm?

A geomagnetic storm is a temporary disturbance of the Earth’s magnetosphere. These are caused either by a solar wind shock wave or cloud of magnetic field that interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field.

These disturbances that create the magnetic storm can be solar coronal mass ejections or a co-rotating interaction region, which is a high-speed stream of solar wind from from a coronal hole. 

There is a sunspot cycle that will affect the frequency of geomagnetic storms. During the peak of the cycle, known as the solar maximum, geomagnetic storms occur more often.

For more information see the Wikipedia page for Geo Magnetic Storm.

When is the best time to see Northern Lights in Alaska?

The best time to enjoy the Alaska Aurora season in Fairbanks is from September through early April. This is when the Earth is tilted perfectly in relation to the sun, so that its magnetic field and the solar wind are in sync.

Can you view the Northern Lights in Alaska in October?

Yes, You can view the Northern Lights in Alaska in October. It is even possible to view them in late August and September. However, the darker winter months offer the best chances for Aurora viewing. For serious Aurora hunters in Alaska, March is considered the best time to visit because of the clearer spring skies. Aurora viewing is also enhanced by the Spring Equinox and a new moon, making for a higher chance of seeing the Northern Lights with the naked eye.

In Fairbanks, October brings the return of earlier and earlier evenings. The sun sets around 7pm at the beginning of October and at 5:30pm by the end of October, offering more night time hours to see the Northern Lights.

Can you view the Northern Lights in Alaska in Summer?

It is not possible to see the Aurora Borealis during the summer in Alaska. The long summer days (up to 21 hours of daylight) make it impossible to see any aurora activity.

To see the most up to date Aurora Forecast, visit the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. This Institute studies the physical, chemical and dynamical processes of the atmosphere in the polar region. They provide a Aurora Forecast that is easy to use and helpful in planning a Northern Lights viewing tour.

http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast

What are the best ways to see the Northern Lights in Fairbanks?

One of the best things about Aurora hunting in Fairbanks is the fact that you don’t have travel long distances out of the city just to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Even from within the city limits, the Aurora are very visible on clear nights.

Here are some fun ways to get out and enjoy this natural wonder while in Fairbanks:

Take a Dog Sled Tour to view the Northern Lights

If you’re looking to squeeze in two of the most quintessential Alaska activities, then taking a dog sled ride to view the northern lights will be the perfect adventure.

Last Frontier Mushing Co-op in Fairbanks offers fall and winter Aurora hunter tours. The fall tours are on side by side ATV pulled by a team of sled dogs. The winter tours are in a traditional dog sled. These tours get visitors away from the light pollution of the city lights and out into the wilderness for your best chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Check out the Mushing Co-op here.

Last Frontier Mushers Coop in Fairbanks
Last Frontier Mushing Co-op Yurt with view of the Aurora Borealis

Visit Murphy Dome to view the Northern Lights

Murphy Dome is a decommissioned Air Force Station 20 miles northwest of Fairbanks. Murphy Dome is still used as a Long Range Radar Station and is part of the Alaska Radar System. The Area is popular in summer for ATVing and hiking. Because of it’s elevation of 2930 feet (880 meters), it is a great place to watch the sunset or catch unobstructed views of the Northern Lights. To reach Murphy Dome, take Sheep Creek Road 7 miles from the UAF Campus to Murphy Dome Road and follow that for another 14 miles.

Tour the Aurora on a snowmobile

If you like a good adventure while hunting the Aurora Borealis, you can book a snowmobile tour for a nighttime ride to the best spots in Fairbanks to view this show of lights. This is not only a great way to drive around town but it also gives you a taste of traditional Alaskan life where snowmobiles are often used as a regular mode of transportation.

Sleep under the Northern Lights

For sure, you’ve seen those dreamy photos of people literally sleeping under the Northern Lights. Borealis Basecamp is an accommodation in Fairbanks that offer igloo-shaped domes where you can view the beautiful show of lights right from your bed. To learn more about Borealis Basecamp, click here.

Go Ice Fishing

How about getting two amazing experiences in one trip? Aurora ice fishing is an incredible activity where you get to go nighttime ice fishing while the magnificent Aurora Borealis is providing you with some amazing light. There are providers of this type of tour in the Fairbanks area, that will include an afternoon/evening in a heated fishing hut, a chance to grill what you catch and hopefully catch an amazing light show in the sky.

Northern Lights in Alaska
Northern Lights over the Chena River in Fairbanks (photo courtesy Andy Witteman/FCVB)

Visit Chena Hot Springs Resort for an exceptional Alaska Aurora Experience

Chena Hot Springs is part of a 2,000-acre recreational area and one of the most visited destinations near Fairbanks. Not only because of its many rejuvenating hot pools, and activities, but also because it offers some of the best views of the Northern Lights. Located 61 miles from downtown Fairbanks, on the Chena Hot Springs Road.

When staying at the resort, ask the staff for a Aurora wake-up call if there is a chance of spotting the dancing northern lights in the middle of the night. There are a number of hotels in Fairbanks that offer the wake-up call option for viewing the Northern Lights. This is because Aurora activity is usually greatest between midnight and 5am.

There are plenty of hiking trails in the Recreation area and near the Resort if you want to take in the incredible Aurora views from the wilderness.  The Aurora Ice Museum is also located at the Chena Hot Springs Resort, and features an ice bar serving mixed drinks, in glasses made of ice. It’s a very “cool” experience.

This private resort is a wonderful place to experience for a day or a few nights. However, It is also possible to enjoy the resort with an affordable day pass for those who only want to have a quick visit.

Best time to see the Northern Lights in Alaska
Northern Lights above the Aurora Borealis Lodge in Fairbanks (Photo Courtesy Mok Kumagai/FCVB)

What are some of the best Northern Lights tours in Fairbanks?

For those looking to experience the Northern Lights with a tour, there are several excellent options available.

Northern Alaska Tour Company specializes in taking visitors into the Arctic in both the summer and winter seasons. They have a fleet of first-class touring vans, coaches and airplanes for one day and multi-day excursions. They operate year-round. Find out more here.

Last Frontier Mushing Co-op has amazing dog sledding adventures year round. In the fall and winter months they offer Northern Lights sledding adventures. Click here to find out more.

Salmon Berry Tours also offer Northern Lights excursions for both day trips and longer 6-day tours which includes dog sledding, visits to local museums and a pass to Chena Hot Springs. Visit their site for more info.

Borealis Basecamp offers visitors a very unique lodging option…beautiful clear-roofed igloos for incredible Northern Light viewing from the privacy of your own room. Click here for more info.

Fairbanks is magical in more ways than you can imagine. So if you’re dreaming of the perfect winter vacation that includes a magnificent experience with the Northern Lights, Alaska is just waiting to be explored. What are you waiting for?

Northern Lights in Alaska
Northern Lights in Alaska

Is there a Northern Lights Cruise to Alaska?

The cruise season to Alaska typically starts in late April and goes until late September or early October. This means that cruises at the beginning or end of the season are your best chance to see the Northern Lights. Solar activity is strongest around the spring and fall equinox, so a cruise near September 20, has an excellent chance of spotting the Aurora dancing in the sky.

There are some Northern Light Cruises offered by small boutique cruise lines like Silversea. These cruises tend to have between 300 and 500 guests and are significantly more expensive than a traditional cruise offered by Princess or Holland America. One Silversea itinerary leaves Nome in mid-September and arrives in Vancouver early October. This early fall cruise is a great opportunity to see the Northern Lights from a cruise ship.

How Often do the Northern Lights Happen?

Unfortunately, the solar activity that creates the Northern Lights is not on a schedule. Like all things in nature, luck will play a role in seeing them. It also helps to be in a cycle of high solar activity. Every 11 years the sun alternates between being in a cycle of high or low activity. During High activity cycles, it is more likely to see the Northern Lights. But it’s not required in order to spot the Aurora.

2020 was the low point of the last solar cycle and we are now in Solar Cycle 25, which is expected to peak around 2025. So the next few years should see increased solar activity, which is great for Aurora hunters.

 

Alaska is one of the best places in the world to view the Northern Lights. However, the majority of Alaska’s visitors come in the Summer, when the Aurora are not visible. If you can’t see the Northern Lights, here are some of the best summer activities to do in Alaska.

Amazing Summer Activities in Alaska

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