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Northern Lights in Alaska

Viewing the Northern Lights


Northern Lights with forest and road
Bob Stefko/The Image Bank/Getty Images
The Northern Lights are curtains of colored light in the upper atmosphere, caused by magnetic disturbances from the sun collide with atoms there. Technically known as an "aurora" (the North Pole aurora is called the aurora borealis), the Northern Lights give off colors that include red, green, blue, and violet, and a single display can last 10 to 15 minutes.

Where to See the Northern Lights in Alaska

The Northern Lights can be seen to some extent anywhere above 60 degrees north latitude. At 65 degrees, Fairbanks is within the so-called "aurora oval," the area where Northern Lights occur most often and are brightest. In fact, the Fairbanks Visitors Bureau says you have an 80 percent chance of seeing them if you stay there for three nights.

Denali, at 63 degrees north, is also a good spot to view the Northern Lights. Other Alaska places are far enough north for good for viewing, but are hard to get to and offer fewer accommodations. The next-best options are Nome (64 degrees) and Anchorage (61 degrees). However, the Northern Lights can sometimes be seen as far south as Juneau or Sitka.

When to See the Northern Lights in Alaska

By the time you get far enough north to see the Northern Lights more reliably, you've entered the area of perpetual twilight from late April through September. Seasonal cloudiness is also worst in August.

What's the best time to see the Northern Lights? September 22 or March 22, on a new moon night, very late at night or early in the morning, a "perfect storm" that may not occur very often nor match your travel plans. These characteristics may help you decide when to make your trip to see the Northern Lights. They are:

  • Most frequent around the spring and fall equinoxes (September 22 and March 22)
  • Most active late at night or early in the morning
  • Most intense from December to March when nights are longer, the sky clearer and darker. This is also the coldest part of the year, reaching as low as -40 F.
  • Brighter during the new moon.

Viewing the Northern Lights in Fairbanks

Hotels and lodges near Fairbanks offer winter Northern Lights packages, and at most of them you can ask the front desk to call and wake you up if the aurora appears.

The best places for viewing are outside town, away from the city lights. At Ester Dome, you can get a view from horizon to horizon. Ask for directions locally and head up there during the day so you know your way. It's completely unlit at night. In town, try to get away from the lights. Many visitors head for the middle of the Ranch Motel's second parking lot.

If you'd prefer a more organized (and warmer) approach to Northern Lights viewing, the Aurora Borealis Lodge offers evening tours to a location 20 miles away from the city lights, where you can watch the Northern Lights inside where it's warm.

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