How to See the Northern Lights in Alaska
Viewing the Alaska northern lights takes the right timing, the right location, and the right conditions. The supernal shimmer of emerald and violet begins with a few streaks, and then breaks out into a graceful ballet. Spectators gaze at the sky in awe, or snap photos well into the middle of the night. Some claim they can even hear auroral sounds! The northern lights, or aurora borealis, is a top-listed experience on many travelers’ bucket lists. But like most things in nature, they might not show, even if you visit Alaska at the best time. Here’s all you need to know to pick the best time to see northern lights in Alaska.
What Are The Northern Lights?
The northern lights and aurora borealis are one and the same — most people call them northern lights, while the scientific name is aurora borealis. The northern lights happen when charged particles from the sun enter the atmosphere and collide with gas atoms in Earth's atmosphere. They occur all year long but are only visible when the sky is dark and clear.
How Often Do Northern Lights Happen?
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, aren’t predictable, but they are more likely to display during high solar activity cycles. The sun alternates between a high activity cycle and low activity cycle every eleven years or so. We just headed into a high activity cycle, Solar Cycle 25. Watch the Kp-index, an aurora activity indicator to find out when conditions are ideal.
What is the Best Time to See Northern Lights in Alaska?
The sky may be nature’s theater, but there’s no set time for this show. Like other natural occurrences, the Aurora Borealis come out to play when they feel like it. That said, being in the right place at the right time of year increases the odds.
Alaska’s northern lights viewing season stretches from late August through late April. The best time to visit Alaska for Northern Lights is winter, or early spring. As far as cruises go, Alaska cruises in September is a good pick because the nights are long and dark.
These finnicky ballerinas prefer the hours between midnight and 4:00 a.m. and favor crystal-clear skies. They also love to come out near the equinox as that’s when there are more disturbances in earth’s magnetic field, so choosing an itinerary close to the Autumnal Equinox may help your chances.
If you’d rather cruise to Alaska in summer, don’t expect to see the northern lights, but do soak up that midnight sunshine.
Where is the Best Place to See Northern Lights in Alaska?
Alaska is by far the best place to see the northern lights in the U.S., though they have been reported as far south as Honolulu. That said, some towns in Alaska are better for Aurora Borealis viewing than others.
To give yourself the best chance of a northern lights encounter, take an Alaska cruisetour and visit these locations:
Fairbanks, A Northern Lights Favorite
Fairbanks is the best place to see northern lights in Alaska for visitors. When it comes to the northern lights, Fairbanks knows what’s up. It consistently tops the list of places in Alaska and the world to catch the dazzling display and it’s not because the dancing green lights just happen to favor this gold rush boomtown. Fairbanks is located inside the Auroral Oval, the geomagnetic North Pole. The city is full of modern conveniences and there are many Fairbanks northern lights tours. There is also an Alaska igloo hotel 25 miles from Fairbanks, known as the Borealis Basecamp.
Denali National Park
Denali National Park is another good option in early spring or fall, as it’s far enough north and free from light pollution. If the stars align and the conditions are ripe for the show, try to find a clear viewing path, free of buildings and forest and facing north, as that’s where the activity starts.
Anchorage also witnesses tantalizing displays, just not as frequently as Fairbanks and Denali as it’s farther south. But there’s plenty of moose to look at when you’re not watching the sky. If you’re in Anchorage and the conditions are ideal, head to a higher elevation. Glen Alps, Point Woronzof, and the Knit River Valley offer decent vantage points—some face north with no pesky mountain peaks in the way.
Hunting the Aurora Borealis is an adventure. If you see the Northern Lights in Alaska (lucky duck), it’s a faux pas to wave, whistle, or call out—according to legend, that drives them away. Just sit back, relax, and take in the extraordinary dance.
Juneau is a fantastic location to watch the Aurora phenomenon. Hike some of the trails to catch a glimpse of the northern lights in Alaska. During the winter, clear dark skies and aurora activity make Juneau an ideal spot to witness the stunning northern lights display.