The northern lights are one of the most mesmerizing and awe-inspiring natural phenomena in the world. Also known as the aurora borealis, these dancing waves of color and light pulsate through the skies in vibrant hues of green, yellow, blue, pink and violet, putting on a surreal show for spectators.
This dazzling spectacle in the sky is created by energized particles from the sun that reach speeds of up to 45 million mph as they crash into the earth’s upper atmosphere. Since the planet is protected by its magnetic field, the particles are then rechanneled toward the poles, interacting with the atmosphere in that process. It’s this interaction of energy that creates the fluorescence, forming the aurora borealis.
The northern lights actually occur 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but you need to be at the right place at the right time to view them – preferably in what’s known as the auroral zone. This location falls within an area that covers a radius of approximately 1,550 miles around the North Pole. It also needs to be a clear night, and it’s best to view them away from the light pollution of a city, preferably in a wilderness or dark sky location, if possible. In addition to Alaska, optimal viewing locales for the northern lights include Iceland, destinations in Canada, Finland, Norway and Sweden.
The best time to see the northern lights in Alaska
If you’re headed to Alaska to catch a glimpse of the aurora, experts advise the best time to see the northern lights in the Land of the Midnight Sun is from late August through April, with Fairbanks known as one of the top places in the world to watch the spectacular natural light show. And the further north you go – toward and above the Arctic Circle – the more time you’ll have for aurora hunting.
On the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year, which typically falls between Dec. 20 and 23, Juneau (in southeastern Alaska) has 6 hours and 22 minutes of daylight. Further north, by approximately 730 miles, Fairbanks experiences 3 hours and 43 minutes of daylight. Meanwhile, Utqiagvik (also referred to as Barrow) is located 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, about 200 miles north of Fairbanks, and has 67 days of darkness from Nov. 18 to Jan. 23, creating endless opportunities for viewing the northern lights.
The best places to see the northern lights in Alaska
No matter where you decide to travel to in Alaska in search of the aurora, you’ll be thrilled you made the trip once you see the show. Here are some of the best places to view the northern lights in Alaska.
(Jody Overstreet/Courtesy of State of Alaska)
Fairbanks, known as the Golden Heart of Alaska, is an excellent choice for aurora hunters, especially first-timers. It’s easily accessible and offers plenty of accommodations, dining, attractions and aurora viewing, including northern lights tours. And, you can be outside of the city within minutes to find excellent viewing locales.
Explore Fairbanks (the city’s tourism website) advises that the best viewing times for the northern lights in this area are between Aug. 21 and April 21. Your chances of seeing the aurora are excellent as the city sits where the activity of the polar lights are concentrated – under the ring-shaped zone known as the auroral oval. Local experts say that on clear evenings when the sky is very dark, you should be able to witness the skies light up on an average of four out of five nights in Fairbanks.
If you’re a serious or a beginner aurora chaser, you’ll appreciate Explore Fairbanks’ real-time Aurora Tracker. This online reference shows up-to-the-minute information on the temperature, weather and likelihood of the best time to catch the northern lights in Fairbanks. Much of the data comes from one of the world’s foremost aurora research centers, the Geophysical Institute at the University of Fairbanks, Alaska. To further assist in your search, you can also download the My Aurora Forecast & Alerts app on your smartphone.
Here are several top hotels and tours in and around Fairbanks that are your best bet for viewing the aurora.
Pike’s Waterfront Lodge
Located along the Chena River in Fairbanks, adjacent to Fairbanks International Airport, Pike’s Waterfront Lodge offers 180 rooms and 28 cabins for aurora-hunting adventurers. As a guest of the lodge, you can request that the front desk alert you when the aurora appears – no matter the time of day or night. The property also offers amenities to keep guests warm while viewing the lights outdoors. You can share your excitement with other guests while chatting by the fire pit on the riverfront deck. And if it’s too cold to stay outside, grab a spot in the heated glass conservatory and watch the colors dance across the sky from inside.
(Courtesy of Aurora Villa)
Located on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Aurora Villa offers seven luxurious guest rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows for viewing the northern lights in a cozy, warm private space. The modern wooden cabin sits on 10 acres surrounded by forested hills, yet it’s close enough to the city (13 miles northeast) to explore all that it has to offer. When you’re not chasing the lights, head out to the local breweries and distilleries, or visit cultural attractions like the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Museum of the North. You can even take a walk with the reindeer at Running Reindeer Ranch.
Arctic Dog Adventure Co.
Dog-sledding is one of the top winter activities in Alaska, and you can choose to do it by day or night. If you want to experience an Alaskan dog-sledding adventure while chasing the aurora, then book a once-in-a-lifetime experience with Arctic Dog’s Aurora Overnight Tour. This two-day, one-night excursion includes dog mushing your own sled team, glamping or cabin accommodations, cold weather gear, Alaskan-inspired meals and one night spent under an aurora-filled sky.
Murphy Dome & Northern Lights Tour
Located approximately 20 miles northwest of the city, Murphy Dome is regarded as one of the best places to watch the northern lights in Fairbanks at 2,930 feet above sea level. At one time, this location was home to Murphy Dome Air Force Station, and there were as many as 250 personnel stationed at the base. Today, the facility is a long-range radar station that detects military air threats from overseas. Alaska Wildlife Guide’s 4 1/2-hour northern lights tour departs at 10:30 p.m. for Murphy Dome, and it’s available Monday through Saturday from Aug. 22 to April 6. Prices include round-trip transportation from Fairbanks, hot beverages and bottled water and (hopefully) hours of memorable aurora viewing.
Chena Hot Springs Resort
Chena Hot Springs Resort is known for its therapeutic waters and aurora-viewing opportunities. If you prefer to head out with a guide, rather than on your own, the property offers a five-hour Aurora Viewing Tour. This nighttime excursion takes guests on a 2.4-mile, 30-minute ride up to an elevation of 2,600 feet to the top of Charlie Dome in a military-style SUSV (small unit support vehicle). While you’re waiting for the aurora to begin its performance, you can stay comfortable and warm in Mongolian-style yurts and enjoy complimentary hot beverages and snacks.
For a northern lights tour that includes a few days at the property’s Moose Lodge accommodations, Chena Hot Springs offers a three-day, two-night Best of Aurora package. This experience covers round-trip transportation from Fairbanks, passes for the hot springs, a dog sled ride, aurora-viewing tour, five meals per person and other activities.
(Courtesy of Borealis Basecamp)
If you’re up for even more adventure, head into the rugged wilderness to watch the dancing lights for several nights at this locale outside of town. Borealis Basecamp is a remote 100-acre property that sits within a boreal forest 25 miles north of Fairbanks. The property features a different take on glamping, with 20 individual fiberglass igloos, resembling those you’ll find at Arctic research stations and polar expeditions. These spacious igloos have 12-foot ceilings and curved 16-foot windows across each roof so that you can watch the aurora and the starry night sky snuggled up in your cozy bed. You’ll also enjoy many amenities you’d find in a hotel, including luxurious linens, bathroom toiletries, and coffee, hot cocoa and tea. Borealis Basecamp offers a variety of packages that include accommodations and activities like dog-sledding, UTV tours, helicopter sightseeing experiences and more.
Talkeetna is located 115 miles north of Anchorage in South Central Alaska, and situated at the base of Denali, the tallest mountain peak in North America. With its old clapboard buildings, log cabins and roadhouse dating back to 1917, this historic village offers a lot of outdoor winter fun beyond chasing the aurora. Main Street is filled with galleries, shops, restaurants and a brewery. The quirky town, once a former mining town, was the inspiration for the imaginary borough of Cicely in the TV show “Northern Exposure.”
If you visit in December, check out the festivities at the monthlong Winterfest. This event features a parade of lights, a tree lighting ceremony and the Taste of Talkeetna food festival, plus entertaining events like a Bachelor Auction and a Wilderness Woman Competition.
When it’s time to look up in the sky for the lights, local aurora hunters recommend heading out of town to Christiansen Lake or past the airport on Beaver Road. If you prefer to stay close by, look north into the sky toward Denali from Talkeetna Riverfront Park.
Denali National Park
Denali National Park is another top spot to view the northern lights in Alaska. The National Park Service advises that almost everywhere within the park is free from light pollution, so if the conditions are right (meaning that’s it’s clear and dark), you should be able to see the aurora borealis, especially when looking toward the northern horizon. However, when winter comes, it’s more difficult to access parts of the park, even though it’s open year-round. Plus, keep in mind, the lodges closest to the park are closed from mid-September to mid-May.
If you still want to head to the park for aurora viewing, consider staying in the nearby town of Healy at Aurora Denali Lodge. Located 13 miles from the Denali National Park entrance, this property offers year-round accommodations equipped with queen-sized beds, smart TVs and private bathrooms. Rates at the lodge include a continental breakfast, free Wi-Fi, free parking and complimentary coffee, tea and hot chocolate. What’s more, the property says visitors can expect plenty of wildlife sightings, such as bears, moose, lynx, owls and snowshoe hares just outside your door.
Coldfoot Camp is situated above the Arctic Circle in the Brooks Mountain Range, near the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The remote wilderness destination is ideal for aurora viewing since it sits directly under the auroral oval. It’s also the perfect locale for backcountry snowshoeing, wildlife viewing and dog mushing.
The Inn at Coldfoot Camp offers rustic accommodations located in trailers that once housed the Alaskan pipeline workers. The rooms include two twin beds and a private bathroom and shower. Guests can dine at the on-site Trucker’s Café, which offers breakfast and dinner buffets in the summer (May to September) and all-day a-la-carte dining in the winter (October to April). And when you’re ready for a cold one at the end of the day, check out the Frozen Foot Saloon and order an Alaskan-brewed beer. If you prefer camping and have your own gear, you can camp free of charge on the property. Coldfoot Camp also hosts a selection of year-round Arctic adventures and excursions, including a trip to the village of Wiseman for aurora viewing.
Located in Alaska’s Brooks Range, about 15 miles north of Coldfoot Camp, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 270 miles from Fairbanks, this small village of 12 to 13 full-time residents is an off-the-grid wilderness retreat. The community sits directly under the auroral oval, making it one of the best places in Alaska to view the northern lights, especially between Aug. 21 and April 21. Wiseman has more sled dogs than people and there are three properties to choose from for accommodations for your visit.
Arctic Hive has the distinction of being the northernmost yoga studio in the U.S. Located outside of the village, this basecamp sits between the Brooks Range, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Arctic National Park and is reachable only by foot. The heart of Arctic Hive is a common fiberglass area where guests gather for meals, meditation and yoga, and they have three individual cozy cabins for overnight stays.
Arctic Hive packages available include northern lights excursions, yoga, meals and various activities. Meanwhile, you can drive to bed-and-breakfast Arctic Getaway, which sits between the middle fork of the Koyukuk River and Wiseman Creek, and offers three cabins. While here, you can learn what it’s like to homestead in Alaska above the Arctic Circle and enjoy outdoor activities like dogsled rides across the vast wilderness, skiing, pack rafting and flightseeing by bush plane. Finally, Boreal Lodge (also reachable by vehicle) has several rental options, ranging from lodge rooms to larger cabins with living areas and kitchens.
Located in Western Alaska overlooking the Norton Sound of the Bering Sea, Nome is the ending point for the more than 1,049-mile, 50-year-old Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race in March. Once the most populated city in Alaska, Nome had almost 20,000 residents and an average of 1,000 new people arriving daily during the height of the Gold Rush in 1899. Nome is a little quieter now, with a population of approximately 3,700 residents.
If you’re in town to chase the lights, plan to stay at Aurora Inn & Suites, a 52-room hotel with views of the Bering Sea. Some of the best spots for viewing the aurora are about a mile outside of Nome. The hotel’s front desk staff can also provide you with additional tips during your stay. And if you plan your trip for mid-March, you can join in the festivities around town surrounding the end of the Iditarod.
Situated on the banks of the Arctic Ocean, Utqiagvik is the northernmost city in the U.S. The town, formerly known as Barrow, changed its name in 2016 back to Utqiagvik, its traditional Inupiaq name. Utqiagvik is only accessible by plane, and Alaska Airlines offers service from both Anchorage and Fairbanks.
For accommodations, make reservations at a hotel named for its location – the Top of the World Hotel. The property’s comfortable rooms offer views of the Arctic Ocean and the on-site restaurant, Niggivikput (meaning “our place to eat”) serves traditional local dishes like reindeer soup. While you may be there for aurora hunting, don’t miss the excellent wildlife-viewing opportunities. You may see polar bears, caribou, foxes, bearded seals, whales, walrus, migratory birds and the great snowy owl on the tundra.
The best northern lights Alaska tours
Alaska Photo Treks
Alaska Photo Treks offers one of the best ways to see the northern lights in Anchorage – and you’ll even learn how to best photograph the aurora, which can be a challenge to capture digitally or on film. The aurora experience is available nightly (when conditions are right) from mid-August to late April. The approximately six-hour guided tour with a professional photographer explains the science behind the northern lights and provides photo tips for budding aurora photographers. Tourgoers are picked up from their hotel by the guide at about 9 p.m. and return around 3 a.m.
On Alaska Photo Treks’ website, there is a list of recommended camera equipment to bring. If you’re using a smartphone, they suggest downloading an aurora app and bringing a tripod. The company also advises that you’ll be outdoors for about two hours, so you’ll need to dress appropriately. For the best aurora viewing, the guides usually travel between one to three locations within a 70-mile radius of Anchorage.
The Alaska Tours company has several options for aurora-seekers dreaming of viewing the northern lights. The outfitter offers everything from a daylong fly-and-drive excursion from Fairbanks to Coldfoot to a four-night rail journey from Anchorage to Fairbanks.
Book the eight-day Ultimate “Winter Wonderland” & Iditarod tour in March for a true Alaskan adventure. This comprehensive package includes sightseeing and aurora viewing in Fairbanks and a visit to historic Healy (near Denali National Park). The end of the tour also features a train ride to Anchorage, where you’ll see the start of the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race, attend the musher’s banquet and more.
The best northern lights Alaskan cruises
For additional opportunities for aurora viewing, book a voyage with a line that offers cruise tours, like Holland America. These tours offer the best of both worlds – offering time on land and at sea – to view the dancing night sky. One of Holland America’s cruise tours includes an overnight stay just 2 miles from Denali National Park at the McKinley Chalet Resort.