How to Plan an Alaska Vacation to See the Northern Lights
Few experiences compare to watching Alaska’s Northern Lights dance across the night sky.
Like a ballet of light, whirling bands of light radiate the sky with color and movement. No night show is ever the same.
The Northern Lights, or “Aurora Borealis”, occur near the magnetic poles of the Earth. Solar flares from the sun send winds of plasma particles into space, causing magnificent lights shows when they reach Earth’s polar atmosphere. Alaska being so far north is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights. The ring of light over Alaska is known as the “aurora belt,” is strongest and most visible from Fairbanks to north of the Arctic Circle.
But how can you plan your Alaska vacation so that you maximize your chances of seeing the Northern Lights?
Did you know that in Alaska destinations in the aurora viewing zone stretching from Fairbanks north to the Arctic Circle, if you are there for three nights or more, you have a 90% chance of seeing the northern lights?
Timing Your Alaska Trip with Opportunities to See the Northern Lights: Late August to Mid April
While there is no guaranteed time to see the northern lights in Alaska (since they are dependent on solar activity and weather conditions), you can still plan your vacation around the window they are most likely to appear. In Alaska, the northern lights are typically visible from late August through mid-April. We call this the northern lights viewing season.
The night sky needs to be dark in order to see the northern lights. In order to see the best aurora lightshows, you should always look north to the horizon after the sun has set. Your chances of seeing them increase as the sky gets darker, but it is not unusual to see the Northern Lights right after dusk or before dawn. The best aurora borealist viewing hours are typically between 10:00 PM and 2:30 AM.
The clearer the skies, the greater are your chances of seeing the northern lights but it is even possible to see the northern lights with scattered clouds and even light snow flurries. Alaska’s aurora viewing zone (Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle) offers more clear nights than other locations like Iceland, which is on the coast and has greater chances of clouds and precipitation.
Best Alaska-based Destinations to see the Northern Lights
If you include in your Alaska itinerary a visit to the northern interior areas of Alaska, where the Northern Lights are most active, you will optimize your opportunity for finding aurora lightshows. Make sure to venture outside of Fairbanks and cities to avoid any light pollution. Most Alaska visitors fly in or out of Fairbanks as part of their Northern Lights itinerary and then take day trips or overnight trips to locations outside of the city to see the aurora.
Bettles Lodge and Coldfoot are both located above the Arctic Circle and away from city lights and are great destinations for seeing the aurora even on slow activity days. Chena Hot Springs Resort (60 miles from Fairbanks) is another great location for northern lights viewing. Guests can see the lights right from the property or take a snow coach to a viewing yurt on a nearby hillside.
Here are some other Northern Lights tour planning tips:
- October through the end of March offer steady northern lights viewing in Alaska. These are also our winter months, so expect cold temperatures and snow. From December to mid-March, activities like dog sledding, skiing, and snowmobiling can be included in your northern lights viewing trip to Alaska.
- If you want to combine your aurora viewing experience with additional travel in Alaska to see wildlife and glaciers, come in September. September typically offers dark skies with minimal snowfall, the perfect recipe for northern lights viewing. Keep in mind that northern lights are best seen from Alaska’s northern region, so choose an itinerary that gets you under the “aurora belt.”
- Winter holidays and special events like March’s World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks are great times to visit Alaska for northern lights viewing.
- For the best northern lights photography, visit around the time of a new moon, when the skies are darker. The northern lights can be seen during a full moon, but they are more vivid when the sky is black.
We would watch and watch the silver dance of the mystic Northern Lights.
And soft they danced from the Polar sky and swept in primrose haze;
And swift they pranced with their silver feet, and pierced with a blinding blaze.
They danced a cotillion in the sky; they were rose and silver shod;
It was not good for the eyes of man — ‘Twas a sight for the eyes of God.
— Robert Service, “The Ballad of the Northern Lights”