Seeing Alaska’s Northern Lights

The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are among Alaska’s most awe-inducing sights. One moment they’re there, curtains of green, white, purple and even red light dancing in the sky, a visual display of charged solar particles colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere. The next moment, they’re reduced to a few thin candles of light or gone altogether. Don’t worry—they’ll be back! Keep reading for everything you need to know about seeing Alaska’s northern lights in person.

green and purple aurora borealis over a cabin
The northern lights shine over Fairbanks, Alaska. Photo © Kit Leong/iStock.

Where to See the Northern Lights

For most people, Fairbanks or the nearby Chena Hot Springs Resort offer the perfect mix of accessibility, clear dark skies, and location (far enough north that the aurora often shines straight overhead instead of on the horizon). Nome also has more than its fair share of aurora sightings, so if you’re visiting to see the Iditarod finish, don’t forget to look up at night!

If you want to go truly remote, consider spending a few nights in the tiny work camp of Coldfoot, north of the Arctic Circle. The accommodations may be spartan, but you can spend your days learning to mush a dog team and the long winter nights gazing into the sky, counting more stars than you ever knew existed as you wait for the aurora to appear.

When to See the Northern Lights

The aurora can shine at any time of year, but the sky isn’t dark enough for you to see them during Alaska’s summers of midnight sun. So, if aurora hunting is your goal, plan your visit for the spring when skies are dark and clear. Aurora activity tends to peak around the equinox, so the two weeks to either side of the March new moon offer your best chance—but the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute recommends anytime from early January to late April for good viewing. One study showed that if you spend at least three nights in the Fairbanks area actively seeking the aurora between September and April, you have an 80 percent chance of seeing the lights. See the Geophysical Institute’s traveler’s guide for more detailed recommendations.

What About Specific Timing?

The northern lights can also shine at any time of day (or night), but tend to be most active between the hours of 10pm and 2am. Either plan to stay up late, or let the staff at your hotel know you’d like an “aurora wake-up call” if the lights come out.

bright green aurora over a lake in Alaska
To photograph the northern lights, choose a location that’s as far from light pollution as possible. Photo © Manish Mamtani/iStock.

How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis

Alright: You’ve planned your dream trip to Alaska in the wintertime. You’ve booked a hotel or lodge in the Interior or Arctic regions, away from city lights that might dim the aurora’s glow. Thankfully, it’s easier than you might assume to capture the moment with your own aurora photo.

Start by planning ahead: Choose a location that’s as far from light pollution as possible, with trees or other stationary objects in the frame for interest. Place the camera on a tripod with either a remote shutter trigger or a timer delay, so the motion of your finger on the shutter release won’t blur the image.

Next, set your camera for the longest exposure time possible. (You can even take a shot at this with a smartphone if you download an app to control the shutter speed.) You might need a few trial shots to get the focus dialed in exactly right; depending on your camera, you might need to manually focus it on a far-away object to get a clear shot of the lights. Once you’re focus is set, you’re ready to capture the memory of a lifetime.

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Green northern lights in sky over trees. Pinterest Graphic, Watching AK's Northern Lights