Your Definitive Guide to Seeing the Northern Lights in Alaska in 2020
Heading to Alaska to see the aurora borealis? Here's everything you need to know.
While many travelers think they have to head to Canada or northern Europe to see the northern lights, you can actually spot this phenomenon without leaving the United States. Northern Alaska is ideal for Americans wanting a chance to see the aurora borealis. It may be cold in winter (temperatures can drop to -30°F), but the inland Alaskan Arctic — where skies tend to be clearer — is one of the best places in the world to see this famous light show.
These are our top tips for seeing the northern lights in Alaska.
When is the best time to see the northern lights in Alaska?
The northern lights occur because of solar activity, and because the sun is presently near what is called solar minimum, some aurora hunters have decided to postpone their trips. This is misguided, however. Although there is a smaller chance now of experiencing a full-on auroral storm than during solar maximum, there will be nightly displays of northern lights right through the moment solar maximum returns in 2024. The real trick is finding clear skies.
What’s the best time to see northern lights in 2020?
Displays of the northern lights tend to intensify around the equinox months of September and March, because Earth’s tilt in relation to the sun means that the magnetic field of Earth and the solar wind are in sync. Combine that with a higher chance of clear skies in Alaska during spring, and March at an inland location will likely be the best time and place to maximize your chances of seeing the northern lights.
In 2020, the Spring Equinox occurs on March 19, and there is a new moon on March 24, so this would be a great time to visit. For the same reason, a new moon on September 17 means that mid-to-late September 2020 would also be a great time to go on a northern lights hunt to Alaska.
If you can find dark and clear skies, be on alert from dusk onwards, and you might get to see an aurora. According to the Geophysical Institute, the best time to see the aurora is at around midnight, give or take an hour. However, they can occur at any time.
Northern Lights Season in Alaska
Alaska's northern lights season is between mid-September and late April, peaking in March, though it’s a season defined more by its long, dark nights than by solar activity. Forecasting the northern lights means predicting solar activity, which is virtually impossible with our current technology.
We do know, however, that the northern lights are best seen in Alaska between 65° N and 70° N latitude. Fairbanks is about 180 miles south of the Arctic Circle and enjoys sporadic northern lights, though it's best to forget the more southerly destinations of Anchorage and Juneau, which see dramatically fewer displays.
Those wanting to maximize their chances should head for the more remote northern villages of Coldfoot in the Yukon Territory, or to Prudhoe Bay and Barrow in the extreme north. The further north you travel in Alaska, the more likely you are to see the northern lights.
Northern Lights Near Fairbanks
The old gold rush boomtown of Fairbanks is the undisputed capital of the northern lights hunt in Alaska. It's not the very best place for aurora viewing — it's just below the Arctic Circle — but auroras do occur frequently here.
Its popularity among northern lights seekers has a lot to do with its accessibility. There are frequent flights and plenty of options for accommodations. Good places to head to in the vicinity include Cleary Summit, about 17 miles from Fairbanks, which is easy to get to, has good parking, and has a solid view of the horizon.
Other good observation places nearby, according to the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, include Haystack Mountain, Ester, Wickersham, and Murphy Domes. Chena Lakes Recreation Area is a popular place to go to look for reflections in water (you can park your car near the jetty). Nearby is Chena Hot Springs Resort, where you can watch the show from an outdoor hot tub. By day, try your hand at either cross-country skiing or ice fishing through pre-drilled ice holes.
Northern Lights Near Coldfoot
Once a gold mining settlement but now little more than a truck stop at 67° N latitude on the famed Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, Coldfoot is a prime northern lights observation location in the Alaskan Arctic. That's largely because it's home to the rustic Coldfoot Camp in the Brooks Mountain Range on the edge of the Gates of the Arctic National Park, the northernmost national park in the U.S. Many aurora adventure tours take guests here and to Wiseman just 11 miles north for the high chances of a northern lights show. Another option nearby is the fly-in luxury Iniakuk Wilderness Lodge. Coldfoot is 250 miles north of Fairbanks, and 60 miles above the Arctic Circle.
Northern Lights Near Barrow
This small town, also called Utqiagvik, is on the extreme northern edge of Alaska at 71° N latitude and is home to the Top Of The World Hotel, which organizes tours and outdoor adventures connected to the native Iñupiat Eskimo culture (think: dog sledding). You can also visit the Inupiat Heritage Center to learn about bowhead whale hunting and local culture. Alaska Airlines flies to the town's Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport from Anchorage, and packages are available from Tundra Tours and the Northern Alaska Tour Company.
Northern Lights Near Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Spanning 13.2 million acres, this national park is the largest protected reserve in the United States. Travelers can bed down at the eight-person Ultima Thule lodge for a wild adventure filled with glacier trekking, rafting, fishing in Lake Tebay, and (of course), waiting for the northern lights to flicker across the sky.
Northern Lights Forecasts
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a Space Weather Prediction Center, which is a great resource for a short-term forecast of northern lights activity. Fairbanks also happens to be the headquarters of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, which issues a nightly forecast on Aurora viewing alongside a 28-day forecast.
SolarHam gives a reliable three-day geomagnetic forecast that's often used by aurora hunters, while the Aurora Forecast app shows travelers the position of the auroral oval around the Arctic Circle. It also indicates the probability of seeing them where you are (green, not so much; red, and the northern lights are probably happening right above you).
Alaska Northern Lights Tours
It's likely that you'll get to Coldfoot on an organized tour, and if you fly to Barrow, your accommodation will also act as a local tour guide. If you're going to be in Fairbanks, however, you have excursion choices to make. The Northern Alaska Tour Company runs round-trip van tours 60 miles north of Fairbanks to the town of Joy for an increased chance of seeing the northern lights. And 1st Alaska Tours run nightly trips to the Chena Hot Springs 60 miles north and to Murphy Dome, one of the highest peaks in the Fairbanks area, which has a 360-degree view of the horizon.