Where can you see the northern lights in the U.S.? The answer might surprise you.

By Stacey Leasca and Elizabeth Rhodes
Updated October 01, 2020
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Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.

Each year, thousands of tourists flock to destinations like Norway, Finland, and Iceland hoping to catch a glimpse of the glimmering northern lights. All of these destinations are well worth traveling to, but there are a few less-expected spots right here in the United States where you can see the spectacular celestial show.

Credit: Anthony Nguyen/EyeEm/Getty Images

Although locations in higher latitudes are ideal for spotting the aurora borealis, the phenomenon can be seen in the northern United States if the conditions are right.

With that in mind, here are five of the best places to spot the northern lights in the U.S.

1. Idaho

When the sun emits superheated plasma, otherwise known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), it can trigger a massive “geomagnetic storm,” which causes the Earth’s auroras to light up. When that storm is big enough, the northern lights can be visible as far south as northern Idaho, which is exactly what happened in September 2017.

Priest Lake and the Idaho Panhandle National Forest are the best places to go to maximize your chances of seeing the northern lights in Idaho. Just check out the NOAA's forecast tool to see when the next show might come.

2. Minnesota

Like Idaho, the northern lights can be seen in parts of the Midwest, like northern Minnesota, when the conditions are just right. Cook County, Minnesota, is actually one of the best places to spot the phenomenon in the lower 48 states.

Not only will there need to be a massive solar storm, but you will also need to be in an area that is dark and free of light pollution. When a solar storm happens (which you can track with services like Night Sky Alerts), make your way out of the city and into a dark area. Park yourself beneath the stars and wait for the show to (hopefully) begin.

3. Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has an advantage when it comes to northern lights viewing potential, as it is home to Cherry Springs State Park, a Dark Sky Reserve. There, visitors can stay overnight, join tours, and even take a photography class to improve their skills and possibly capture the aurora in action. Visit the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field for 360-degree views of the night sky — even if you don't spot the northern lights, you'll still enjoy some of the country's best stargazing.

4. Michigan

The northern lights can sometimes be spotted from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Michigan is also home to a Dark Sky Park, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park. Although the park has ideal conditions for viewing the northern lights, they can be unpredictable. Keep your expectations low and you'll be pleasantly surprised if you catch a glimpse of the lights over these woodlands.

5. Alaska

Alaska is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights, and lucky for American travelers, you don't even need a passport to get there. Fairbanks, Utqiagvik, and Coldfoot are among the best places to visit for a chance to see the northern lights. Visitors can even opt for a guided tour for expert viewing advice. Head to an inland location during March for your best chances of seeing the phenomenon in the Last Frontier.