This Alaskan City Is a Prime Northern Lights Destination — How to Visit

Fairbanks is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights.

Northern Lights over cabin in Fairbanks, Alaska

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While most visitors to Alaska head to the scenic southern coast, there's one interior destination that pulls its fair share of visitors: Fairbanks. With a population of about 33,000 people, it's Alaska's second-largest city, just narrowly beating out Juneau by a few hundred residents as of the 2020 census. Fairbanks has some pretty intense temperature swings throughout the year — summer highs are in the 70s, while winter lows are below zero — but it's still a year-round destination for travelers. In the summer, there's hiking, farmers' markets, and festivals. And in the winter, there are the northern lights. Need we say more? If you're interested in making the trek north, here's what you need to know about visiting Fairbanks, Alaska.

Aerial view of Fairbanks, Alaska

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How to See the Northern Lights in Fairbanks

The northern lights are undoubtedly the biggest attraction in Fairbanks, as the destination is considered one of the best in the world to see the atmospheric phenomenon. (In fact, the Geophysical Institute, which offers one of the best aurora forecast services, is located at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.) During aurora season, which runs from August 21 through April 21, the northern lights show up four out of five nights on average, typically between 10 a.m. and 2 a.m. — but that doesn't mean you're guaranteed to see them. You still need clear skies to see the aurora borealis, which means that you should stay for at least a few nights or even a week to maximize your chances. The lights are so prevalent here because of the city's northern location, right near the place where the northern lights most commonly appear: the Auroral Oval, a ring circling the Earth at a latitude of approximately 65 to 70 degrees north.

Though Fairbanks is a small city, it still suffers from light pollution, so the best northern lights viewing is done outside the city. While you can drive yourself into more remote areas, you can also take a northern lights tour, which might even include activities like a soak at Chena Hot Springs and a visit to the Aurora Ice Museum, or adventures like snowmobiling and ice fishing. But even if you're in town, you still might see the aurora. Many hotels in Fairbanks offer a northern lights wake-up call, so if you turn in for the night before the aurora shows up, they'll call your room phone to ensure you'll see them.

Dog sledding in Fairbanks, Alaska

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Things to Do in Fairbanks

Beyond the northern lights, Fairbanks is known for its museums, such as the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center, and the University of Alaska Museum of the North. In the summer, when Fairbanks experiences the midnight sun (when the sky remains light all night long), there are plenty of festivals and fairs, including the popular Midnight Sun Festival, which sees 30,000 people gather for 12 hours of live music, shopping, and good eats. Fairbanks also serves as a good jumping-off point for excursions into Denali National Park or the arctic, whether on day trips or multi-day adventures.

People soaking at Chena Hot Springs, Fairbanks, Alaska

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Hotels in Fairbanks

Most hotels in Fairbanks are budget to mid-tier chains belonging to the major hospitality groups, like Marriott, Hilton, Wyndham, Hyatt, and IHG. But there are also a few independent hotels, inns, and hostels in the heart of town, such as Pike's Waterfront Lodge, Alaska Heritage House, and Billie's Backpackers Hostel. For prime northern lights viewing, head outside of town to more distant accommodations, like A Taste of Alaska Lodge, Alaska Grizzly Lodge, and Chena Hot Springs Resort. Be sure to book well in advance of your visit if you're heading to Fairbanks for northern lights season.

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