One of the most unique places from which to watch the northern lights is Alaska. Thanks to its position underneath the Auroral Oval, visitors can often see the northern lights - also known as the aurora borealis - directly overhead as opposed to in the far-off distance. The experience is truly mesmerizing and captivating for those who have never been privy to such a natural light show, and it all comes down to being in the right place at the right time.
Across the state, there are several places that are better from which to watch the northern lights. It's not entirely necessary to go deep into Alaska's wilderness in order to see this spectacular light show thanks to its low-to-nonexistent light pollution, making it one of the best domestic options when the aurora borealis is active.
The Furthest North: Utqiagvik, Formerly Barrow
For those who wish to see the northern lights and experience a more remote part of Alaska, they can head to Utqiagvik, which was the former town of Barrow. This town experiences a phenomenon known as the midnight sun, and during its darkest days of the year, the aurora borealis completely lights up the night sky. The spectacle is incredible, with colors varying based on the atmospheric pressure and temperature of the air. Visitors will have the chance to learn about the indigenous Iñupiaq during the day, and, after nightfall, they can look forward to the light show of a lifetime.
Visitors can reach Utqiagvik in one of two ways: either driving from Fairbanks (iffy depending on the weather conditions) or taking a flight into Fairbanks before flying straight into Utqiagvik. The town is remote but not devoid of civilization, and it offers a quiet glimpse into what life in the more rural parts of Alaska are really like.
- How To See: Travelers can always request that the front desk make an aurora borealis wake-up call, or they can schedule a tour with any number of Alaska-based northern lights companies.
Without Ever Leaving The City: Fairbanks
On the other hand, the alternative to a remote vacation is to stay within the city of Fairbanks. Normally, a city would conjure up the notion of not being able to see anything at night due to the light pollution that's typically associated with one. However, Alaska is unique in the sense that its cities, even though they're called cities, do not have nearly - or even close to - the same light pollution as others in the U.S. The state of Alaska, as a whole, is still quite remote and undeveloped, and Fairbanks is a relatively quiet city with nights dark enough to see the aurora borealis quite clearly.
According to Condé Nast Traveler, visitors should stay at least three nights during aurora borealis season in order to have at least a 90% chance of witnessing them during their stay. These odds are pretty good considering most people who travel to Alaska are looking to spend at least one week there. The other perk of staying within city limits and trying to see the northern lights is that the hotels are more than well-versed with alerting hotel guests of when to wake up in order to see them. For the most part, the lights can be seen directly overhead, with guests having to do no more than walk to their windows, balconies, or just outside in order to watch.
- How To See: Contact the front desk and request a wake-up call when the northern lights are due to appear in the sky. Pro tip: Go for a hotel room that has a balcony or is close to an outside exit to have east access to the night sky.
Additional Tips For Witnessing The Northern Lights In Alaska
There are several other places around Alaska from which the northern lights can be observed, including the Aleutian Islands (find a guide to visiting the islands here). Juneau is another city from which to watch the northern lights and, from here, visitors can head down to Mendenhall Lake in order to find the best vantage point. For more to explore in Juneau, check out this helpful visitation guide.
- Peak Season for northern lights: The aurora borealis is the most active above Alaska between the months of April and August. Specifically, the dates to pay attention to are August 21st through until April 21st. This somewhat overlaps with some of the best times to visit Alaska; however, it also overlaps with Alaska's winter - so travelers should be wary when traveling during winter's heaviest inclement weather days.