The Northern Lights can be seen from most places in Alaska at some point during the dark season between September and April, and there are many good viewing sites near Anchorage. But conditions must be right! Viewing a great aurora depends upon solar activity, cloud cover, moon phase and proximity to light pollution. Latitude is also a big factor. Most of the time, your prospects improve as you move further north.
So, if catching the most dazzling aurora possible is your top priority, you probably should consider a trip north of the Alaska Range. Fairbanks and surrounding area may be the state’s sweet spot, where the frequency of bright auroras meshes with ease of accommodations and travel logistics. Auroras occur even more often in and beyond the Brooks Range—Bettles, Coldfoot, Wiseman, Fort Yukon, Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay) and Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow.)
But, with some luck, you can experience satisfying displays inside Alaska’s biggest city or within an hour’s drive. It’s a matter of timing, weather and local topography.
A quick primer: The aurora is created when the charged particles of the solar wind get captured by the Earth’s magnetic field and interact with ionized gas in the upper atmosphere about 60 to 90 miles up. Activity waxes and wanes with the sun’s 11-year sunspot cycle. The process forms a sort of planetary halo centered on the magnetic pole. The physics of it is similar to what creates the images inside the screen of an old-fashioned tube television or the glow of a neon light. Auroras range from subtle green bars to stunning red and violet waves that dominate the whole sky.
First, check the Aurora Forecast.
Because the auroral band is generated by the solar wind, scientists monitoring the sun with observatories and satellites can predict when it’s likely to become active. The Aurora Forecast sponsored by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has multi-day outlooks and a graphic display showing a short-term forecast that’s practically in real time. A time-lapse version can be found at NASA’s space weather site. Here, they update twice daily, and you can even sign up for forecast updates and alerts.
For aurora watchers, this forecast is indispensible.
Second, check the weather.
You won’t see the aurora through thick clouds. If the solar-wind-based forecast is promising, you need to find a location with clear skies. Alaska’s classic aurora viewing occurs during cold snaps when high pressure has cleansed the atmosphere of clouds. If it’s cloudy or foggy inside Anchorage, finding wide-open skies might mean driving from sea level to a higher elevation, or driving north from town into the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The Anchorage-area page of the National Weather Service has clickable forecasts, radar showing real-time precipitation and satellite images of cloud cover. Fairbanks viewers often drive to a dome near town, with Cleary Summit (17 miles north up the Steese Highway) a favorite spot. March and April tend to experience more clear weather than the November-to-February period.
Get a Notification from Aurora.cam
In Anchorage you can get a notification direct to your phone if the aurora is active! Our friends at aurora.cam use advanced image recognition technology to detect a display of the northern lights in real-time. Sign up for free and you can get a text message or phone call when it is time to head outside and enjoy the display. Aurora.cam is currently looking for locations to launch this service in Fairbanks as well. Additionally, anyone can enjoy the time-lapse videos of recent aurora displays captured by their cameras.
Third, think about moon phase.
A full or half moon can make an Alaska winter night seem as bright as day, especially with reflective snow cover. The very best aurora viewing will occur during the two weeks centered on the dark new moon. Use the Sun and Moon phase calculator from the U.S. Naval Observatory to find this period.
Fourth, stay up late.
It’s a good thing that a great display can be so invigorating. In Alaska, the aurora tends to be most active between 10 pm and 2 am. The light show can amp up without warning, in just about any part of the sky, and generally remains active for at least a half hour. If it subsides, it can return. Aurora junkies sometimes stay up most of the night.
Finally, find unobstructed northern view away from artificial lights.
The glow from streetlights and human infrastructure can rub the edge off an aurora display, transforming something dazzling and detailed into a vague milky shimmer. As a rule of thumb, you want a spot where the stars appear bright against the black dome of the sky. Or where it’s dark enough to see the Milky Way. Without trees or buildings or valley walls in the way.
Looking for a Tour?
If you're not ready to do it yourself, here are some northern lights tours we recommend. In Anchorage, you can get a wake-up call from Alaska Photo Treks to do a northern lights tour in Anchorage, with special instruction on how to photograph the lights!