Viewing the Northern Lights in Alaska is one of life’s coolest experiences. From simple greens and whites, to intricately dancing hues of reds, purple & greens, they are equal parts awe inspiring and humbling to witness. Inspiring various cultures throughout human history, a northern lights show sticks with you forever.
To genuinely appreciate the beauty of the Aurora Borealis, you must put a little thought into your Alaska travel plans. If you visit at the wrong time of year and it may not be dark enough to view them. Some of the finest Northern Lights displays we have ever seen have been sitting next to a fire on a crisp early autumn night next to the river. The following is some general info and expert tips on how to make sure you get to see the northern lights on your Alaska adventure vacation.
How the Northern Lights Happen
Let’s get the science behind the lights out of the way first. The Aurora Borealis is caused by solar winds, originating from the sun, interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere. This interaction causes atoms in the atmosphere to become “excited.” A lot like electricity “exciting” the neon gas in neon lighting, this interaction in the atmosphere causes the atom’s electrons to alter their distance from the nucleus. This movement causes the release of light.
The Legend Behind the Aurora Borealis
There are many folklore legends behind the meaning and significance of the Aurora Borealis across different cultures. The Chinese believed that they were the celestial battle of good and evil dragons. The Japanese believe that conception under the lights blesses a child with good looks, good fortune, and superior intellect. In many European cultures the lights were viewed as a bad omen, signifying strife and trouble ahead. A French legend says the lights blazed brightly two weeks prior to the French Revolution.
How and Where to See the Northern Lights in Alaska
What is the best time of year to see the Northern Lights?
If you plan a trip to Alaska in May – July, it is very unlikely that you will be able to view the Northern Lights. To get a good view, it is essential that it is a dark, clear night out. A lot of folks make mid-winter trips to Alaska specifically to see the northern lights. Some of the clearest viewing skies you will ever see happen at -40F, but you will need to plan your clothing appropriately!
“Shoulder Season,” as we call it in Alaska, offers a great opportunity to see the lights without committing to the serious cold. This season still provides enough darkness for ample viewing opportunities. September and October are generally pre-snow months here, with September having the added bonus of the Alaskan fall foliage (one of our best kept secrets!). You will also capitalize on better deals on rental cars and other travel expenses during this time as well.
The best viewings usually happen late at night around 1am to 3am. While I have seen some great shows as early as 10pm, many of the best happen to be during the time you would usually be sleeping soundly. Brew up some coffee, get the board games out, pop some popcorn, and plan to be up far past your bedtime!
What is the best place in Alaska to see the Northern Lights?
Like stars and other celestial treats, the Northern Lights have a hard time competing with light pollution. Anchorage Aurora Tours will drive hours out of the city to be able to get a clear view of the night sky.
McCarthy, Alaska located inside Wrangell St. Elias National Park, is home to extraordinary vast expanses of dark skies. McCarthy has an advantage as we are the kings of dark skies, with almost pretty much zero light pollution. On any dark night of the year there are millions of stars, meteors, and the milky way. On some special nights the Aurora Borealis joins in as well. Being located in the middle of Wrangell St Elias National Park, we are free from light & air pollution, providing some of the clearest night sky viewing in the world.
Where to Stay in Alaska to See The Northern Lights
Kennicott River Lodge offers amazing access to viewing the lights right from your cabin porch. The northern view is framed by the Kennicott & Root Glaciers as well as the mile high Stairway Icefall. It is an unbelievable setting to enjoy a memorable getaway in Wrangell St Elias National Park. You can reserve a room in September or October and enjoy a quiet retreat with a side of Northern Lights viewing.
Want the most out there Aurora Borealis trip you can experience? Book yourself a spot on a September Copper River trip with us! Combine one of the wonders of the natural world with one of the top scenic raft trips in North America. You can watch bears roam the shore and glaciers calve into the river during the day. Then as the night falls you can enjoy a hot drink around the fire and enjoy the celestial show.
How to Photograph the Northern Lights
To capture the lights on your camera, you will need to practice a little bit beforehand. Taking clear, impactful night sky shots is a skill and may require a few extra pieces of equipment to pull off effectively. The best camera is usually a DSLR, with tripod and manual setting mode. For more tips on photography check out this handy guide from the Wandering Lens Blog.
Like most good things in life, the lights come to those who are patient and ready. While you can try to plan the perfect northern lights vacation, some thing are out of our control. The weather is typically the biggest factor. You have to have a clear sky in order to see the lights. Low solar activity can also diminish the auroral activity. We have missed some of the greatest shows because of bad weather and spent time watching the clearest night skies to no avail. Make your plans and be patient, because when the conditions align, you will be watching one of life’s greatest shows.