Why Alaska is the Best Place for a Northern Lights Trip was originally published in Otts World
I was surprised that many people don’t even have Alaska on their radar for Northern lights trips! Go do a search and you’ll be inundated with Iceland and Norway, but Alaska is a bit of an outlier. And you know what that means? It’s the perfect place to plan your northern lights trip because it’s not as crowded or expensive!
Located just below the Arctic Circle, landlocked, and near an international airport, makes Fairbanks the perfect recipe for Northern Lights. But even more than that, there are a lot of scientific reasons why Fairbanks is the perfect place to see the Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights form in an oval-shaped region around the poles. Fairbanks happens to be perfectly positioned under the oval surrounding the North Pole. The KP index, a measure of electromagnetic activity in the atmosphere also comes into play for aurora viewing. A reading of two or higher is considered good for Northern Lights spotting typically; however, you can see Northern Lights in Fairbanks even when there is low activity because of its position under the aurora circle.
“You haven’t seen the aurora until you can look straight up and see it overhead. When you see it overhead – you can see how much structure is in it. So it’s best to come north under the aurora oval.” —Aurora Physicist Peter Delemere
Clear Skies in Fairbanks
Aurora viewing season is between August 21-April 21 in the Fairbanks region. And one thing that is required to see the northern lights is a clear sky. You are in luck in Fairbanks because it has many clear nights since it’s located in the inland Arctic – an area they call Alaska’s interior. By the coasts there’s a lot more humidity, precipitation, and clouds. But in Fairbanks, it is a dry climate meaning lots of clear skies!
“The northern lights are so prolific in the Fairbanks region and the Arctic that visitors who stay a minimum of three nights and are actively out during the late evening hours increase their chance of seeing the aurora to more than 80 percent!” —Explore Fairbanks
The institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has earned an international reputation for studying Earth and its physical environments at high latitudes. It consists of seven major research units and many research support facilities, and it specializes in aurora research on earth and other planets.
Anyone can go visit the Geophysical Institute and take a self-guided tour, however I went to go talk to physicist specializing in aurora research, Peter Delemere. It was fascinating to learn the science behind the aurora on Earth as well as Jupiter! We learned what makes the different colors that we see as well as how to spot a substorm. His overall advice was to check the northern lights forecasts, and be persistent – very persistent.
Some of the smartest aurora people in the world are in Fairbanks, so it must be a great place for a northern lights trip!
Visit the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks
Public tours of the Geophysical Institute are free and offered on Wednesdays at 1 p.m. through the summer.
A self-guided tour brochure is available in the lobby of the Elvey Building. You are welcome to visit the building and take the self-guided tour Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.
The Best Way to See the Aurora on your Northern Lights Trip
Check the Forecasts
There are a number of real-time GPS phone apps and websites that will help you predict the aurora and I think we used a combination of all of them! Here were some of our favorites.
Northern Lights Tours
You may want to take a tour, or you may way the freedom of renting a car and chasing the aurora by yourself. Either way is great and we tried out a few different Fairbanks northern lights tours during our trip.
If your goal is to get a great photo of the aurora, then I highly recommend signing up for an aurora photography workshop the first night you arrive in Fairbanks. After all, this is a bucket list item for most people and you want to make sure that you know what you are doing as the aurora is not an easy thing to photograph.
A 40-minute drive from Fairbanks will put you firmly in the interior – a perfect place to view Northern Lights. Just off the Steese Highway, you’ll find Aurora Bear Photography Workshops, a small intimate workshop in Frank and Miriam’s off-the-grid home. We had the Deluxe treatment which kept us nibbling all night on incredible tapas. The workshop is only for one party – so it will be a really personalized one-on-one learning process. You can’t get much better than that! The photography wasn’t the only thing personalized – the whole experience was and when we left there we felt as if we were leaving friends.
These types of tours normally have big numbers of people with a mix of photo addicts and just people who want to see the aurora. As you might guess – these aren’t my jam. I hate big tours and coach buses; however, it works for some people and it’s nice to know that Fairbanks offers these types of tours to get you out of the city and increase your chance of seeing the northern lights.
However, there are also smaller more intimate tours like the one we did with the Last Frontier Mushing Co-op. This was a combo dog sledding and aurora experience and boy did it deliver! We first went on a nighttime dog sledding ride and as we were crossing the Chena River you could start to see the aurora come out. When back at the ‘camp’ we were able to sit by a warm fire, eat munchies, and continue to watch the show! This was a special experience of two of the best things Alaska has to offer in the wintertime!
Read reviews of Last Frontier Mushing Co-op on Trip Advisor
Lodges Outside of the City
Some hotels offer aurora viewing options where people can come and stay up all night in a warm setting like a yurt or lodge but easily run outside and enjoy the show when it arrives. We went to Taste of Alaska Lodge just outside of Fairbanks and they had a perfect setup for viewing. They had a warm-ish yurt where we could stay warm and wait, but then run outside and take photos easily. The log cabin lodge provided a beautiful foreground in the photos.
We also went to and stayed a the remote Black Rapids Lodge. It’s south of Fairbanks, but it also frequently gets beautiful northern lights sightings. The beautiful thing about Black Rapids is that it’s surrounded by the Eastern Alaska Mountain Range, so you get to see the northern lights over the mountains!
Rent a Car and Go Independently
You can also easily rent a car and head out independently for as long as you’d like. Just make sure you have a full tank of gas as the car is going to be your warm waiting spot in the middle of the night. The Explore Fairbanks website has detailed viewing locations perfect for the independent aurora chaser complete with maps and descriptions on where you can pull over and wait. Bring warm clothes and food and water!
What Do You Do While You Wait for the Northern Lights to Come Out?
I decided a northern lights trip is sort of like taking a trip to Vegas. You end up on a really weird sleep pattern where you are awake from 11PM to 4AM and then sleep until 11AM the next morning. Just make sure you don’t plan too many early morning activities else you may be miserable.
Everyone says that you have to be persistent, stay awake, and actively look for them. So what do you do while you are waiting for those lights to appear?
“Everything good happens after midnight here.” –Peter Delemere Aurora Physicist
Some people are lucky enough to stay at a lodge that has an aurora spotter who wakes guests up when it comes out. A true luxury! If you are with a partner, you can also take turns taking naps if you’d like.
Why sleep when you can dogsled? Knock off two bucket list items at once – dogsledding and northern lights viewing!
I loved our Aurora Bear deluxe experience, it was a perfect way to not have a big dinner and instead nibble all night long. Don’t eat/bring a giant meal, little nibbles will help you stay awake and staying awake is important!
Hot chocolate or hot drinks are a must for aurora viewing! Nearly every place will offer them. I also learned it’s good to travel with a flask in Alaska in the winter…it will warm your insides – in moderation of course!
You have everything you need in Fairbanks Alaska for a great northern lights trip. And the best part is that you feel like you have the place to yourself because you’ll be blazing your own trail while others head to expensive Scandinavia!
Scared of the cold weather in Fairbanks in the Winter? Don’t Be! Check out my Alaska Winter Packing List and go prepared!
Follow Sherry Ott @ottsworld