Like splashes of watercolor rippling incandescently across the dark night sky, the aurora borealis is one of the most hypnotizing and magnificent phenomena in nature. Typically swirling in bright blends of yellow and green, the lights take on brilliant shades of red, blue, purple and pink as they grow in intensity. There’s much folklore surrounding these celestial beams, with many native traditions believing them to be manifestations of ancestral spirits, playing games in the sky or carrying torches into the afterlife. Some have likened the lights’ fantastical effect to tribes of energetic fairies, beaming about in restless motion. However, much science and research has taught us that the night sky wonder is actually a series of solar particles being blown into the earth’s magnetic field over 60 miles above the surface, creating the gargantuan explosions of light and color at which we marvel.
Having the opportunity to view the lights in all their glory is one of the unique advantages of the late fall to early spring months. This is the peak period during which prime locations beneath the aurora oval (the area over the North Pole where northern lights occur most frequently) grow darkest, providing the perfect backdrop. Despite what most people think, getting the most out of your aurora borealis experience doesn’t have to mean venturing across an ocean to northern European countries. If witnessing this neon spectacle is as high on your bucket list as it is ours, crossing it off this winter is easy with a handful of perfect viewing locations across North America. We’ve rounded up the cities with the best views, best tours and generally best scenic backdrops for a truly unforgettable, unearthly experience.
Best Places to View and Tour: September-March
Arguably the best place to experience the northern lights in North America, Alaska’s dark cold months, scenic natural landscape, largely rural geography and direct exposure to the aurora oval make for an incomparable canvas. The recommended cities for the brightest and most extensive light displays are Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage and the Alaskan Yukon territory. There’s no end to the number of tours one can choose to embark on, some lasting a couple of hours, some carrying out to multi-day excursions, if visitors so choose. Many hotels in prime areas even offer a Northern Lights wake-up call for visitors who are determined to see the lights without losing a full night’s sleep waiting and watching.
Tour costs can range anywhere from over $100 to as little as $25, depending on where you’re located and the transportation you’ll be using to get to your respective hotspot. Many resorts and lodges host viewing sessions for outside visitors, sending out transportation to area hotels for pick-up and drop-off. One of the most popular locations about 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks is the Chena Hot Springs Resort, which allows guests the spoil of watching the beautiful lights from the luxurious warmth of a hot spring to fend off the frigid night air. Other popular outlets for touring the lights include the Aurora Borealis Lodge, Mount Aurora Skiland, and the Northern Alaska Tour Company, which extends the offer of multi-day aurora tours trekking northward to the Arctic Circle and Brooks Range.
One of the easiest and most efficient ways to keep up with the aurora forecast and take note of peak times during your trip is to monitor the University of Alaska’s aurora forecast radar, serviced by the Geophysical Institute.
It’s not hard to guess that the other primary hotspot for aurora borealis sightseeing and tours is at the northernmost point of North America. The best cities to visit for the experience are Calgary, Ontario and, most recommended, Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. On top of other major attractions like dog sledding and ice fishing, the northern lights are at their peak in this territory.
The range of tour options in Canadian regions is equally as extensive as that in Alaska, with package deals ranging from one-night viewing tours to five-night stays immersed in vibrant aurora environments. For more information on these deals and more, look here. Many of these tours include the other aforementioned attractions listed above, rounding out the ultimate arctic nature experience.
To monitor the aurora activity, check out the Yukon auroracast.
Other Optimal Locations Without Tours:
While you normally wouldn’t consider Idaho a hotspot for magnificent aurora rays, the Idaho Panhandle National Forest and Priest Lake, just south of the Canadian border, offer brilliant borealis views in a sparsely populated area. Many photographers flock here to take advantage of the effect made by the lights reflecting off Priest Lake’s still surface.
Next on our list of little-known aurora wonders is Cook County, Minnesota, located at the northeastern tip of the state. This rural, northern territory is home to the state’s tallest mountain peaks and waterfall (High Falls). Most locals hike up Oberg Mountain for a postcard view of the northern lights against the towering landscape.
Situated atop the U.S.-Canadian border, Aroostook County, home to the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge, is one of the Northeast’s least populated areas for aurora gazing, guaranteeing your view won’t be obstructed by bright city lights or tall buildings. The only thing you’ll need to monitor is the cloud forecast.
Marquette, Michigan, one of the largest stateside ports on Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula, is another great, remote location to travel for the northern lights. On a clear night, visitors will be able to behold the lights reflecting magnificently off the largest lake in North America.