Full Guide to Northern Lights in Alaska

Spectacular northern lights on a starry night

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Last updated:
05.01.2022

So, you've decided that you want to go to go to Alaska and enjoy the spectacle that is Northern Lights? In this post, we will uncover the foggy mystery that surrounds the natural phenomena of northern lights (some science based explanation behind how it occurs), guide you in preparation for your Trip to Alaska, and tell you about some of the best places to see northern lights in Alaska!

The Origin of Northern Lights

The inception of the term northern lights has its roots from the Greek word Aurora Borealis, in which Aurora translates to "sunrise" and Boreas means "wind". Its first-ever documentation is believed to have happened somewhere between 568-567 BCE, inscribed on a Babylonian tablet made of clay by the respected astronomers of King Nebuchadnezzar II. On it was a description of an “unusual red glow” in the sky at night that was interpreted as a sign of God and feared for the vividness of the red hue, which was largely associated with misfortune. With the technology of today, scientists are able to explain the phenomenon of the “red glow” that the Babylonians saw, which turned out to be the red northern lights that you can spot in Alaskan sky at night.

So, how do northern lights appear in the night sky? Electrically charged sun particles emitted from its surface during solar storms that travel towards our planet are captured by the Earth’s magnetic field and then travel in a path towards the north and south poles (southern lights are also a thing, however aren't as popular because of their extremely remote location, making it harder and more expensive for travelers to reach). Different colours of the aurora are dependent on the gasses that are heated by the sun particles in the process, which are mainly nitrogen and oxygen, causing the lights to have a gradient ranging from green to blue and sometimes even pink!

Red Glow

Preparing for a Northern Lights Trip

Before you commit to buying the next available tickets to Alaska, you should take into account what time of the year is best suited for northern lights watching. Although our Sun is currently at a solar minimum, meaning that solar storms aren't happening as often, the next solar maximum will return in 2024, which is when the solar activity on the surface of the sun is at its peak. That being said, it is more important to pick the right time of year when the sky is mostly clear, which in Alaska is during spring, so that the northern lights that will appear on the sky aren't going to be blocked off by the clouds. The display of northern lights tends to intensify around the equinox months of September and March because of the Earth’s tilt in relation to the Sun, which helps the sun particles reach north and south poles more efficiently. These scientific facts will guide you to making your final decision for when to travel and not miss out on the show!

Another helpful trick that will enhance your northern lights viewing experience is to avoid the full moon on the day you decide to go aurora borealis hunting and add a week on either side to avoid the sky being washed out by moonlight. Lastly, make sure to arrive at the least light polluted viewing location at 10 p.m. to see the aurora at its brightest, which can take up to 4 hours.

when to visit Alaska

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You may be waiting for the appearance of northern lights for hours. Make sure to pack extra warm clothes and bring a thermos filled with a warm drink of your choice to ensure your coziness throughout the whole experience!

Selecting Your Northern Lights Viewing Destination

Alaska is so notorious for its northern lights experience that it has the most dedicated places for northern lights watching that provide the best conditions, taking into account light pollution and flat surfaced locations. Cleary Summit, a 17 mile ride from Fairbanks, has earned the reputation of “The capital of the northern lights hunt in Alaska” for its vast open spaces with stunning trees surrounding you from afar, which provides excellent protection from the freezing winds. Furthermore, this location has great nearby accommodations so you have the opportunity to stay over multiple nights to wait and capture the magnificent moment

In case you are having doubts about finding the right observation spot or not being late to the show, we propose you pay a visit to the city of Barrow, also known as Utqiagvik, where you can find the Top of The World Hotel that organizes outdoor tours of different kinds, which includes northern lights viewing. Part of the experience involves going out with a group of people on a northern light hunt, which can lead to new interesting connections with likeminded people and photographists!

Denali Alaska

Finally, the location that supplies the best environmental conditions for seeing the northern lights is the Denali Alaska area, which is valued for being nearly free from all human light pollution. Being composed of vast open spaces, Denali is the place for people who are experienced in navigating through Alaskan terrain and who are confident that they will be at the right place and at the right time. Keep in mind if you are a confident beginner, to have a device that helps you keep track of time, as it is fairly likely that your phone may not work.

Wrap Up

Undoubtedly, the first thing that any first-timer to Alaska must do is take at least one night to admire the natural beauty of the science and astronomy worlds colliding, resulting in the magnificent spectacle called the northern lights. Such a captivating experience comes for free (if you know when and where to look) and in terms of beauty, it is as incredible as any of the 7 Wonders of the World. Be on the lookout for new activities to partake in in Alaska by selecting any of our expertly built Alaska Tours and go explore the world with Firebird Tours!