Unfolding on the fringes of the ring-shaped auroral oval that circles the globe's Arctic realms, the aurora borealis phenomenon—a mystical apparition of glowing bands that float and spiral overhead (really solar particles bouncing off the earth's magnetic field)—can't help but inspire the imagination of all who bear witness to its splendor. A trek into the Alaska wilderness's bone-chilling winter wonderland affords optimum viewing conditions (the top months for activity fall between late August and early April, with September and March being the very best bets), particularly in the state's northern reaches, like in the areas neighboring Fairbanks, just outside of the city's ambient lights.
Unfortunately, there's no magic switch to turn on the elusive aurora—nature's light show is notoriously unpredictable and you'll need clear skies; strong auroral activity (as indicated on the Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute's aurora forecast); some serious stamina; and plain old luck on your side. So pack your arctic gear (Alaskan winter temps are regularly subzero); down that caffeine (the very best viewing is typically during the wee hours of the night); channel your perseverance; and get ready to be mystified, as the night sky is dramatically set aglow in brilliant greenish-yellows (and on extra-charged nights, blues, reds, and even purples).
We've rounded up four unique opportunities to combine northern lights viewing with an extra boost of only-in-Alaska adventure. And while the 2012 season is soon winding down, it's not too soon to book ahead, especially when considering that the height of the 11-year sunspot cycle activity—which lends itself to optimum auroral viewing conditions—is set to peak for lucky visitors in 2013.
R & R Retreat at Chena Hot Springs Resort
For more than 100 years, the 80-room Chena Hot Springs Resort, set some 60 miles outside of Fairbanks, has beckoned adventurers into the farthest reaches of Alaska. With bubbling hot springs that stay open until midnight, resort guests and day visitors alike can enjoy the auroral spectacle while indulging in a therapeutic soak in the open-air boulder-ringed hot springs ($10/adults; $7/kids); peek through the north-facing windows of the resort's hilltop log cabin "aurorium;" or take a more active approach on rugged late-night snow coach tours (in 13-passenger SUSV vehicles; $75/adult, $37.50/kids) to a hilltop viewing perch, where a warming yurt with hot drinks and soups await. Insider tip: Rooms book up as much as a year in advance, so reserve one now to ensure your 2013 stay; room rates start from $189/night. www.chenahotsprings.com
Adventure in the Arctic Circle
Boost your northern lights bragging rights by venturing into the Arctic Circle for a northernmost vantage point. The 1st Alaska Outdoor School offers a 14-hour tour by van for the most dedicated viewers, including pick-up and drop-off at your Fairbanks hotel. En route, your guide/driver will fill you in on Alaskan history and culture, as you take in views of pristine Interior Alaska (keep your eyes peeled for moose, fox, and even the elusive lynx). Stops are made for photo ops at the Trans Alaska Pipeline, the Yukon River, and the Arctic Circle crossing, before eyes turn towards the sky for the evening show. Light meal and hot beverages are provided; $200/person. 1stalaskaoutdoorschool.com
Dog Mush Outside of Fairbanks
Ogle the aurora via a dog sledding adventure outside of Fairbanks, where mushing outfit Paws for Adventure partners with A Taste of Alaska Lodge for a special evening tour. The package includes round-trip transport from/to Fairbanks; dinner at the lodge; a one-hour dog sled tour on the property's grounds; and extended late-night viewing opportunities from the lodge itself. The one caveat: For cost effectiveness, this year's tours are only being held for groups of 10 or more, so the outings are based highly on demand (though the company may be revising that policy for 2013). Rates are $195/person. pawsforadventure.com
Snowshoe in Talkeetna
If you haven't made arrangements to travel to the northern lights hot spot of Fairbanks, you can still book an eight-hour tour from Anchorage, courtesy of Salmon Berry tours, to the quirky outpost of Talkeetna, where a lack of city lights and more northerly latitude up your chances for evening lights viewing. The outing includes round-trip transport from/to Anchorage, and kicks off at the historic Talkeetna Roadhouse for a home-cooked meal, followed up by the musings of "the Star Lady," a local astronomer who provides insights into Alaska's starry skies. The tour rounds out with a riverfront snowshoe tour, in an area known for its frequent lights viewing; package rates are $299/person. Or, consider the Alaska Railroad's one-night "Talkeetna Getaway" winter package, which leaves on Saturday morning and returns Sunday evening. Package rates (from $189/person, based on double occupancy) include an overnight stay at the charmingly rustic Talkeetna Cabins. Coordinate your snowshoe rentals ahead of time via the Alaska Mountaineering School (rental rates start at $35/day) for a DIY northern lights tour. www.salmonberrytours.com; alaskarailroad.com
Thinking of a trip to Alaska?
For up-to-the-minute hotel and restaurant recommendations, plus the best planning advice, check out our online Alaska Travel Guide.
Photo Credit: courtesy Alaska Travel Industry Association/Chris McLennan