Aurora borealis, no passport required!
The Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, are one of the seven greatest natural wonders of the world, captivating the skies across the world’s most northern Arctic tundra. But, on the off chance you’re waiting for your passport to get renewed, want to explore the natural beauty of America, or legally cannot leave the country pending trial (hey, we don’t judge), where can you see the Northern Lights in the USA?
To start, the Northern Lights are a colorful phenomenon that occurs when charged particles from the sun, called the solar wind, are strongly pulled in by Earth’s magnetic field towards the North and South Poles. That said, you can only see the Northern Lights in specific locations, at specific times of the year, and at even more specific weather conditions. But with the right planning and a little luck, you can also spot these dancing paint strokes in the sky.
To get you started on the right foot, here are the top 9 places to see the Northern Lights in the USA, no passport needed.
WHEN CAN YOU MOST LIKELY SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN THE USA? Technically, the Aurora Borealis happens year-round, but in general, you are most likely to see the Northern Lights in the USA late at night (10 pm-3 am) during the colder months between October and March when nights are longer, however, the highest probability to see them would depend on that location’s weather during particular months. It also depends on the planetary K-index or the scale which characterizes the magnitude of geomagnetic storms on a scale from 0 to 9. The higher the number, the more dramatic the Aurora Borealis. In general, you’ll be looking for a KP of 4 or higher to see the Northern Lights in the USA. Some cities have their own Aurora tracker, but if they don’t or to get a general idea of where the Northern Lights are concentrated for a particular day, check the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Aurora forecast, which updates every 30 minutes.
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Undoubtedly, one of the best places to see the Northern Lights in America is the state of Alaska. Specifically, the city of Fairbanks in Alaska’s northern Interior. Fairbanks makes one of the best destinations to see the Northern Lights in the USA because it is located directly below the “Auroral Oval,” a ring zone encapsulating the Arctic North Pole where aurora activity concentrates.
Aurora season in Fairbanks runs between late August and mid-April, when the sky is both clear and dark enough four out of five nights to spot the Northern Lights, if they appear. Visitors staying in Fairbanks at least three nights during the Aurora season have a 90% chance of seeing them. Because it is such a popular thing to do in Fairbanks, the city also has its own Aurora tracker so visitors can see the probability of the Northern Lights show each night of their trip.
Creamer’s Field, in town, and Cleary Summit, about 30 minutes from downtown Fairbanks, are both great locations to camp out for the Northern Lights, but during the day, there are plenty of family-friendly things to do in Fairbanks in the winter, such as reindeer walking trails, snowmobiling, or dog sledding with rescued and retired sled dogs at Chena Hot Springs. If you choose to stay at the Borealis Basecamp and sleep under the Northern Lights, staying in a geodesic igloo is a wonderful place to gain this experience.
Outside of Alaska, you can reliably see the Northern Lights in a handful of the lower 48 states as well. On the far east coast, Maine is another great domestic destination to go Aurora chasing. Specifically in the town of Bangor, the best time to catch the Northern Lights is between December and January, when night skies are dark and clear.
Bangor is a great destination for travelers looking to get away from a bustling city. It is also home to famed American horror author Stephen King, and you can (respectfully) visit his house for a quick photo-op before checking out the downtown area of Bangor, filled with locally owned shops and restaurants along their waterfront.
When you’re ready to set out for your night of Aurora spotting, head to the Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. This is just about 30 minutes outside of town for unobstructed views of the night sky, or Acadia National Park about an hour outside of Bangor.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS? The first, which is also the most shocking to some, is that the Northern Lights are mostly monochrome to the naked eye and look like silvery wispy clouds; the color pops through with the aid of a long exposure camera. They also don’t usually stick around very long. A solid Aurora Borealis display will last around 15-30 minutes, and while it may be longer, it is more often shorter. Sometimes what kills the experience of seeing the Northern Lights in the USA isn’t the disappointment when you miss them but when you have the wrong expectations for when you do.
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho
Idaho is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights in the USA, and Coeur d’Alene would make a great homebase for your Aurora adventures. While the city is known for its picturesque lake during the summer, the best months to spot Aurora activity in the Idaho panhandle is between October and March.
Coeur d’Alene is a nice blend of having a lot of food and access to nature, which makes it great for both active families and friend groups, while the city’s lively university population ensures there is always an event, performance, or pop-up happening somewhere around town.
Venture out of the city to get the best visibility of the Northern Lights. Near Coeur d’Alene, head out about 25 minutes to Fernan Saddle in the Coeur D’Alene National Forest. It is a popular spot for snowmobiling, so if you are familiar with the sport you can even spend the day jetting around, then warm up in one of the nearby warming huts while you wait for the Northern Lights show.
Medora, North Dakota
North Dakota isn’t always the first American destination on someone’s mind, but it is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights in the USA. It has the beautiful combination of low light pollution, less smog and air pollution, and is a quiet option for those looking for an option outside of the more popular winter getaways.
To have the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights in North Dakota, mark your calendars for dates between November and February. The city of Medora is the perfect compromise between comfort and escaping into the wilderness as it has delicious local restaurants and boutique shops, but only minutes outside of the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a designated dark sky zone for optimal Northern Lights displays.
When you’re ready to head out for the night, set up at Buck Hill which is both wheelchair accessible and has restrooms. While Medora doesn’t have a specific Aurora tracker, Theodore Roosevelt National Park does have a clear sky tracker so you can best estimate when the night sky conditions would be best for camping out for the Northern Lights.
NORTHERN LIGHTS PREPARATION AND PACKING LIST To have the best experience, you want to prepare properly. Take a nap earlier in the afternoon so you aren’t sleepy driving out at night to a dark lookout. Dress to endure standing in the cold for longer than half an hour, meaning warm wool socks, gloves, and fleece thermals. Pack extra hand warmers, a phone battery charger, blankets, and maybe even a board game since you could be waiting for a few hours without cell service.
Grand Marais, Minnesota
Grand Marais has won numerous awards, from being named America’s Coolest Small Town to the Next Great Adventure Town, and it is also one of the best places to see the Northern Lights in the USA. Aim to book your vacation between November to February and prepare for an action-filled winter.
Aside from the great restaurants and shops in town, the winter months are packed with events and festivals, like the annual Dark Sky Festival. This festival brings people together to indulge in a weekend of telescope viewing, constellation talks, astronomy documentaries, and nighttime nature walks led by the city’s professors, environmentalists, and Indigenous storytellers and guides.
Outside of the city, settle in to watch the Auroras at the Northern Light Lake Overlook, aptly named. Or you can go off-grid for the entire duration of your stay at the Points Unknown homestead with sled dogs. Then, you can walk right outside your room for the best viewing of the Northern Lights in the USA.
Mackinaw City, Michigan
Mackinaw City is a small town, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in the sheer magnitude of Northern Lights sightings. The best times to see the Northern Lights in Michigan are between October and April, with the shoulder months sometimes proving more reliable due to the clear skies and drier weather.
The town’s main attraction is the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, a dedicated and protected area popular with photographers, stargazers, and of course, Aurora chasers. The park has its own clear sky tracker, noting estimates of cloud cover, darkness, and wildfire smoke for the upcoming forecast.
During the day, the park is a great place for family-friendly activities, with numerous trails and background history on the planets in the solar system. You can even rent the 3-bedroom guest house at Headlands, so you can bring the whole family or plan the Astro-nerdiest friend’s getaway.
HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH THE NORTHERN LIGHTSYou don’t need the fanciest professional cameras to be able to photograph the Northern Lights. You can take pictures of the Northern Lights with your smartphone. Before you get started, make sure to keep your phone on airplane mode and close out of all other apps, both to conserve battery, and you wouldn’t want to be interrupted by a sudden call or notification. Switch your camera to manual mode to increase your ISO to 800 and your exposure time to about 15 seconds.
For phones without manual modes, like iPhones, or if you don’t want to fiddle with camera settings, download an external camera app like Cortex Camera before leaving civilization. To get the best photos of the Northern Lights with a phone, you will need a tripod or smartphone stand, but in a pinch, you can lean your phone against a rock or the car hood.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Often crowned as one of the most scenic National Parks in the country, Glacier National Park is also one of the best places to see the Northern Lights in the USA. Plus, the beauty of visiting the park in the winter is that you can enjoy it without all the usual summer crowds and gain a more personal experience with the land. For example, while the Going-to-the-Sun road is closed to vehicle traffic in the winter, you can take a guided bike tour (both standard bike and e-bike) or snowshoe amongst the crisp mountain peaks.
Lake McDonald Lodge and various park campsites also have more availability in the winter, and you don’t have to wake up as early to observe elk, moose, birds, bighorn sheep, and critters of all shapes and sizes.
While Glacier is gorgeous year-round, the best months to see the Northern Lights in Glacier National Park are between October and March. Lake McDonald is one of the most accessible spots within the park to spot the Northern Lights, and the lake also creates a mirror effect to the phenomenon that shows brilliantly in photos.
The Apostle Islands, Wisconsin
With no full-time inhabitants and managed by the National Park Service, the Apostle Islands are the prime choice for unexpected places where you can see the Northern Lights in the USA. From December to February, visitors have the best probability of spotting the Northern Lights with unobstructed views over any lakeshore on the islands. While there are campsites on The Apostle Islands, there are also plenty of cabin rentals and inns to suit any lodging preferences.
However, the Apostle Islands also have a robust selection of unique winter activities to spend your days between Aurora viewings. The Apostle Islands’ ice caves with frozen waterfalls are one of the region’s most beautiful natural landmarks, but they can only be accessed by crossing the frozen surface of Lake Superior. The National Park Service regularly reevaluates the ice thickness and publishes when it is safe to visit the ice caves. Ice fishing is another popular activity that can even be done while waiting for the Northern Lights to appear.