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The vast state of Alaska is the best place to witness one of Mother Nature’s finest shows, the northern lights. The dark skies showcase the colorful aurora during the season that officially runs between late August and mid-April when the fewer hours of daylight leads to darker night skies. It’s possible to see from just about anywhere in Alaska, but there are some places that are better than others for those whose priority is to check this experience off their bucket list, including these.
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Many visitors to Alaska head to the North Pole where one can enjoy Christmas year-round, and just outside the city is one of the top spots for aurora viewing. During the day you can rent an ice-fishing house and test your luck at catching Arctic char, silver salmon, or rainbow trout through pre-drilled ice holes or glide across the trails on cross-country skis. After dark, drive around the lake to the jetty, park your car, and marvel at the night’s skies. If you’re here around the holidays you can enjoy the annual North Pole Christmas In Ice Contest that draws ice sculptors from across the globe and mail your postcards from Santa’s official zip code.
Coldfoot offers a prime location at Mile 175 along the Dalton Highway for world-class aurora viewing as it’s located about the Arctic Circle, with 24 hours of darkness during the peak of winter. The rest stop for the “Ice Road Truckers” heading to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, it lies directly underneath the Aurora Oval, the band that envelopes the north pole where solar flares collide with atmospheric particles emitting photons, or light energy. that means that on any night when the skies or clear, the aurora will make an appearance. During the day take a scenic backcountry snowshoe tour led by a local guide and then enjoy a grand finale with the lights framed by the snow-covered Brooks Mountain Range.
Denali National Park and Preserve is not only one of the best places to encounter Alaskan wildlife but to marvel at the aurora as there is no light pollution here and it’s open all year-round. You might want to come earlier in the season, with September often ideal. The weather will be cool and crisp and the fall colors will be blanketed over the already breathtaking landscapes, while bull moose can be seen with their huge antlers. Plus, the snow usually doesn’t start to accumulate until late September or early October, making it easier to get around. When the road isn’t closed due to snow, it can be driven day or night with a late trip out the perfect opportunity to catch the northern lights.
If you’re in Anchorage you can take a tour to see the northern lights that includes a photography lesson that will allow you to capture your own photos of the magical light show. A small-group nighttime adventure, you’ll head to Chugach State Park where your guide will bring you to a spot with the best opportunity for catching the activity, such as the Glen Alps trailhead, where you’ll take a short walk to a viewpoint over the city and a wide view to the north. Or, perhaps explore the high-elevation Mt. Baldy trailhead, another great vantage point.
If you’re looking for the ultimate adventure, journey to the country’s northernmost town of Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow). It sits above the Arctic Circle bringing opportunities to get to know the indigenous Iñupiaq and their culture. They make up the majority of the town and operate the Iñupiaq Heritage Center which features artifacts and exhibits, along with a library and gift shop. Aurora viewing tours are available or you can simply ask the staff at your accommodation to give you a wake-up call when the lights appear.
Situated about 180 miles south of the Arctic Circle at 64° N, the northern lights frequently appear in the dark night’s skies above Fairbanks. While it may not be the No. 1 spot in the state, it’s arguably the best easily accessible destination, especially if you don’t want to drive with direct flights here from many cities and plenty of options for accommodation available. Venture away from city lights to places like Cleary Summit, Murphy Domes, or Haystack Mountain. Guided tours operated by local companies are available and there are 4X4 for rent for heading out independently to locate them.
The aptly named Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve sits above the Arctic Circle, protecting the Brooks Range. It’s one of the wildest places on the continent, with no paved roads or even trails. The cold winter nights are illuminated only by the aurora borealis, but it’s not easy to get there, with most arriving via charter air service from Fairbanks to Coldfoot or Anaktuvuk Pass. One of the best ways to experience it is to take a multiday tour from Fairbanks via Alaska Tours or another outfitter.
The remote coastal town of Nome, Alaska sits alongside the Bering Sea and offers rich history to explore as a former Gold Rush town along with breathtaking scenery. It’s a fantastic place to visit for northern lights viewing and the chance to experience what living in a rural part of the state is like. You’ll only have to venture a mile or two away from the town for a full view. Plus, it’s easily accessed via an Alaska Airlines flight from Anchorage. If you’re here in March, you can even witness the finish of the world-famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race too.
If you’re looking for a big adventure, a visit to the town of Unalaska on Unalaska Island is the center of population in the Aleutian Islands, offering the chance to experience one of the most remote places in the world and enjoy the northern lights. You’ll have to plan well ahead and be aware that many flights in and out get canceled due to the weather. The average winter temperature range is surprisingly warm, hovering anywhere between 31 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind chill factor can make it feel much colder. While it can get up to 90 inches of snow a year, the relatively warm winter temperatures mean it doesn’t stick around for long. Don’t miss the Museum of the Aleutians which showcases 9,000 years of life in the Aleutian Islands with relics uncovered during archeological excavations.