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It’s a cold, black night with a brisk wind tickling your face. The ground is delicately kissed by new snowfall. The moon is resting beyond the clouds. Then, suddenly, as your eyes adjust to the dark sky, an enormous dancing wave of colors materializes. Full of vibrant greens with hues of blue and accents of red, this is that “ooh-aah” moment you’ve been waiting for. The Northern Lights! Entranced by the dazzling colors in the night sky, this is an experience you will never forget. And, for many, this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
The northern lights, or as Galileo termed them, the aurora borealis, are an incredible natural occurrence that only take place in certain locations within the Auroral Oval, from the North to the South Poles. Specifically, they occur within the Northern Lights zone at latitudes 65 to 72 degrees.
And it just so happens that Alaska is one of the best viewing locations of this amazing light show. If you want to know more about experiencing the northern lights and what to expect when visiting Alaska, then read on.
Even though this celestial phenomenon may bring you a sense of peace, there’s a whole different story to what is really going on when the aurora borealis appears. In fact, there’s a violent and chaotic astral storm happening hundreds of miles beyond the Earth’s surface. Energized particles from the sun are ejected from its corona, or upper atmosphere, and create what is known as the solar wind. This wind then carries these charged particles as they collide into Earth’s ionosphere at speeds of up to 45 million miles per hour!
Luckily for us, the planet’s magnetic field acts as a shield, guarding us from the bombardment. The magnetic field redirects the particles towards the North and South Poles, giving rise to a breathtaking light show. The oxygen molecules produce green, which is the most common color you’ll see. Nitrogen molecules produce hues of red. You may also see yellow, purple, pink, and blue streaks and swirls. This depends on what kind of particles are being released into the atmosphere.
The most common color of Aurora borealis is green. Photo by Austin Human.
The northern lights occur during all four seasons of the year. However, they are rather difficult to see in summer when there’s nearly 22 hours of daylight. So, the best time to view the Northern Lights in Alaska is between the months of September and April. That’s the time when there is less daylight and darker skies.
The aurora borealis is most active during the September and March equinoxes. The lights most commonly appear between 9:00 pm and 3:00 am. They typically last only a few minutes before fading away. For an optimum viewing experience, it’s ideal to be outside during a new moon.
For more information regarding the auroral forecast, you can visit the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institutes website.
Day or night? Fairbanks, Alaska. Photo by Vincent Ledvina.
It’s true that you may see the dancing lights anywhere in the state of Alaska. However, there is one hotspot, or cold spot (however you see it), that gives you the best opportunity to observe the colors in the sky. That spot would be no other than the city of Fairbanks. The proximity of this city is within the Auroral Oval. That’s an atmospheric boundary where the solar winds are directed upon impact. In fact, Fairbanks is not only one of the best places for aurora viewing in the state, but one of the best places in the world.
Other best locations for northern lights viewing in Alaska include Denali National Park and Nome. Denali National Park is known for the highest mountain peak in North America. Just a 3-hour drive south of Fairbanks, Denali, a perfect place to see the northern lights, has zero light pollution and is home to an abundance of wildlife. There is also Nome, a remote northern coastal town. Nome is famous as the end point to the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
Northern lights in Denali National Park & Preserve. Photo by Vashishtha Jogi.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, travel to Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow. Utqiagvik is a small town at the very top of the state that sits 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle. You can meet the native tribes and immerse yourself into the Iñupiat culture. That is, if you can handle the frigid negative temperatures.
For a chance to see the northern lights in all their glory it’s ideal to stay north. However, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t see the aurora in Alaska’s largest city of Anchorage, as well. Just drive a few miles outside of the city center, away from the city lights, and you may find what you’re looking for.
There are many different places that offer wonderful hospitality in Alaska, with some hotels providing wake-up call service to see the northern lights.
Near Fairbanks, you’ll find a plethora of homes, cabins, hotels, tents, and igloos to stay the night. Borealis Basecamp offers cozy and spacious fiberglass igloos that feature ceilings made of windows for a unique viewing experience. State agencies provide rustic cabins in the woods all throughout Alaska for an authentic backcountry adventure in the solitude of nature.
Though, for overall ambience, it’s tough to beat a pair of natural hot springs. About 60 miles from Fairbanks you’ll discover the sweet waters of Chena Hot Springs, which includes comfortable lodging, northern lights tours, massage therapy, and more.
A bit further west, and a little more remote, you’ll find Manley Hot Springs, another beautiful location for a relaxing soak and incredible borealis views. You’ll soak in concrete tubs among hibiscus flowers, Asian pears, and grapes in a spring-fed greenhouse. For just $5 a soak, Manley may be your go-to hot spring. Just remember to check the weather report if you’re traveling in the winter, as the road to get there may be closed.
Chena Hot Springs, Fairbanks. Photo by Jo San Diego.
Layers, layers, layers. Whenever you decide to see the northern lights show in Alaska there will be much less sunlight than you’re used to, which means it is going to be cold. A warm winter cap like a Trapper’s Hat will keep your head and ears protected from frigid winds. Another great investment is a face mask or warm scarf. It’s important to cover your face, especially if you’re embarking on a dog-sled adventure.
Next, you’ll want to think about your hands and feet. Usually, a nice pair of insulated mittens will work, but just to be safe you could bring an extra pair of thinner gloves to use as a first layer. For the feet, you’ll definitely need some waterproof, warm snow boots with an insulated inner lining. Bring at least two pairs of wool or fleece socks so you’ll have an extra pair for when the used ones are drying, and just like the hands, it’s a good idea to have some thin socks to wear as a first layer.
For the upper body, think layers. You’ll want a moisture-wicking shirt as a base layer to pull away any moisture from your skin, as keeping the sweat in can bring your body temperature down. The second layer should be a long sleeve fleece, topped off with a comfy winter jacket with down material like Arktik™ Down Parka. Your legs will also want a similar layering system as your upper body. Start with a base layer of wool leggings, then a pair of water-resistant pants like M’s Destroyr™. Top that all off with wind-resistant snow pants and you’re ready for the harshest of weather conditions.
When visiting the vast landscape of Alaska, seeing the northern lights shouldn’t be the only thing on your bucket list. There are plenty of other adventures in this winter wonderland.
One well-known Alaskan experience would be dog sledding. Gliding through the snow with a pack of well-trained huskies is a thrilling journey. Rod’s Alaskan Guide Service offers tours with experienced mushers that will teach you all the ropes. They also provide winter activities like ice fishing and fun-filled snowmobiling tours into the depth of the Alaskan wilderness where you may even spot a giant moose.
Take fly-over tours, where you’ll have a spectacular close-up view of some amazing mountain ranges. Or, embark on a polar bear expedition, where you’ll be able to observe polar bears in their natural habitat. You can find all these adventures through the North Alaska Tour Company.
Alaska in winter offers a gorgeous and dynamic landscape. It also offers up unpredictable weather that no one should trifle with.
When traveling in a vehicle on snow-packed roads, drive slowly, you never know when you may come across a patch of black ice. If you will be driving far distances then take the Alaska Highway. The Alaska Highway is well maintained and offers more services nearby. Always monitor the weather forecast and, if you can, try to stay off the road during brutal snow storms. Do a full safety check of the vehicle before you start driving and check all the lights to be sure they’re in proper working condition.
Carry a good road map with you as cell phone service may be spotty depending on where you are driving. Make preparations just in case you need to stay the night in your vehicle, which means bring sleeping bags, blankets, hats, gloves, fluorescent flagging, water, and food. In case you have to dig yourself out of a snow pile, shovels and a bag of sand should be on your checklist, as well. Lastly, keep your fuel tank more than half full whenever possible. If you’re stranded for the evening, you’ll want every drop of fuel to keep the heater going.
The last frontier is untamed, unpredictable, and incredibly magical. And Alaska is even more magical when the northern lights are on display. When on a journey to see the aurora borealis, remember to check the weather forecast and dress in warm winter gear before you take a walk outside. Call for reservations before your arrival for any tours or overnight stays. Take it easy on the roads, and respect the land and the wildlife that call this place home. Take plenty of pictures of the amazing aurora, and safe travels!
Featured image provided by Bureau of Land Management
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