The northern lights or aurora borealis is one of the most amazing things to do in Alaska. Polar lights appear in the skies when charged solar particles interact with the atmosphere. The celestial show typically comes in a swirling array of green, while the most intense aurora gets a purple edge. The curious shapes range from curtains to bands, rays, and coronas.
When to view aurora borealis?
Northern lights dance across the sky all year round, but we are able to see it only on a dark and clear night. So the season stretches from late August through to late April. Winter being the best season is a myth. You can spot absolutely stunning aurora borealis displays in September or October, as well as March or April. The best time to look for the shimmering lights is between midnight and 2 am.
Where to see the northern lights?
The flickering lights can be spotted anywhere in the state, including its largest city of Anchorage and other places in the south. However, the number of displays there is dramatically fewer than in the north. The chances strengthen when going up the latitude. Therefore, the remote inland Alaskan Arctic and extreme north work the best.
The most popular place for viewing the rare and spectacular phenomenon in Alaska is Fairbanks. Even though it's located just below the Arctic Circle, 180 mi (290 km) south to be more precise, the aurora borealis appears quite frequently there. A good place to head to in the vicinity is Cleary Summit Aurora Viewing Area, situated about 20 mi (32 km) north-east of Fairbanks. The area is easily accessible, offers a solid view of the horizon, and has parking, which is also convenient. Also, visit Chena Lakes Recreation Area to look for vibrant green reflections in the water. The area is also 20 mi away, but south-east of Fairbanks.
At 67° N latitude and 60 mi (97 km) above the Arctic Circle, Coldfoot is the prime northern lights destination in the Alaskan Arctic. The former gold-mining settlement on the famed Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay nowadays serves as a truck stop. You can find overnight accommodations at the rustic Coldfoot Camp set on the edge of the Gates of the Arctic National Park, which is the northernmost national park in the US. The camp operates year-round and offers other services, including a cafe, tour options, fuel, and minor tire repairs. If you're into more adventures, follow the road to Prudhoe Bay.
To maximize your chances of seeing celestial lights in all their beauty, go to the extreme north. The best choice is Barrow also called Utqiagvik. The northernmost town in the US is also home to the native Iñupiat Eskimo culture. You can get there by Alaska Airlines departing from Anchorage and arriving at the town's Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport. Otherwise, you can opt for a tour package.
Denali National Park and Preserve
If you dislike the idea of the extreme north, national parks provide an alternative. Denali National Park is about a three hour drive south-west of Fairbanks. The key benefits are low light pollution and picturesque landscape that includes Denali or Mount McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America. With over 6 million ac (nearly 2.5 million ha) of wild nature, there are plenty of stunning views in the national park.
What to wear?
A general recommendation is to dress warmly and wear layers. Rely on synthetic, fleece, and wool materials. It would be sad if you have to watch the polar show from the inside because of the unbearable cold.