Only in Alaska: How to see the northern lights

Just like a bear or a moose, the northern lights are a sought-after sight in Alaska. Despite being present around 300 days of the year in the north of the state, the lights (or “aurora borealis”) are actually visible for much fewer. Alaska’s long days mean that summer skies are too bright for the lights to show, but as the fall approaches (yep, mid- to late-August marks the beginning of autumn up here), chances to spot the northern lights become more numerous.

Though the northern lights aren’t totally predictable, there are ways you can increase the chance you’ll see them. Here are a few of them.

Ask for a northern lights wake-up call. In both Denali National Park and Fairbanks, places well established on the visitor trail, the lights begin to make dim appearances as early as August when night begins to fall again. Hotels are used to folks hoping to catch a glimpse of the phenomena and are happy to ring your room at all hours of the night to let you know if they’re out.

Stay for a few days. The longer you stay in once place, the greater your chance of seeing a light show. It’s statistics. Furthermore, if you can push back your trip (from late August mid-September, say), your chances of seeing the lights increases exponentially. That’s because during certain periods, like around Equinox (September 21), the Fairbanks area will lose as much as seven minutes of light per day.

Go to the right place. Fairbanks may be further north, meaning the lights are more present there, but it also has clearer skies. Choosing a place that has better weather is going to help – yes, you might be able to see the lights from Juneau but your odds of a cloudless sky are pretty low.

Plan a trip specifically for the lights
. Though it might mean traveling in winter (involuntary shiver), you can book trips that are aimed at making sure you see the lights. At Chena Hot Springs Resort, my favorite place to see the northern lights, you can walk up the hill to a special “arroureum,” a small cabin with picture windows looking out to the sky. Bring a few friends and a thermos full of hot toddies, and watch the skies dance for hours.

Again, you’ll increase your odds immensely by being in Alaska at the right time and place. That being said, the first time I ever saw the northern lights was in Anchorage at the end of August. They looked at first like thin wisps of glowing white smoke, and even though they were hardly as dramatic as some of the neon lights shows I’ve watched since, seeing them made my entire summer in Alaska.

[Photo credit: Flickr user nick_russill]