Seeing the Northern Lights in Alaska

green lights in the sky

Two days ago I was out in sub-zero temperatures at 4AM, up to my calves in snow having the time of my life!

Since I had already planned to be in Anchorage for the ceremonial start to the Iditarod, it seemed silly not to find a few extra days to see the Northern Lights in Alaska which has long been on my travel wish list. Normally I would have just added one more day to pop up to Fairbanks, but so eager was I to make sure I actually got to see them, I allocated 2 1/2 nights in case of rain or clouds or just general bad luck.

We landed on Saturday night and after studying Aurora Notify and  Aurora-Service.org, it looked like the peak time was going to be sometime from 2-6AM, not the typical 11PM-2AM window you hear recommended. Tip: any kp number over 5 means you’ll probably get quite the show.

We had chosen to stay at a great place on the outskirts of town that afforded amazing views and less light polution, but the  downside was not having a front desk that could call to wake us up when the Northern Lights appeared. (The upside was being able to pop in to warm up whenever we wanted.)

It had been a long day and Tiffany and I were too tired and jetlagged to stay up, so we decided to divvy up spotting responsibility. I would wake up on the even hours and check and she would wake up on the odd hours, ideally allowing each of us to get almost 2 hours of sleep at a time.

At 4AM there wasn’t anything in the sky, but when I checked Aurora Notify at 4:20 right before I got back in bed, I noticed it was showing activity. So I ran back outside in my PJs, way underdressed for the sub-zero temperatures, and stared in wonder at the faint whisps that were suddenly showing halfway up the sky.

I ran in to wake Tiffany up and put on A LOT more clothing and hurried outside where at this point almost half the sky was lit up.

But not like you see in the pictures. The Northern Lights are still easily identifiable, but muted. Just hints of greens and purples compared to the vibrant streaks captured by cameras.

Which was a whole ‘nother matter. Photographs. I wanted to capture the moment, but I also wanted to make sure I was actually enjoying the moment too. So after 5 minutes of trying to set my Sony RX 100M III camera to the right ISO and shutter speed (with poor results), I just stuck it on automatic and the pictures were vastly better (though still not professional quality).

a green and white lights in the sky

a green lights in the sky

Standing outside the cabin in the middle of a snow drift, my chin going numb from the fragrant, freezing wind, and looking up at the sky full of unusual lights was one of the most fulfilling incredible experiences in my life.

And the next evening they were out again, though not as strong and most visible right around 7-8PM. So thrilling to be walking around the ice park and see them glowing on the horizon!

Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights in Fairbanks

  • I highly recommend checking out forecast sites like Aurora-service.org to get an idea of when the best solar activity is likely to happen. Then closer to the time check AuroraNotify for a clear picture of what you might be able to see.
  • If you’re going during the winter/early spring months, when the lights are most active, you probably don’t need to book one of those expensive $100+ tours. Instead consider getting a place on the outskirts of town where you’ll be likely to see the Northern Lights anyway and be able to pop inside to warm up whenever you want. Or head 17 miles out of town to Chatanika Lodge which has clear views of the horizon in all directions.
  • They’re not kidding when they say dress warmly! You’ll want warm gloves that will still allow you to manipulate a camera, many layers, a hat, scarf, even a face mask if you can manage it (unless you enjoy your chin going numb). Consider adding hand and foot warmers as well.
  • Unless you’re a student of photography or already accomplished, consider skipping the picture taking. You’ll need a really good camera and a lot of patience. Use that time instead to enjoy it with your own eyes and then purchase one of the amazing prints that people far more skilled then ourselves have captured.

More from this trip

The San Juan Airport Doesn’t Want You to Find the Hotel
Snow for the Iditarod
BBQ & Fat Birds in Anchorage

Experiencing the Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks
Is Anchorage to Fairbanks One of the Most Scenic Flights Ever?

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  1. What an adventure, Keri, and so glad you were able to see the lights. I saw them out of an airplane window leaving Anchorage in December several years ago (they never did come out while I was on the ground in AK), and it was incredible. I did as you recommended, I just looked and took it all in. Congrats!

  2. Thank you Barb! Glad you got to see them too — was hoping I’d be able to see them on my flight too but I left a little too close to sunset.

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