The northern lights are one of the most spectacular shows that Mother Nature has to offer, and seeing this phenomenon live is an item on many a bucket list so I rounded up the best places to see northern lights.
Aurora borealis, another term for northern lights, is a rare and beautiful event caused by solar particles reacting with the gases above Earth.
This reaction releases photons into the air, which we see as an explosion of different colors in the sky.
Here are some tips to see the aurora borealis and the 10 best places to see northern lights in the US.
How To See The Northern Lights
Sorry to burst your bubble, but the aurora borealis isn’t certain to appear on a given night.
The only thing you can do is to increase your chances of seeing them by going to one of the best places to see the northern lights, figuring out the best times of the year to go there, and making sure that certain conditions are met.
The northern lights are generally seen around 64° to 70° North latitudes, around the Arctic Circle.
This means that the further north you go, the better chances you have of seeing the northern lights. In the US, this means going to places that are closer to the border of the US with Canada.
The best time to see northern lights is normally from September through March because the longer nights in the northern hemisphere increase the probability of the lights being visible.
The following conditions increase your chances of seeing the northern lights:
- Very clear skies
- Very dark
- No light pollution
- Unobstructed view of the northern horizon
Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if you can predict the probability of the northern lights appearing, as well as where they’re likely to hold a show?
Luckily, the Space Weather Prediction Center does exactly that.
The SWPC website has a page with a forecast of both the northern and southern lights. It can be helpful to know what time on a given day are the northern lights most likely to show up.
Manage your expectations, though; even if you do all these things right, there’s still no guarantee that you’ll see the northern lights.
Mother Nature can be funny that way.
The 10 Best Places To See Northern Lights In The US
If you’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights, but don’t want to venture out of the US, here are the best cities to go visit.
Be warned, you will be cold.
1. Fairbanks, Alaska
In general, Alaska offers excellent conditions for viewing the northern lights. With its geographic location, dark skies, and mostly clear weather, it’s no wonder that it has the highest number of northern lights of any US state.
The city of Fairbanks, in particular, is one of the most popular places to see northern lights.
Around 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle at 65° north latitude, Fairbanks is found within the auroral oval.
Local northern lights tours can take you to one of several viewing areas, such as Murphy Dome, Chena Lakes, Creamer’s Field, and Cleary Summit.
If you’re a tad more adventurous, consider driving yourself or renting a vehicle and chasing the lights independently.
There is no shortage of accommodations in Fairbanks, and some of them even allow you to wait and watch for the aurora right in your room come nightfall, such as in one of the domes in Borealis Basecamp.
If you’re not yet tired from staying up all night to wait for the northern lights, you can go dog sledding, soaking in the hot springs, and ice fishing in the daytime.
2. Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Yes, another Alaska destination, but as I’ve mentioned, the state of Alaska is the best state in the US to see the northern lights.
Aside from Fairbanks, the Denali National Park is another great place in Alaska to watch the northern lights. It features acres and acres of pristine land without city lights and thus, no light pollution.
It has been a favorite destination of outdoorsy types for hiking and camping because of the wide-open spaces, mountain views, and rich wildlife.
If you’re not the outdoorsy type, though, you can always stay in one of the many lodgings in the area.
3. Spokane, Washington
From here on, the places I’m going to mention have lower chances of viewing the northern lights than Alaska, but the chances are still pretty good if you make sure all the conditions I stated above are met.
Eastern Washington offers a rural area with low to zero light pollution, and Spokane is one of the best places to start chasing auroras.
If you don’t get to see the northern lights, there are other activities to do in Spokane.
Outdoor activities range from hiking, cycling, and climbing, to kayaking, fishing, and swimming.
Winter provides the opportunity for snowshoeing, skiing, and snowboarding.
4. Priest Lake, Idaho
Lakes are some of the best places to see northern lights, and Priest Lake, Idaho is one of them.
This lake, known as the Crown Jewel of Idaho, is located within the northern portion of the Idaho panhandle, 30 miles south of the Canadian border.
Clear skies and no city lights provide the perfect conditions for the northern lights. Add the still, crystal clear waters of the lake reflecting the light show in the sky, and you have one unforgettable spectacle.
You can camp on nearby Barton Island or Kalispell Island, which are accessible by boat and open all year and where you can access plenty of outdoor activities, dazzling scenery, and various wildlife.
If you prefer a mountain view, you can also consider Idaho Panhandle National Forests.
Notable national and state parks where you can try viewing the aurora include the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve and Heyburn State Park.
5. Glacier National Park, Montana
The pristine landscape and skies of this national park provide a lovely backdrop for the northern lights, with several viewing sites for it.
A few miles from the west entrance of the Glacier National Park in Montana is Lake McDonald, a glacier-carved lake.
Staying at the southern end of the lake gives you a stunning view due north over the lake and a better vantage point for the aurora.
Drive along MT-49, also known as the Looking Glass Road, for excellent lookouts along the road that are perfect spots to view the northern lights. This road runs north from East Glacier Park off US Highway 2 to Kiowa, where it merges with Highway 89.
A trip on this road during the day will give you spectacular views of the park, as well as the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Once you’ve rounded Looking Glass Hill, Montana’s Big Sky opens up and reveals a view of the northern lights like no other (if it does deign to appear).
Another spot in this national park that boasts of great views is the Northern Lights Saloon & Café.
It’s a tad less remote than the other outdoor spots in this park and offers good food and entertainment to further enjoy the view. It’s located in Polebridge, Montana, a community very near the Canadian border.
Check out some of the best things to do in Montana while you’re there.
6. Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge, Maine
The northern lights show up in Maine only around three times a year, and the best place to see them is the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge.
It’s far north enough (right on the US-Canada border) and almost completely free of light pollution to allow spectators a grand view of the aurora.
Depending on when you go, you might get to see some of the best fall colors in the US.
The refuge covers more than 2,000 hectares of forest and grasslands that feature wildlife such as black bears and moose, but it isn’t very far from civilization; there are lodges and bed and breakfasts around the area. Still, if you prefer to be near nature, you can camp out on the grounds.
7. Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan
Michigan was one of the first states to embrace the dark sky preservation movement and established the Headlands International Dark Sky Park on the shores of Lake Michigan in 2011.
Since then, it’s been a favorite destination for both Michigan locals and visitors to try to see the northern lights.
The best places to see the northern lights in the park are McGulpin Point and Johnson Point.
While you’re here, visit nearby Mackinac Island and have some of their famous fudge.
8. Cook County, Minnesota
Located along Lake Superior, Cook County is Minnesota’s easternmost county, known to be the best place in the state to try to see the northern lights.
It’s ideal for those who love the great outdoors but want at least some of the comforts of modern life (like running water), as the forest and lakes are pristine, but the small communities in the area have tourist-friendly accommodations.
The most recommended areas to try to view the northern lights include the Gunflint Trail (least crowded) as well as the Grand Portage and Grand Marais areas.
9. Door County, Wisconsin
This county is more popular as a summer destination. In fact, we have included Baileys Harbor in our list of the best snorkeling sites in the country.
But Door County, which lies on a peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, is also one of the best places to hope to see the aurora borealis.
While it’s not as far north as Alaska, its protected state parks and stretches of farmland mean that there’s less light pollution and the views of the northern lights on the bay are nothing short of spectacular.
10. Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
Another dark sky park, Cherry Springs State Park the Pennsylvania Wilds is the darkest spot in the state and possibly in the entire East Coast.
The public viewing area is only open until a certain time at night, but you can stay the night at Overnight Astronomy Observation Field so that even if you don’t get to see the northern lights, you can still be in the best spot for stargazing and getting to see the Milky Way all night long.
The surrounding Susquehannock State Forest offers opportunities for hiking, picnicking, and other day activities.
Visit nearby Coudersport and tour the historic downtown area as well as the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum to learn about the area’s history.
Final Thoughts On Seeing The Northern Lights In The US
Now that you know the best places to see northern lights in the US, here are some final thoughts.
Be persistent, be patient, and don’t take your eyes off the sky. Also, don’t forget your warm food, warm drinks, and warm clothes; the northern lights are gorgeous, sure, but not worth freezing to death.
Finally, always remember: There’s no guarantee that you will ever see the Northern Lights, but there is a guaranteed way to never see them: don’t go looking.
We’d like to hear from you!
Which of the places above do you want to see? Did I miss anything? Tell me below!