America’s 49th state is one of the world’s best places to check off a bucket-list experience: gazing up at the northern lights, or aurora borealis over Alaska.
No matter the name, the colorful streams of light that dance through the dark night sky are something that draws travelers from across the globe to catch the breathtaking display.
While they can occur in any season, with the Midnight Sun of summer the best time is from August through April when the days aren’t as long.
Where are the best places in Alaska to see the Northern Lights?
The optimal place for viewing is on the outskirts or further away from cities and smaller towns with ambient light that makes it difficult to see the aurora. The best places to see the Northern Lights in Alaska are, therefore:
- Denali National Park
- Chugach State Park
- Chena Hot Springs
- The North Pole
While they make be spotted anywhere in Alaska, they’re most often visible in the Arctic and Interior regions, with these destinations particularly ideal.
Denali National Park
By visiting Denali National Park and Preserve, not only can you take advantage of some of the best wildlife watching on the planet, but marvel at the northern lights.
It’s light-pollution free and open throughout the year, with September one of the best months for enjoying a variety of experiences along with the opportunity to catch the aurora.
During this month, the summer crowds have left while the weather is often cool and crisp with autumn colors already blanketing the spectacular landscapes.
Mountains are often snow-capped which accentuates the beauty of Denali, yet snow typically doesn’t begin to accumulate at the lower elevations until at least late September which makes it easier to get around.
The main road will be open day and night, with a late drive providing the ideal chance for Mother Nature’s incredible show.
During the day keep an eye out for the wildlife that will be making the most of the land before winter returns – bull moose with massive antlers are often seen while bears are actively feeding to fatten up.
Chugach State Park
Even if you don’t plan on venturing much further than Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city by far, it’s possible to see the northern lights.
One of the best ways to do it is to take a small-group tour that travels to Chugach State Park, less than a 20-minute drive away.
As the goal for many is to capture photos of the light show, which can be challenging, the Anchorage Aurora Quest is a northern lights photo tour that will help you make the most of it.
Led by a professional photographer/guide, photo tours include expert photographic coaching and an unforgettable nighttime adventure.
Your guide will bring you to the very best place to catch the aurora.
It’s possible to book just one night or a multi-day pass for a better chance of success.
Those who prefer to head out on their own should drive to the Glen Alps trailhead overlook, perched at 2,200 feet in elevation.
It’s considered the best destination near Anchorage for viewing – while the distant glow from the city may produce some interference, it has a vast, unobstructed view to the north.
The best easily accessible place for aurora viewing in Alaska is arguably Fairbanks.
Located about 180 miles south of the Arctic Circle at 64° N, the colorful lights frequently appear in the dark night skies above the city, although you’ll have a much better view from the outskirts or a little further away.
You can rent a four-wheel drive vehicle and travel on your own to Cleary Summit, 11 miles from town, for a good chance to spot them.
Just be sure that you’re confident in your winter driving skills. Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge is a bit easier to reach just two miles from downtown with great visibility and little light pollution.
By bringing a flashlight or headlamp and some snowshoes, you can hit one of the many short trails as well.
Another option is to join a guided tour available through multiple local outfitters.
A number of hotels like Aurora Borealis Lodge offer aurora tours as well.
Chena Hot Springs Resort
About 20 miles from Fairbanks, the Chena Lake Recreation Area is a fantastic spot.
It covers 2,000 acres with a large lake and many wide open areas far from city lights.
Just northeast is remote Chena Hot Springs Resort which provides an ideal base for viewing – in fact, you might be able to watch the aurora while soaking in the soothing warm pools.
An alert will be sent out when the lights appear through the property’s aurora alarm service to ensure you don’t miss them if you’re sleeping.
For an even better chance of watching, guests can join one of the night snow coach tours that travels to a higher elevation to search for the magical phenomenon.
The resort also hosts a renowned Aurora Ice Museum, sleigh rides, ice skating, dog-sledding tours, and other excursions.
Another option in the Fairbanks area is the North Pole.
Not the North Pole, but the town, just a 20-minute drive southeast of Fairbanks.
By basing yourself here you can enjoy its many delights which include Christmas year-round with its top attraction the Santa Claus House.
A huge store with practically endless aisles of holiday ornaments and toys, a 42-foot-high statue of Santa, a live Santa that will listen to your Christmas wishes, and walls that are covered with letters written to Santa from kids across the globe.
In addition to doing some shopping for Christmas, during the day you can rent an ice fishing house and test your skills and luck at catching rainbow trout, silver salmon, or Arctic char through the pre-drilled ice holes.
Or, hit the trails on cross-country skis.
If you’re here in December, you can enjoy the annual Winter Festival which features ice sculptures, activities, and fireworks.
It’s a great place to mail your Christmas cards as the envelopes will be stamped from Santa’s official zip code.
After dark, simply drive around the lake, parking your car by the jetty, and watch the night’s sky.
If you want to get really remote, consider Nome, a town with a rich history as a former gold rush town that sits along the Bering Sea.
There are direct flights from Anchorage via Alaska Airlines and it’s a great place to experience rural Alaska.
Plus, you’ll only have to head out of a town a mile or two for a wide view of the night’s skies.
March is ideal as you’ll be able to watch the finish of the famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
If Nome isn’t remote enough, how about the extreme northern edge of the state? Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, offers the ultimate destination for adventurers.
Located above the Arctic Circle, you’ll have a front row seat for watching the aurora borealis along with the chance to learn about the indigenous Inupiat and their culture.
The Inupiat Heritage Center, referred to as the “rooftop of the world,” tells the story of the native people who’ve thrived for thousands of years in this harsh climate.
Just being here, you’ll be immersed in a world of dogsledding, traditional Arctic games, and a stunning winter wonderland highlighted by brilliant color when the display appears in the dark skies.
There are aurora viewing tours available and at most hotels the staff will be happy to give you a wake-up call when the northern lights appear.