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The Very Best Time to See the Northern Lights in Alaska

29 September 2022

The northern lights, the aurora borealis, nature's most phenomenal show: Whatever you want to call it, the colorful lights that dance across the sky are truly mesmerizing. The experience seems otherworldly, and in some ways, it very much is, as the display results from solar wind and flares shooting charged particles into space. As these particles make their way into the earth's atmosphere, they collide with gasses like oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and helium - each reaction resulting in a different color. Red, purple, blue, yellow, green, and opal hues appear from time to time, and sometimes, they all come out to play.

These interactions happen throughout the day year-round, but they are only visible to the naked eye when the conditions are just right. Both the weather and the solar activity have to cooperate, and there needs to be minimal light pollution - both from natural and manufactured sources - overtaking the sky. And most importantly, you must be within the auroral oval, an atmospheric boundary that extends approximately 1,550 miles around the earth's magnetic poles. Many admirers think that for these terms to be met, you must travel to remote destinations like northern Canada, Norway, Finland, or the Swedish Lapland, but luckily, that is not the case. There is a perfect destination right in the United States: Alaska.

Much of America's Last Frontier is within the auroral oval, and the remainder is in its periphery. Furthermore, Alaska, while by far the largest of the states, with 665,000 square miles of land, has one of the least developed landscapes, offering plenty of remote locales left to nature. Before you hop on a plane, hang tight and discover the best time to see the northern lights in Alaska.

Borealis Basecamp Aurora

Aurora Season

If you stay up late enough, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the northern lights at any time of year. When we say late, we mean really late, though. Alaska is known as the land of the Midnight Sun for a good reason. During the height of summer, some northern cities do not see a sunset for two whole months between mid-May and July. Even when the sun dims for a few hours between "day" and "night," it looks more like sunrise or dusk than nighttime. These conditions make it nearly impossible to see the aurora borealis; it requires the main stage for its performance.

Prime aurora season, therefore, falls between August and April, when the nights have plenty of time to settle into complete darkness. After the summer solstice in late June, the days gradually become shorter, minutes at a time, until eventually, night hours overtake those of daylight. Usually, when Alaska's short autumn departs and winter overtakes the landscape, the timing is just about ideal. The peak window within the aurora season falls deep in the heart of winter in the months from January to March.

It is no wonder that many Alaska northern lights tours occur at this time. Snow has laid its claim to the landscape, blanketing everything in its powdery embrace, and the state transforms into a true winter wonderland. Winter adventures are aplenty. This winning combination guarantees your days are just as fulfilling as your nights spent chasing colorful skies.

Aurora Winter Train Ken Edmier

The Best Time to See the Northern Lights Within Aurora Season

The darkest days of winter are some of the best to see the aurora, as your adventures do not have to run deep into the night. Visiting places like Fairbanks, Alaska, or Barrows in the far northern portion of the state increase your opportunities even more, as they have a much shorter daylight window. Barrow, specifically, sits in near darkness for 67 days. No matter where you are, the best hours to view the northern lights in Alaska fall between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.

Remember that the aurora borealis is unpredictable and cannot be guaranteed, even if you visit the darkest locale on the darkest day precisely within the peak time frame. Many factors come into play, including the cloud cover overhead, the moon phase, and the amount of solar activity occurring during any specific day that can lead to more or less magic above. For the most success in your endeavors, check the aurora forecast before heading out into the backcountry.

Dog Sledding

Wintertime Northern Lights Tours

Now that you know when the best time to see the northern lights falls, you are ready to choose a trip that highlights this spectacle in the best possible way. Vacations By Rail offers an array of vacation packages to choose from, including:

  • Aurora Viewing at Bettles Lodge - Travel from coastal Anchorage deep into the Golden Heart of Alaska, Fairbanks, aboard the iconic Alaska Railroad. On arrival, transfer to Bettles Lodge by coach, enjoying views of vast nothingness as you travel 35 miles north of the arctic circle. In Bettles, you have two days to enjoy all of Alaska's wintertime splendors, including aurora viewing.
  • Northern Lights at Borealis Basecamp - Spend your time in Alaska steeped in the wilderness and northern light views as you begin this journey in Fairbanks. From here, venture just outside the city, but find yourself feeling worlds apart from urban life as you spend two nights sleeping in a fiberglass dome at Borealis Basecamp. The opportunities to see the aurora here are unmatched. Finish your journey by transferring from the camp to Fairbanks and riding the Alaska Railroad's Aurora Winter Train to Anchorage.
  • Alaska Winterland and Northern Lights - Immerse yourself in the winter wonders of Alaska on this independent tour that takes you to the state by private car, beloved rail line, and sky. Spend time in Anchorage, Girdwood, and at the serene Alyeska Resort just outside Girdwood before joining the Alaska Railroad's Aurora Winter Train to Fairbanks. Here, venture deeper into the landscape to Chena Hot Springs Resort for a two-night stay in a premier northern light viewing location. The journey wraps up as you fly over the inspiring landscape back to Anchorage.

Can't choose? We don't blame you. Our Rail Experts are here to help. Contact us today, and let us help make your northern light dreams come true.