“Aurora Season” officially begins in late August, once it’s dark enough, for long enough, for the Northern Lights to illuminate the night sky. Technically, it’s possible to see them even in early August, when we have just a couple of hours of true darkness in the Southcentral part of the state, but the 5-6 hours or so of night toward the end of the month give you a much better chance to see them, and it only gets darker from there.
So if the Northern Lights are on your bucket list, but so is camping through an Alaska summer, read on for a few tips for spotting the aurora without having to wait for winter!
Check the Forecast
Aurora activity and intensity can be predicted with some accuracy. Follow the website of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute for up to date and future forecasts of location and intensity. You can also check Explore Fairbanks’ Aurora Tracker for day-of forecasts, as well as NOAA’s Space Weather prediction center. Keep at least one or all three of these sites bookmarked and check frequently as, just like weather here on earth, conditions might change!
Head North and Inland
The weather tends to be rainier and cloudier near the coast, so to give yourself the best chance of seeing the aurora, give yourself at least 3 days, and head inland and north. You’ll want to position yourself underneath the “Auroral Oval,” a ring-shaped area surrounding the magnetic north pole where auroral activity tends to concentrate. This includes the Fairbanks area and into the Arctic—which are also known for their clear and cold nights, especially in the wintertime. On nights when the activity is intense, the ring expands and includes other parts of Alaska, including Anchorage, and this happens relatively frequently. However, being underneath that oval will improve your chances even on nights of lesser intensity.
Get out of Town
To get the best photos, you’ll want to reduce the light pollution from other types of light, so getting away from city lights is a good idea, even in Fairbanks. Plenty of cities in Alaska have campgrounds right in the middle of things, and while these sites are a great idea if you want to be where all the action is, you’ll probably want to stay farther away from town if your goal is to see the aurora. While the existence of city lights doesn’t automatically mean you won’t see the aurora—and there are places to go even in the city of Anchorage where it’s possible to see them—if the lights are faint, you don’t want competition with lights on the ground.
Stay up Late (or Get up Early!)
Put your layers on, set up the camp chairs, brew the coffee or the hot chocolate, and be prepared to wait. In late August, you may have to stay up until the wee hours before it’s dark enough for good aurora viewing, and even on long nights, sometimes the best viewing isn’t until after midnight. You’ll have plenty of time to test your camera gear, practice on the stars, and be ready. Sometimes the show lasts all night, and sometimes it’s fleeting. Check out Explore Fairbanks’ tips on getting good aurora photos.
Book a Guide
Or, you can do it the easy way and let someone else do the work of forecasting and finding the good spots, and you can just go along for the ride! You can also work with a guide on your first night, and then go out DIY aurora hunting during the rest of your trip. There are many guides and tour companies based in Anchorage and Fairbanks that can help you find the best spots and the best times to get those iconic photos.
Book your late summer or fall van rental now, and boost your chances of seeing the aurora!