Otherworldly, magical, enchanting and captivating — these are just a few of the words people have used to describe the stunning Aurora Borealis, also known as the northern lights.
Charged particles from the sun entering the Earth’s atmosphere create the vibrant colors — greens, blues, violets, reds, pinks and yellows — that shimmer and swirl in the night sky. Even though the chances of seeing these lights dramatically increase the farther north you go, you don’t have to travel to the Arctic to cross this off your bucket list. You can see them in several destinations across the USA.
1. Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska
With nearly 2.5 million hectares of untouched wilderness, Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, located about 383 kilometers north of Anchorage, is a favorite destination for campers and hikers because of its wide open spaces, beautiful mountain vistas and abundant wildlife. The park is also one of the best places in the U.S. to see the northern lights, thanks to the lack of light pollution. Fall is the best season to get the clearest view of the dancing auroras. You may even see the lights as early as the second week in August.
Fairbanks, which is located less than 200 kilometers northeast of the park, also sees some incredible light shows, thanks to its location in the auroral oval, an area around the North Pole where auroras frequently occur.
Denali National Park in Alaska is a great place to see the northern lights. Be sure to bundle up — it gets pretty cold at night.
2. Idaho Panhandle National Forest, Idaho
Idaho probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when thinking of the northern lights, which is part of what makes each sighting over Priest Lake and the Idaho Panhandle National Forest such an incredible treat. During the winter, these locations, which are about 80 kilometers south of the Canadian border and 150 kilometers northeast of Spokane, Washington, offer the dark, clear skies ideal for northern lights viewing. The aurora often reflects off the lake, providing a special mirrored perspective of nature’s light show. Photographers flock to Priest Lake to compose images of northern lights set against the mountainous backdrop.
The stunning Idaho Panhandle National Forest creates the perfect backdrop for northern lights, complete with mountains and a beautiful warm water lake.
3. Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge, Maine
Located on the U.S.-Canadian border roughly 250 kilometers north of Bangor, Maine, Aroostook County is sparsely populated, so there’s little to no light pollution to obstruct your aurora screening. Although the northern lights are more common near the Arctic, this county is far enough north for the Aurora Borealis to make an appearance. Set up camp in Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses more than 2,100 hectares of wetlands, forest and grasslands that are home to such critters as moose and black bears. Crisp, clear winter nights are most common for aurora viewing in Aroostook. However, sightings are possible in the spring and fall, when magnetic storm activity is strongest.
Areas like Milo, Maine, and Aroostook County make spectacular places to catch the northern lights — and some epic star trails, if you’re lucky.
4. Cook County, Minnesota
Cook County — at the northeastern tip of Minnesota along the shores of Lake Superior, roughly 400 kilometers northeast of Minneapolis — offers plenty of outdoor spaces to lie back and watch the lights. This area is also home to Minnesota’s tallest mountain peaks and highest waterfall, High Falls, all of which offer a stunning backdrop for the multicolored sky. Locals go to Oberg Mountain in the Superior National Forest to capture views of the aurora casting its glow over Lake Superior, Oberg Lake and Moose Mountain. Thanks to Cook County’s northern location and dark skies, the aurora is often easy to see between late fall and early spring.
The vast dark skies of Cook County, Minnesota, make the perfect canvas for the bright violet, pink and yellow northern lights.
5. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is one of the northernmost parts of the continental USA, extending out into Lake Superior about 410 kilometers from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Aurora sightings are quite common in the region, with many residents able to catch the dancing lights from their backyards. For the best chance at catching the lights, head to Marquette, the major port on Lake Superior, or the Keweenaw Peninsula, the state’s northernmost area. On a clear night, the northern lights reflect off the largest lake in North America, creating a spectacular show.
To catch the northern lights on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, head to Marquette or Keweenaw Peninsula.