Get us in your inbox

Northern Lights North Dakota
Photograph: Courtesy North Dakota Tourism/Marshall Lipp

The best places to see the Northern Lights in the U.S.

The sky's breathtaking phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis is a sight to behold all around the U.S.

Erika Mailman
Written by
Erika Mailman
Advertising

So many of us crave to see the Northern Lights that we’re willing to book a vacation to be closer to the north where they can be seen. The phenomenon, also called Aurora Borealis, is where dramatic ribbons of lime, rose and other colors can be seen moiling in the sky, rewarding us with a sense of awe and a closeness to the beauty of our universe. The experience can be moving and leave us with a sense of gratitude for our complex universe.

Also, have you met STEVE? He’s an atmospheric optical phenomenon, and his name is an acronym for “strong thermal emission velocity enhancement.” That means he is a purple and green light stripe or arc in the sky—what a life—named in 2016 by folks in Alberta, Canada, enjoying his lovely light. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland is studying the phenomenon using the fun acronym.

Now, brace yourself: the Northern Lights may appear less dramatic in real life than in photographs because cameras have more photoreceptors than our eyes—don’t be surprised if you see something more gray than neon. But many people feel that seeing them, even if they aren’t as brilliant as in a photograph, is impossible to describe or match. Just another drop in the bucket list! Make sure to check each destination for weather conditions and timing to give yourself the best chance of seeing them.

RECOMMENDED: The best places for stargazing in the U.S.

Best places to see the Northern Lights in the U.S.

As our country’s most northern and eastern state, Maine provides excellent chances of seeing the Northern Lights, especially since it’s heavily forested with very low levels of light pollution. The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is an International Dark Sky Sanctuary—Mount Katahdin being an impressive mountain in Baxter State Park, the tallest in the state—and throughout Maine, stargazing events take place to celebrate the “Northern Lights enthusiast’s paradise,” according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

The Northern Lights season here lasts a long time, from August 21 to April 21, and a handy tracker lets you know when your chances are best. Right now, in October, the chances are low. A few places known for spectacular viewing are Chena Lake Recreation Area, just outside the North Pole; the Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge (you must wonder how the birds feel about the Northern Lights!); and Cleary Summit. Most hotels in the area offer you a wake-up call when the Northern Lights appear so you can go to bed knowing you won’t miss anything.

Advertising

A Facebook page of 76,000 members tracks Aurora Borealis throughout the state. People post to let others know of current or about-to-happen auroral activity and to share photos. While the group rules concede that the Northern Lights aren’t standard in Washington like in Alaska, the moderators are excited for people to notify each other when it’s happening. Places that are known to be good for viewing include Cascade Pass inside North Cascades National Park, Carkeek Park in Seattle (far from downtown and its light pollution and with a nice view of the sky over Puget Sound), and Hurricane Ridge at Olympic National Park in Clallam County (although its day lodge was destroyed by fire this May).

Glacier National Park includes many amazing places to settle in and watch the lights. You can see them reflected in the waters of Lake McDonald. You can stay in your tent at the Bowman & Kinta lakes to see them in the backcountry. Other spots include Looking Glass Road or the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (where you can share viewing rights with a bison herd in their paddock). And if you’re more into drinking and merriment than quiet awe, try the Northern Lights Saloon & Cafe in Polebridge for live music and huckleberry pie as you watch together.

Advertising

At the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center in Grand Marais, the All Sky Camera mounted on the museum’s roof captures a 360-degree sky photo every minute from 30 minutes before sunset and 30 minutes after sunrise. The results are unusual: a ball of color with the tips of evergreen trees around the edges; the photo above was taken by the All Sky Camera March 23, 2023 at 10pm. Roughly 40 minutes away, the Grand Portage State Park is also a great place to see the Northern Lights.

Check out the North Dakota Dual Aurora Camera, consisting of a sky-facing cam and a north-facing one, at the state’s Martens Observatory. These provide a livestream of the sky, and get this: the cameras send out a tweet when they identify aurora. Installed in 2020, the cameras provided pandemic viewing for North Dakotans (and all of us via the web). Places in real life to see the Northern Lights? If they’re appearing in the state, they’re available everywhere in the state—but make sure to get outside of city limits to decrease light pollution.

Advertising

With miles of shoreline along Lake Michigan and a lack of big cities with light pollution, Door County positions itself as an excellent place to view the Aurora Borealis. Three recommended places? Rock Island State Park, Washington Island, and especially Newport State Park, named a dark-sky park in 2017. Also, join the Facebook group Great Lakes Aurora Hunters Alerts (38,000 members strong) to share information on where to find the Northern Lights.

Great spaces to park yourself for viewing include the Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City, Port Crescent State Park in Port Austin, and all along the south shoreline of Lake Superior’s Upper Peninsula. The viewing spot at the Eagle Harbor Lighthouse on Lake Superior’s Keweenaw Peninsula is a spectacular place to bask in the eerie skylights.

Advertising

Check out Heyburn State Park on Chatcolet Lake in the town of Plummer, the oldest park in the Pacific Northwest, for wonderful vista points to watch the Aurora Borealis. The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes bike path is a great place to bike and turn your helmet upwards, especially on the bridge over the Chatcolet Lake, St. Joe River, and Round Lake. Also recommended is Schweitzer, where you can hike mountains (or take the ski lift in summer) to get closer to the sky.

There’s a reason a photo of the Northern Lights, as seen in Denali National Park, is featured on the National Park Services’ overview web page on the Aurora Borealis. This park has incredible views because it is so far north and light pollution is almost nil. The National Park Service is involved in studying the night sky. It suggests that visitors to Denali read first about traditional Athabaskan star knowledge and learn the Alaska Native Peoples’ names and stories for the constellations.

 

Recommended
    You may also like
    You may also like
    Advertising