It was just about this time last year, when I was making my travel bucket list. One of the things that I wanted to do was see the northern lights. Sure, I had seen them once in passing before, while staying at a sheep farm in Greenland. I also traveled to Lapland, Finland and stayed at the famous glass igloo resort. But it snowed the entire time I was there and I couldn’t see any northern lights. So, this time I decided to plan a trip to Alaska, which is one of the best places in the world to see Aurora Borealis aka the northern lights.
Where in Alaska?
The city of Fairbanks is one of the best places to see the northern lights. You can fly directly into Fairbanks International Airport (most flights come from Seattle) and start your adventure right away. There are nice hotels, restaurants, museums, and a quaint downtown, where you can shop for souvenirs, fishing gear and sportswear. If you time it properly, you can even see the annual World Ice Art Championships or the Iditarod iron dog mushing race. Both attract participants and spectators from around the world.
If you want to double your chances to see a northern lights spectacle, head further north to Chena Hot Springs, or the villages of Barrow, Nome, Anaktuvuk Pass, Bettles, and Fort Yukon. Bear in mind, driving can be difficult in the vast and remote wilderness. There are often icy roads, moose crossings, no cellphone reception, and scarce facilities along the highways. You may not see another car or human for miles or hours!
Best Places To Stay
There are many motels and hotels in Fairbanks. Spend a couple of days at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge located on the banks of the Chena River, and a mile away from Fairbanks International Airport. They offer free airport transfers, family-style breakfast and a small sauna. There’s also a great chef driven restaurant – Pike’s Landing, right next door. The lodge is somewhat rustic, but that sets the tone for an adventure trip. The rooms are comfortable and have balconies overlooking the river and fireplaces to keep you cozy. The main reason to stay here vs. in downtown is of course, the northern lights. You can visit the aurora conservatory on site, sit by the fire pit under the stars, and opt to receive a Northern Lights Wake-Up Call. This means the front desk will call your room to let you know when the lights are out.
Chena Hot Springs Resort is a must during your northern lights visit to Alaska. Set on 440 acres, the wilderness resort offers comfortable accommodation and lots of on-site activities.
Most popularly known for its healing hot springs, Chena has all-natural mineral-rich indoor pool and outdoor lake, reaching temperatures of 106F. Now, it may be a daunting idea to get in a bathing suit when its freezing outside, but once you get into the springs, you feel instantly relaxed. Your eyelashes may have icicles on them, but thats a different story.
There is an ice museum with ice rooms and sculptures, and ice chapel. Get married here, or just drink an apple martini out of an ice glass! The geothermal power plant and greenhouse on the property are also worth visiting, as you get to see how your food is grown sustainability in a remote location. This is where most of the food that is served in the resort’s restaurant comes from. Other fun outdoor winter activities while at Chena are dog mushing (make sure to stop by the kennels to see Alaskan Husky), snow machining, ice skating, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing.
Of course, the main reason to visit Chena Hot Springs during winter is to see the northern lights. And you may see them from your bedroom window. But each night, the resort offers a guided tour, where you ride on military grade SUSV snow trucks up to the top of Charlie Dome. On the top of the mountain, there is zero light pollution and pin drop silence. You will feel like you are in a winter wonderland, with nothing but snow as far as your eyes can see. And hopefully, a star studded sky filled with colorful Auroras as well. Don’t worry, you won’t be outside in negative temperatures. There is a yurt with space heaters, hot chocolate and Ramen noodles set up by Chena.
Seeing the northern lights at Chena was the highlight of my trip. I watched the most unbelievable display of green, red, orange and purple hues covering the entire sky. The display started as soon as we got to the top of the mountain and lasted the entire night.
What Else To Do, Besides The Lights?
It is worth spending a day to explore downtown Fairbanks. There are many historic buildings dating back to gold rush days, a vibrant contemporary art scene, an array of delicious eating and drinking establishments, museums, shops, a cultural and visitors center and, in the center of town, iconic Golden Heart Plaza. Make sure to keep an eye out for painted steam vents, murals, sculptures, and other unexpected public artworks around town.
There are a number of distilleries and breweries, all of which have free tours and tastings. Don’t forget to try the Alaskan potato vodka! Also, there are over 40 Thai restaurants in the area that cook spicy dishes using Alaskan seafood, such as red king crab, Alaskan snow crab, wild caught halibut, and Copper River sockeye salmon.
The University of Alaska Museum of the North is a great place to orient yourself to the landscapes, wildlife and culture of northern Alaska. They also have exhibits and movies about the northern lights, so you can learn the science behind them.
Alaska seems like an odd location to see antique cars, but the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum is pretty cool. This small museum has perfectly-restored early 20th-century luxury cars, 85 American vehicles from early race cars and elegant classics. Almost all these rolling antiques are driven during summer, to ensure they are still operable.
The World Ice Art Championships is an ice sculpting contest in Fairbanks produced on by Ice Alaska, a non-profit corporation started in 1989. The contest is the largest of its kind in the world and attended by more than 100 sculptors from 30 countries every year. Plan to spend at least an hour or two walking around life-size and larger, handmade, ice sculptures. The artists themselves are often hanging out around their pieces, so feel free to ask them about their incredible work.
If you haven’t tried your hands on ice fishing, Fairbanks is a great place to do that! Rod is a local fisherman who takes groups on ice fishing tours lasting from a few hours to a few days. You drive straight on to the frozen river, and dig a hole through four feet of clear ice to lower your reels. The best part is that the entire expedition takes place inside a warm and sheltered mobile log cabin, so you are not out in the cold. Also, if you happen to catch some salmon, arctic char or rainbow trout, your guide will happily cook it for you or ship it back home.
Another unique experience near Fairbanks is walking with the reindeers. Running Reindeer is a family-run reindeer ranch where you can get up close to these cute Arctic creatures. Jane started the ranch when she purchased one reindeer for her daughter as a pet. Over the years, she has rescued and cared for hundreds of animals. Now, they roam free in her backyard which is a boreal forest. On the guided tour, you can learn about reindeers, hike around the property and even pose for a photo.
The Arctic Circle
You may think you are pretty up north when you are in Fairbanks, and you are, but not quite inside the Arctic! Fairbanks is about 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, so you need to either drive or fly to say that you have been to the Arctic. Northern Alaska Tour Company offers an easy 1-hour small plane flight that can take you from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle tour, and bring you back by road or air. The aerial tour offers great views of the mountains, Yukon river, remote villages, and even some wildlife. While in the Arctic, you also get a guided tour of Coldfoot. It is a very small and scenic town nestled in the Brooks Mountain Range. Here you can get up close to see the famous Alaska pipeline, and talk to locals about living in the Arctic.
The Aurora Pointe Activity Center is a great place to not only watch, but also learn about the northern lights. Located just a few minutes outside the city, the secluded location offers more space to see the aurora borealis, while enjoying the luxurious of a modern lodge. Alaska-native Kory Eberhard tells you all about northern lights activity, forecasting, photography and their own personal experiences. There are also live cameras, drinks and snacks, so you can stay up all night!
Tips For Seeing The Northern Lights
The northern lights/ auroras are a natural phenomena. There is no guarantee that you will get to see this magical light show and with your desired intensity. But the chances of seeing them are very high when you spend three or more days near Fairbanks. The most important thing is that you have to be OUTSIDE and AWAKE late at night to be able to see the northern lights. Sometimes the lights don’t appear till midnight, and other times they intensify through the night. Plan to stay up all night if you want to see a good show! There are many meteorological forecasts that try to track and predict the northern lights. I found like most weather forecasts, they are not always 100% accurate.
Secondly, temperature in Alaska during this time can range from low of -25F at night to +15F during the day. So, it is very important to dress appropriately. I was honestly scared of traveling to Alaska in the dead of winter. But because I dressed carefully in lots of layers, I never felt uncomfortable. Generally speaking, you need at least 2-3 layers of pants, sweaters, hats, gloves/ mittens, and socks – I am not kidding! You may also consider carrying lots of hand and toe warmers for when you are doing your winter sports. Prepare to spend a lot of time outdoors, especially at night when you are waiting for the lights to appear.
Night sky photography can be tricky, specially when it’s below freezing outside. My point-and-shoot Canon captured only black skies, though my iPhone 11 did the trick. Make sure to bring a tripod for stability, a clicker so you don’t have to keep touching the screen, and battery packs because the cold drains the phone battery very quickly.
When To Go?
The northern lights are visible from October to April in northern Alaska. However, their visibility is better in the colder winter months when the sun’s rays fall around the poles. After tons of research, I also found that the lights are super vibrant during spring equinox (mid March). During the equinox, the earth’s axis aligns at the best angle for the magnetic field to receive the sun’s particles. Also, it is towards the end of winter, so temperatures are not as bone chilling, and the sun sets between 5-6pm.
Want to travel to Alaska with me? Reach out to info at goeatgive dot com, and allow me to curate your once-in-a-lifetime adventure to see the northern lights!