The northern lights are one of the most stunning natural phenomena mankind can experience. Ancient Inuit Indians believed that the stunning display of rippling colors had magical properties or were the spirits of the departed dancing across the sky.
The scientific explanation is a bit less enchanting, but no less intriguing. The northern lights are a result of solar activity and occur when charged particles from the sun enter the magnetic field of the earth. This causes the molecules to glow in a variety of colors including green and yellow (the most common) as well as blue, purple, and even red. In addition to the glowing colors, the northern lights will "dance" across the sky. At their peak they will resemble vast vertical curtains stretching east to west that seem to undulate and flow in a phantom wind. This is why no picture could ever compare to experiencing this phenomena in person.
While the northern lights can be difficult to predict, there are two key things that can make or break your chances of seeing them while in Alaska. Its about being in the right place at the right time.
Choose the Right Time
We don't possess the technology to precisely predict the solar activity that causes the northern lights. We do know, however, that the chances of seeing them are greatest on dark nights with clear skies. This means you should plan your trip in spring or fall when there are longer periods of darkness without the drastically cold temperatures of winter. Many parts of Alaska have shortened or non-existent periods of darkness in the summer, making it virtually impossible to see the northern lights.
Additionally, observers have noted that displays tend to get more intense and frequent around the equinox in March and September. Spring time in Alaska tends to have the clearest skies, so your best bet for seeing the northern lights would be in March on night with a new moon so there is no lunar light to interfere with the show.
Choose the Right Place
Generally, the rule of thumb when choosing the right location is to head as far north as possible. The phenomena that causes these celestial lights occurs near the magnetic north and south poles. The good news, though, is that you don't need to hike through miles of frozen wasteland to get a good view.
Fairbanks is the most popular destination for those hoping to see the northern lights. It's far enough north to see frequent displays but is still easily accessible via the airport and is a large enough city to have many accommodation options. The best place to see the lights in the area is Cleary Summit which is located approx. 17 miles away. It is easy to drive to, has plenty of parking, and provides a clear view of the horizon.
If you wish to use a guide, there are several northern light tour options that start in Fairbanks which will take you out to some of the more remote northern locations where the lights have been known to be the brightest and strongest.
No matter how you choose to see them, if the northern lights are on your bucket list you've got to be at the right place at the right time.