Where To See The Aurora Borealis in North America
Live the ultimate winter adventure by traveling north for this colorful phenomenon
Felicity—a 20-something travel lover—has teamed up with friends from around the world to provide readers with local, insider knowledge on today’s most awe-inspiring destinations. Through writing, photography, and video they’ll share the best tricks and tips for experiencing a place authentically and getting off-the-beaten-path.
What happens when electrons and protons from the sun’s surface collide with the earth’s magnetic field? The northern lights (a.k.a "the aurora borealis" a.k.a. "north wind of the dawn") appear!
Sure, science can explain things like why these lights appear in the far north (or far south, as the aurora australis do), or why their colors vary according to the type of gas particles colliding, but as far as I’m concerned, the aurora borealis are simply magic. The few opportunities I’ve had to see them were some of the most spellbinding experiences of my life. The first time I watched them, late one frozen northern night, they didn’t appear in the sky and hold their form. Rather, they twisted, slid, curled, flared, faded, and glowed, a bending palette of color that my eyes had difficulty focusing on. At first this was unsettling, since I couldn’t get a grasp on what I was seeing, but eventually I relaxed. I tilted my chin up, and let this pure wonder shape-shift above me for hours.
If you’d like to experience the aurora for yourself, here’s some great news: several of the world’s best destinations for northern lights are located on this very continent. That’s right! All you’ve got to do is go north (ok, very far north) for a chance to see them. I’ve put together a guide for where (and when) to go, but first we’ll start with a few tips.
First and foremost, remember that we’re dealing with nature here, and nature cannot be scheduled. Just because you travel towards the arctic in the fall, winter, or spring, does not mean you are guaranteed to see the northern lights. Every once in awhile they're about as easy to find as a unicorn, so it’s best to head north with some research under your belt, and the right expectations.
Secondly, it’s important to know that an ideal night to view the aurora is one that's extremely dark, clear, preferably moonless, and in an area with little to no light pollution. In other words, you don't want to be standing in the middle of town at twilight.
Finally, because the northern lights’ appearance is (in part) dependent on the weather, it’s best to book yourself at least a week-long trip to increase your chances of seeing them. If you only pop up for a few days and the skies are overcast, you might be out of luck.
Now that we know the ideal aurora conditions, let’s look at the places in North America they’re most likely to appear!
Where To Go: The Yukon, Canada
I’ll be featuring a number of Canadian destinations in this post, which will likely surprise no one. After all, our friends to the north possess some incredible places for winter adventure in general, meaning your trip can include both aurora viewing and experiences like dog sledding, snowmobiling, and ice fishing. While it’s possible to spot northern lights from multiple locations around Canada, the prime destinations are the Yukon, the Northwest Territories (NWT), and the northern part of Manitoba.
The Yukon’s unofficial aurora season extends from mid-August to mid-April, but the best time to visit is during the first few weeks of winter. Whitehorse, the territory’s spirited capital of 25,000 people, makes for a good home base, as there are a plethora of northern lights viewing experiences available. Go on a tour from town, or book into the Boreale Ranch (about a thirty minute drive south of Whitehorse) for the opportunity to view the lights from the comfort of your bedroom balcony.
Where To Go: The Northwest Territories, Canada
Yellowknife, NWT is one of the world’s most popular northern destinations. Consider visiting in March, when the town celebrates its vibrant annual Snowking Festival. They carve a castle (yes, a legit castle) out of snow on the frozen bay, and it becomes the epicentre for a month of live music, family events, a film fest, hockey tournament, and much more.
It’s best to stay in Yellowknife, but in the evenings head to Aurora Village; these tours take you out to a wilderness camp designed specifically for northern lights viewing in style. Entirely Aboriginal-owned, Aurora Village consists of twenty-one white teepees dotting the shores of a remote lake, each with its own warming wood stove and selection of hot drinks to keep guests comfortable. There’s also an option for dinner in their cozy dining room, with a menu featuring local specialities like Great Slave Lake whitefish and bannock pudding.
Where To Go: Northern Manitoba, Canada
My last Canadian recommendation is Churchill, a remarkable town that’s located on the shores of the Hudson Bay in Northern Manitoba. It’s famous for a number of reasons: polar bears (migrating through from July to November), beluga whales (swimming by mid-June to mid-September), and excellent northern lights (at their strongest in February and March). While it’s very unlikely to see all three in one trip, there's still the possibility of some overlap.
Frontiers North offers night tours in their Tundra Buggies, which cross the frozen Churchill River to Thanadelthur Lounge, a viewing location away from any light pollution. As of 2019, there’s also Dan Diner’s, a mobile dining hall tucked into the wilderness that offers regional cuisine!
Where To Go: Alaska
Right next to the Yukon, Alaska is also a wonderful option, and since it’s located under the ‘aurora oval’, Fairbanks is the state’s most reliable spot for viewing. It’s best to book a trip during the darkest time of the year—from September to mid-April—when there are typically clear skies and frequent displays. If you’re looking to go super remote (and green), Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Lodge is an off-grid, 100% solar-powered luxury resort located 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
What You Should Bring/Can't Miss
Now that you have your pick of North American destinations (aren’t we lucky to have so many?), here are a few other tips I’ve picked up during my northern travels:
-Pack for any and all weather that could potentially appear! The last thing you want during the thrill of an aurora sighting is to be miserably cold. If you don’t own proper winter gear, either rent it from an outdoors store at home, or from a tour operator up north (there are many that offer rentals).
-If you’re planning to take photos, a tripod is clutch. So are spare batteries (the cold works its way through them quite quickly), a super wide lens if you have it, and a headlamp to turn on while you’re setting up your equipment.
-Choose a destination that offers other activities and experiences you’re interested in, like snowshoeing, fat biking, or dog sledding. Not only will these adventures be a great way to fill your day, but if the night skies aren’t cooperating, they’ll also make your trip 100% worthwhile.
-Finally, if you find yourself in...
….Whitehorse, throw on your bathing suit and head to the Takhini Hot Pools!
….Yellowknife, a visit to Bullocks Bistro is a must (arrive hungry)
….Churchill, the apple fritters at Gypsy’s are absolutely worth the lineup
….Fairbanks, visit Silver Gulch Brewing & Bottling Co. to experience America’s northernmost brewery!