Have you ever wanted to go see the northern lights? Planning an adventure to see one of nature’s most awesome spectacles might feel a bit out of reach. The countries often associated with the best views of the aurora borealis, such as Finland, Norway and Sweden, require U.S. travelers to head overseas.
But for those who want to stick a little closer to home, North America actually has numerous locations where the northern lights occasionally put on a fantastic celestial show.
The northern lights occur when charged particles from the sun collide with the earth’s magnetic field, according to NASA. A similar phenomenon happens in the Southern Hemisphere, where it’s known as the aurora australis, or southern lights.
The northern lights happen year-round. However, each year from late fall through the winter months, the aurora borealis hits its peak visibility thanks to darker and longer nights. To get the best views of the aurora effects, you’ll need to be a night owl. They usually hit their peak between 11 p.m. and midnight.
Whether you want to stay within the U.S. or venture north into Canada, here are five top spots to see the northern lights in North America.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Head to the upper peninsula of Michigan and you just might catch some of the colors in the sky. The U.P., as the locals call it, has notoriously dark skies due to minimal light pollution — the region has a low population density. This makes for prime viewing conditions.
In Mackinaw City, Headlands International Dark Sky Park offers visitors the chance to bring blankets to watch the night sky and get a glimpse of the northern lights. It can be hard to predict when they will happen, but the park’s official website offers forecasts and tips for better viewing experiences. Visitors can also rent a Vrbo if they want to stay in or around the park grounds.
In this Facebook post, the park explains that viewing opportunities aren’t particularly common, but they’ll try to help eager skywatchers if they can.
Millinocket Lake and Mount Katahdin, Maine
Maine’s nickname is “Vacationland” for a reason. Yes, there are many beaches to enjoy in the summer. But, in the winter months, skywatchers can visit the peaceful locale of Millinocket Lake and Mount Katahdin to explore the northern lights.
The New England Outdoor Center (NEOC) often shares videos and photos of the aurora borealis from its location on the shores of the lake and the base of the mountain. Check out the NEOC website to get more information about planning your northern lights trip.
This video of the northern lights as seen from the area was posted by the NEOC late last year.
Panhandle National Forests, Idaho
Space Tourism Guide lists Panhandle National Forest in the northern part of Idaho as one of the top U.S. locations to see the northern lights. According to the website, the best place to start is the Panhandle National Forests in Coeur d’Alene, and you can visit the ranger’s office to get the latest information before heading into the forest. Want to spend the night in the forest? Reserve a cabin to get the full immersive experience.
Look how gorgeous this comet view from the area is! This image was posted by the U.S. Forest Service.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia ranks as one of the nation’s most popular parks — and for good reason. It has one of the biggest dark sky areas in New England. Cadillac Mountain may be the top spot (geographically and popularity-wise) in the park, but for good stargazing, head to Sand Beach. There’s minimal light pollution there, so your chances of seeing the aurora borealis are better.
Here’s an image the park posted on its social media a few years back showing one stellar view of the lights:
Cook County, Minnesota
When the county features the northern lights as part of its tourism publicity, then you know you’re on to something good. Cook County, Minnesota has an entire website dedicated to planning a trip to the area to get the best views of the aurora. You can even download driving routes to get you to the best vantage points around the county. The northern lights appear year-round in the area, although peak viewing time is from late fall into the winter.
The county also posts updates on its social media, so you know what your chances are of catching this natural phenomenon:
Head to the northernmost state in the U.S. to experience perhaps the best viewing of the northern lights. Visitors and residents of Fairbanks can see the northern nights “four out of five nights when the sky is clear and dark enough,” according to the Explore Fairbanks Alaska website.
It’s one of the few destinations where you can almost guarantee a viewing. Plan a guided tour to see them from a forest, while traveling on a dog sled or even flying in a plane over the Arctic Circle.
Here’s an image of what you can expect on a clear night, with a link to Explore’s aurora tracker:
Big Seven Travel ranks Yukon, Canada as the second-best North American location to see the northern lights (right behind Fairbanks). How easy is it to see the lights there? In cities like Whitehorse, the lights often show up soon after the sunsets and can be seen through the wee hours of the morning. Entire tours can be booked around northern lights viewing opportunities.
The northern lights make an appearance in the skies over Churchill approximately 300 nights a year! Its position in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere put it at the rim of the magnetic north pole. The closer a location is to the pole, the brighter and more frequent the aurora effect.
And of course, Churchill is also known for being one of the best places to see polar bears in the wild, so you definitely want to make this place your next vacation destination.
Check out this amazing view captured on film and posted to the Northern Churchill Studies Centre’s Facebook page:
Many of these locations book up quickly in the peak season. So, before packing your bags and heading northward bound, take some time to check out travel resources for each area to maximize your exploration time!
By Marie Rossiter, for Scripps News.
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