Witnessing the ethereal dance of the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, is a captivating experience, and while Alaska might be famed for its vibrant displays, there are several spots within the contiguous United States where this natural phenomenon paints the night sky.
Away from the bright lights of the city, areas with clear, dark skies offer the best viewing opportunities. In the northern reaches of the country, states like Minnesota, Michigan, and Maine serve as prime locales. The remote stretches of the Upper Peninsula or the tranquil lakeshores of Voyageurs National Park provide backdrops where the Northern Lights shimmer above, revealing hues of green, pink, and violet to the lucky observers below.
Discover where to see northern lights in USA for a glimpse at one of nature’s most spectacular shows without venturing to the Alaskan frontier.
What Are The Northern Lights
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are a celestial party of light dancing across the night sky, with a palette of colors that can range from ghostly greens to deep purples, with occasional hues of pink and red. This stunning natural phenomenon occurs when charged particles ejected from the sun, known as the solar wind, travel across space and interact with Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere.
As these particles collide with gases like oxygen and nitrogen in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, they excite these atoms, causing them to light up. The color variations are due to the type of gas being ionized and the altitude at which the interaction occurs; for example, oxygen at about 60 miles up gives off a greenish glow, the most common color, while reds are produced at higher altitudes, and nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red.
The lights are seen around the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres (where they are known as the Aurora Australis), and their strength and visibility are affected by the activity of the sun. During periods of high solar activity, auroras can be seen at lower latitudes than usual. Their occurrence is not random; they follow the 11-year solar cycle, peaking at solar maximum when the sun’s magnetic field is at its most active phase.
The Northern Lights are not only a breathtaking sight but also a reminder of the dynamic nature of our planet and its complex interplay with the solar environment. Viewing them is a bucket-list experience for many, evoking a sense of wonder at the vastness and beauty of the cosmos.
Best Time To See The Northern Lights In United States
The best time of year to see the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, is typically during the winter months, when the nights are the longest and the skies are the darkest. This generally means from late September to early April, with the equinox months of September and March often cited as particularly active due to the interaction of the Earth’s magnetic field with the solar wind.
In the regions close to the Arctic Circle, the peak viewing season is in the heart of winter, around December through February. During this period, the long and dark nights provide ample opportunity for the lights to be visible, assuming that solar activity and clear skies coincide. However, extremely cold weather can be a challenge for observers.
While darkness is a key factor, solar activity is equally important. The auroras are caused by solar particles hitting the Earth’s atmosphere, and this activity can be somewhat predicted by monitoring the sun. During periods of high solar activity, known as solar maxima, the chances of seeing the Northern Lights increase significantly. This solar cycle lasts approximately 11 years, with the next maximum predicted to peak around the mid-2020s.
For those planning to observe the Northern Lights, it’s essential to monitor space weather forecasts and aurora alerts, which can provide real-time information on the likelihood of auroral displays. Clear skies and minimal light pollution are also critical, so choosing a location away from city lights and with a good weather forecast is crucial. Lastly, patience is key—aurora watchers may need to wait for several hours in the cold night and may attempt to view them over multiple nights to catch a glimpse of this elusive natural wonder.
Tips On How To See The Northern Lights
Thankfully there are some great tools out there to help you in your Northern Lights quest.
1. NOAA Northern Lights Forecasting
NOAA has a great tool that actually forecasts the chances of seeing the Northern Lights based on your location. This tool takes into account your location and time as well as the solar activity responsible for the Northern Lights. Click HERE to have a look.
2. Clear Sky Chart
Another important component is to have perfectly clear skies. An overcast or even hazy night is not going to be ideal for seeing the Northern Lights. Clear Sky Chart provides real-time and forecasting for night visibility that takes into account the weather, wind, smoke and atmospheric conditions.
3. Light Pollution Map
Light pollution can be surprisingly difficult to get away from as big cities can broadcast light hundreds of miles. This light pollution map is great way to find the darkest spots for Aurora Borealis viewing.
With these three tools you will greatly increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Good Luck!
Where To See Northern Lights In United States
Only a handful of States in the US are far enough north to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. The obvious pick is Alaska as it sits the most northern of any State. But we’re going to skip Alaska and focus on the states that are a bit easier to get to.
1. Northern Idaho Panhandle Region
While we may be a little biased as Idaho is our home, Northern Idaho really does check all the boxes for a successful Northern Lights experience.
Idaho has some of the darkest skies and clearest nights thanks to our relatively low population and lack of major cities. In addition, the higher altitude of Idaho makes for clearer nights with less atmosphere between you and the Aurora Borealis.
Our top pick for Northern Idaho is Priest Lake State Park. This Bortle 2 scale site offers excellent dark skies due to its distance from cities and other light pollution. The park lies just 30 miles from the Canadian border, nestled deep below the crest of the Selkirk Mountains.
What makes this spot even better is the stunning scenery which makes the Aurora Borealis show even more powerful. With plenty of camping nearby it’s best to stay a few nights to increase your odds of seeing the lights.
2. Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan
Nestled along the scenic shoreline of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park offers an oasis of darkness in a world that’s increasingly aglow with artificial light. This 550-acre expanse of pristine woodland and more than two miles of undisturbed Lake Michigan beach was one of the first designated Dark Sky Parks in the United States.
It provides both amateur stargazers and seasoned astronomers an unparalleled window into the cosmos. As dusk falls over the park, you’ll be enveloped in a celestial tapestry, free from light pollution, revealing the Milky Way, distant galaxies, and, if fortune smiles upon you, the mesmerizing aurora borealis.
3. Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge, Maine
Situated along the border between the United States and Canada, approximately 250 kilometers north of Bangor, Maine, lies the remote expanse of Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge. Its sparse population and the resulting absence of light pollution create an ideal setting for uninterrupted observation of the aurora borealis.
Despite the northern lights typically favoring latitudes closer to the Arctic, Aroostook’s northern position makes it a suitable candidate for these celestial occurrences.
If you’re seeking a tranquil yet striking auroral experience you can find solace within the Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge. Spanning over 2,100 hectares, this protected area offers a diverse landscape of wetlands, forests, and grasslands, serving as a habitat for wildlife including moose and black bears.
While the crisp and clear winter nights provide the optimal conditions for aurora viewing, the phenomenon is not exclusive to the season. The spring and fall months also offer potential sightings, coinciding with heightened magnetic storm activity, thus presenting more opportunities to witness this remarkable natural event in a serene and undisturbed setting.
4. Cook County, Minnesota
Positioned at the northeastern edge of Minnesota and hugging the shores of Lake Superior, Cook County lies about 250 miles from the urban hum of Minneapolis. This scenic enclave is a haven for those seeking the serene spectacle of the Northern Lights.
With its array of natural landscapes, including the loftiest mountain peaks in Minnesota and the majestic High Falls, the county provides an awe-inspiring backdrop against the night’s canvas, where the auroras play in vibrant colors.
For a local’s view of the spectacle, the trek to Oberg Mountain in the Superior National Forest is a favored choice. From here, you can witness the Northern Lights as they cast an ethereal glow across the expansive Lake Superior, the tranquil Oberg Lake, and the rising silhouette of Moose Mountain.
The region’s northerly position, coupled with the purity of its dark skies, renders the aurora borealis notably visible from late autumn to the threshold of spring, offering a seasonal window to gaze upon this otherworldly display.
5. Lubec, Maine
Perched on the very edge of the U.S.-Canadian frontier, Lubec is a town enveloped by natural preserves and raw beauty. Its unique charm is best experienced on the water, with the local archipelago offering a majestic maritime adventure. Securing a boat, whether by bringing your own or renting one upon arrival, is the ideal way to journey through this watery wonderland. Not only does this vantage point afford expansive views of the night sky, but it also enhances your chances of encountering the elusive northern lights.
For those who prefer to stay on land, a scenic drive to the more secluded stretches of the peninsula is equally rewarding. Cobscook Bay State Park, in particular, provides spectacular panoramas of the surrounding islands and, on auspicious nights, the mesmerizing dance of purple and green auroras across the celestial stage.
Within the contiguous United States, there are several prime locations for observing the Northern Lights, each offering unique backdrops and experiences. The remote and sparsely populated Aroostook County in Maine, with its abundant wildlife refuges and clear skies, presents a peaceful northeastern vantage point.
Moving west, the rugged wilderness of Cook County in Minnesota provides not only the dark skies over Lake Superior but also the natural splendor of the state’s highest peaks and waterfalls. In Michigan, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park combines ecological preservation with celestial spectacle, allowing stargazers to admire the aurora borealis against the vastness of the Great Lakes.
Farther west, the expansive and clear skies of the Idaho Panhandle are also renowned for their auroral displays. These areas, favored for their geographical positions and commitment to reducing light pollution, are the USA’s coveted windows to the northern lights, offering experiences that rival those found in Alaska.
Hello! My name is August, and I’m a devoted traveler and travel blogger living full-time on the road. I made the decision to leave my 9-to-5 job and pursue a nomadic lifestyle, and it’s been an incredible journey. My passion for experiencing new cultures is what drives me, and I aim to motivate others to embark on their own adventures through my stories, photos, and advice. When I’m not discovering the wonders of the world, I indulge in skiing, mountain biking, and savoring the unique flavors of different places.