How to Plan an Amazing Alaska Aurora Trip This Winter
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I stood in a circle of fellow Alaska travelers, about to go for a walk with reindeer near Fairbanks. Our guide asked the group to share: what brings you to Alaska? One after another, we answered: “to see the northern lights.” In a group of almost 25 people, every single person listed the northern lights as the reason they had planned an Alaska trip. Obviously, seeing the northern lights is one of the top reasons to visit Alaska in the winter!
On my trip to Alaska in February 2020, I too was there for some aurora chasing. I grew up in Alaska, enjoying the northern lights each winter, but I haven’t seen them since my family moved away. I felt I was long overdue to come discover Alaska’s winter magic, including the northern lights!
If you’re trying to plan an Alaska northern lights trip, I’m here to help. I’ve got tips on planning your trip to Alaska to see the northern lights, including where to go, where to stay, northern lights tours, and what to pack. Read on for everything you need to know to plan an unforgettable Alaska northern lights trip! (And if you need tips on putting together an Alaska winter itinerary, I’ve got those too!)
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Dena’ina Ełnena, Dënéndeh, and Tanana peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally written in April 2020, and was updated in October 2022 for the coming winter.
When to Plan a Trip to Alaska to See the Northern Lights
When it comes to seeing the aurora in Alaska, timing is everything! Or, almost everything – if you plan your trip at the wrong time of year, it’s impossible to see the northern lights. Here are some considerations:
1. You need to plan your Alaska northern lights vacation in the darkest months of the year.
It has to be dark to see the aurora (anywhere in the world). If you go during Alaska’s summer months, when there is daylight or a light sky for almost 24 hours each day, you simply can’t see the aurora.
2. The peak in auroral activity occurs around the equinoxes each year.
Based on the way the earth is tilted in relation to the sun, the best time of year for strong and consistent aurora activity is near the March equinox (March 20) and the September equinox (September 20).
3. You can still see the northern lights in Alaska in the months between September and March.
In those dark winter months between September and March, you can still see the aurora. Then, cloud cover and solar activity are the factors that matter in your chances to see the northern lights.
Where Can You See the Aurora in Alaska?
There’s this thing called the “auroral oval.” It’s a kind of hula hoop that sits above the earth at the 65-70° north and south latitudes which is where most aurora activity can be seen. I’ve mentioned already that solar activity is an important factor in whether or not you can see the northern lights. That’s a pretty broad term, so I need to break it down quickly:
- Solar activity includes frequency (how often it is visible) and strength (how bright/active it is).
- The frequency depends on the sun and what’s going on with it. It affects whether or not you see the aurora on any given night.
- Strength has to do in part with how active the sun is and what part of the “solar cycle” the sun is in. It affects where on the globe you can see the aurora.
- The solar cycle is an 11-year cycle of activity. The next solar cycle peak is in 2024, so planning a trip in winter 2022-2023 is a pretty good time to visit.
Since the sun is busy doing its own nuclear fission thing all the time, frequency and strength both vary. But when it comes to where you can see the northern lights in Alaska, strength matters more. Stronger solar activity creates brighter, bigger aurora, which can be seen by more of the globe.
On a normal, clear night, you can almost always see the aurora in Fairbanks – which sits under the auroral oval –, and can usually see the aurora in Anchorage. On a strong night with clear skies, you can potentially see the northern lights as far south as Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, and even Kodiak – looking toward the northern horizon.
For the rest of this post, I’ll focus on Fairbanks and Anchorage as the two best places to see the aurora in Alaska (in order).
Northern Lights Tours in Fairbanks
You don’t have to book a tour to see the northern lights in Fairbanks, but a tour will take you to the best places and provide a guide to teach you about the aurora and how to enjoy it. Here are three Fairbanks northern lights tours I recommend:
Opened for the winter 2018/2019 season, Kory Eberhardt used his family heritage and years of experience in hospitality running the nearby Taste of Alaska Lodge to open a beautiful facility with creature comforts and ample aurora views. Kory teaches you about the aurora and offers wine, cookies, and hot drinks, plus comfy seating indoors – and aurora photo ops outside once the sky starts to dance.
Aurora Pointe is a 15-minute drive from downtown Fairbanks, so it’s also easily accessed no matter where you’re staying – but I absolutely recommend Taste of Alaska Lodge for where to stay in Fairbanks.
Check out the Aurora Pointe website for full details.
Chena Hot Springs Aurora Viewing Tour
If you’re staying out at Chena Hot Springs Resort, be sure to book the Aurora Viewing Tour offered through their Activity Center. The Aurora Viewing Tour is five hours long: you board a military SUSV (kind of like a snowcat) to ascend to the top of a nearby mountain and can stay warm in a yurt in between viewing the northern lights outside.
The 5-hour tour typically runs from 9pm to 2am or 10pm to 3am depending on the time of year you’re visiting – it’s a late night, so staying at Chena Hot Springs is a good idea if you decide to do this tour. (I also recommend staying here!
See the details on Chena Hot Springs Resort’s Aurora Viewing Tour page.
If photography souvenirs are your top priority, be sure to research the tours offered by photographer Frank Stelges and his wife Miriam. They offer beginner and advanced aurora photography tours, as well as equipment available for all guests even if you don’t have your own camera to use. Their deluxe tour offers food and extra hospitality.
Frank’s property is about 40 minutes outside of downtown Fairbanks, and well away from the city lights. It’s also just down the road from Borealis Basecamp should you choose to stay there.
See aurora tour options on the Aurora Bear website.
There are plenty of other aurora viewing tour options in Fairbanks too; check out the official tourism site, Explore Fairbanks, for more details.
Where to Stay in Fairbanks
I’ve already mentioned all three of the best places to stay in Fairbanks if you’re aurora chasing:
- Borealis Basecamp – Located about 45 minutes outside of town, as the name suggests – this is the place to stay if you want pristine dark night sky views. Borealis Basecamp also offers aurora tours if you want to visit but not stay the night. Book directly with Borealis Basecamp.
- Taste of Alaska Lodge – Operated by the Eberhardt family (who also run Aurora Pointe), Taste of Alaska Lodge offers cozy wood cabins and family hospitality. Rooms start from $195/night. Book on Booking.com or directly with Taste of Alaska Lodge.
- Chena Hot Springs Resort – Rooms start from $84/night. Book on Hotels.com or directly with Chena Hot Springs Resort.
These are some of the best places – but you can see the aurora right in downtown Fairbanks when they’re strong enough! There are plenty of other hotel options to choose from based on your travel dates and budget. If none of these are available during your desired dates, here’s a list of all of the other places I recommend for where to stay in Fairbanks.
Northern Lights Tours in Anchorage
Like Fairbanks, there are a number of aurora tours to choose from in Anchorage; there’s a solid list on the official Visit Anchorage website. Having grown up there, I didn’t ever do any of them – I just went to some of my favorite spots or stood in my driveway. On my Alaska winter trip in 2020, I did do one tour:
Alaska Photo Treks
Owner Carl Johnson and his team (pictured above in a photo I took) run a number of cool photo tours and treks. These include an Anchorage Photowalk, Sunset Safari, and even cool wildlife photo tours to try and ‘hunt’ moose and brown bear. Of course, they also offer aurora photography tours too!
On our night out – the longest one I went on, from 10pm until almost 4am! – Carl took us up past my old stomping grounds in Eagle River to several viewpoints along the Knik River. We got some epic views including reflections, pillars, and even some from an old railway bridge (pictured above).
Alaska Photo Treks keeps their spots secret and makes the call on offering tours based on Kp index (an indicator of strength). You can see full details on their website.
Where to Stay in Anchorage
On my most recent trip, I stayed in downtown Anchorage at the Voyager Inn, but there are a few places I recommend.
- Hotel Captain Cook – An Anchorage classic, the Captain Cook is operated by the same team as the Voyager Inn and is a more traditional option. Rooms start from $175/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- Hilton Downtown Anchorage – Another Anchorage institution, and close walking distance from everything. Rooms start from $143/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
There are plenty of other choices too, and a number of vacation rentals, including this water view apartment in a great location (from $138/night, also on Booking.com), this apartment right near the Coastal Trail and downtown (from $213/night), and this huge house which is gorgeous and has space for up to two families (from $321/night).
Tips on Planning Your Itinerary for an Alaska Northern Lights Trip
Now that you have enough to choose where to go, which tour(s) to book, and where to stay on your northern lights trip to Alaska, I have just a few more tips based on my trip. I learned these the hard way on my most recent trip.
1. The Later You Stay Up, the Better Your Chances
During my night watching the northern lights at Aurora Point Station, owner Kory shared his best advice for seeing the aurora: “the later you are willing to stay up, the better your chances of seeing the aurora.”
I had never had the orbital mechanics behind this explained to me, but basically, the darkest part of the night occurs when the sun is on the other side of the earth from you. During the winter months in Alaska, that means the darkest hours aren’t just before dawn – they are roughly between 12am and 2am each night. That’s the best window to try and see the northern lights.
While the hours approaching 12am are increasing darkness, so you can certainly see the aurora then – but the hours after 2am are slowly decreasing darkness, so they’re also a good opportunity. The greater number of hours you’re willing to spend looking each night, the better your odds. Sometimes the aurora will show up early, but sometimes it will make an appearance much later; if you call it a night at midnight, you’re greatly reducing your chances!
All this to say: get ready for some of the latest nights you’ve stayed up since college. ?
2. Give Yourself Mornings Off
If your #1 reason for visiting Alaska in the winter is to see the northern lights, you’ll need to make sacrifices in the rest of your itinerary. Stay up late chasing the aurora and you need to give up your mornings to get enough sleep.
Take my advice based on personal experience: if you’re staying up until 2am, 3am, or even 4am trying to see the northern lights – you can’t go and get up at 8am to be on a 9am tour doing something else! (I mean, this is what I did because I work hard to do my research for these posts – but I was so wrecked by the third night that I had to take the night off and sleep!)
Instead, give yourself the morning off after each night of chasing the aurora so that you get enough rest to have energy and enthusiasm for daytime activities. I recommend starting around 10am or 11am – or even after lunch.
3. Pack the Right Clothing & Gear
You might wonder what to pack so that you don’t freeze and can focus on the spectacular stellar show!
I’ve got a whole packing list for winter in Alaska, but the short version is: layers, layers, layers! I highly recommend checking out my full list as this is almost exactly what brought with me on my trip.
If you want to get great aurora photos, I have a number of aurora photography tips on my astrotourism blog. While smartphones are increasingly decent at snapping photos of the northern lights, you really need a proper camera; here’s the camera gear I recommend and shoot with:
- Camera Body: Sony a7 III
- Lens: Sony 50mm F1.8
- Tripod: Rangers 56″ Lightweight Aluminum
- Remote: Sony Wireless Remote
Don’t forget extra batteries too – these drain super fast in the frigid Alaska winter temperatures!
4. Visit Both Fairbanks & Anchorage using the Alaska Railroad
You can actually plan your northern lights trip in Alaska to chase the aurora in Fairbanks and Anchorage – just book a ticket on the Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Winter Train. It’s one of the best train rides in Alaska, and a unique way to travel across the long distance between the two cities without having to drive in the snow.
While you won’t see any aurora on the Aurora Winter Train, you will see a swath of Alaskan scenery, including the mighty Denali. The train from Fairbanks to Anchorage (or reverse) takes 12 hours, so it’s a full-day adventure – but it’s not too crowded in the summer and you can enjoy meals from the dining car. (I had three meals with reindeer sausage in them, reaffirming my love for this meat!)
If you want views like this, check out the Alaska Railroad schedule. The Aurora Winter Train runs between two and four times each week, so you’ll need to see if one of the dates will work in your itinerary. I still think the railroad is one of the best ways to see Interior Alaska – and it’s equally magical in winter as in summer.
Okay, that’s all you need to know to plan the ultimate Alaska northern lights trip. Have other questions? Let me know in the comments or join me in my Alaska Travel Tips Facebook Community!
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Thanks for this detailed post. I’m planning to go to Fairbanks on 2021 end of March or beginning of April – hope this date is better to see the Aurora. I’m also planning to book Aurora pointie. Hope this is good for a family trip. Thank you.
Sounds like it will be a great trip! I was there in late February/early March 2020 and we saw the aurora every night.
Thanks for the post. We are a family of 4 – me my wife and 2 kids, planning to visit Alaska during winter holidays between Dec 19 2022 and Jan 2 2023. We are traveling first time from California. Please suggest a good itinerary for planning.
Hi, did you see the Alaska winter itinerary I have? https://www.valisemag.com/alaska-winter-itinerary/
Seeing the aurora is a 60th year bucket list . When is the best time book the trip?
Thanks for reading, Cheryl! I mention the best time to book in this post.
We are flying in and out of Anchorage and only staying 3 nights. Is there any feasible way for us to make it to Fairbanks and back or is our best bet to try to see the Aurora in Anchorage?
When are you visiting Anchorage? The aurora is only visible from September through mid-April.
You can certainly fly from Anchorage to Fairbanks, but you’ll need at least one overnight (I recommend 3-4 nights) to try and see the aurora.
Hey Valerie, we will be in Anchorage around the start of September for some bear viewing and glacier chasing, you mentioned in your post the aurora pics on 20 September, does this mean you cannot see it in the earlier start of September? I intend on doing a five day Aurora chase starting from Anchorage and finishing in Fairbanks. If you were planning this would you recommend having the middle of the trip around the 20th? or starting the Aurora section of the trip on the 20th of September ?? Would it be better for me to be in Fairbanks on or after the 20th? Or Anchorage?
Thanks for reading. It’s possible to see the aurora as early as late August, but the earlier you go, the less of a chance you have. Mostly, you’ll need to stay up very late each night to have the best odds – and you need the weather to cooperate. If you can shift your trip until later in September, your odds will be much better!