The Best Places to See the Northern Lights in North America

The Northern Lights, or Aurorae Borealis, are some of the most photographically sought after natural phenomena in the world, and luckily for you, North America is home to some of the most incredible viewing sites in the world.

The Aurora Borealis, or ‘Dawn of the North’, is the aerial formation of bright dancing lights we see on clear crisp nights in locations near the magnetic North and South Poles. The geomagnetic pole hotspots are the sites of collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that have entered the earth’s atmosphere, causing the colorful light show known as the Northern Lights. Scientifically they are referred to as Aurora Polaris or polar lights. In the south, they are Aurora Australis.

Ranging from pale green to hot pink, with many different hues in between such as red, yellow, blue, green, and purple, these colorful dancing lights come in patches, clouds, arcs, and ripples. The most common color appearance, yellow-green, appears this shade because it represents oxygen collisions at a height of about 60 miles. Darker colors like red occur much higher, around 200 miles.

This natural phenomenon has had many different meanings throughout history.  With roots tracing back to Roman Mythology, the term ‘Aurora’ has been taken from the context of the goddess of the dawn. Throughout time these lights, whatever they have been called, have represented everything from spirits, signs, and superstitions to scientific wonders and spectacular natural sensations. 

  1. Fairbanks, Alaska
    It’s no secret that Alaska has some of the best views of the Aurora Borealis in the U.S, especially near Fairbanks! Early September through late winter brings on the best views of the dancing green lights in the area, this spot being geographically positioned under the ‘auroral oval’, or the area around the magnetic North Pole. The prime viewing times are typically between 12:30 am and 4:30 am, when skies are the darkest and temperatures are the coolest. To beat the cold head to local hotspots like Chena Hot Springs to view the show.

    Aurora Borealis Pixabay Public Domain

  2. Denali National Park, Alaska
    Just about 200 km southwest of Fairbanks you will find another one of the absolute best spots in the U.S to see the lights, Denali National Park. Within this massive wildlife refuge, you will be able to enjoy bountiful open spaces and mountain vistas, little to no light pollution, and outstanding camping and hiking opportunities, all these factors making this spot so great for viewing the Borealis. Head to Denali during the fall and winter, the show beginning as early as the second week of August.
  3. Alberta, Canada
    In western Alberta, within the confines of Jasper or Wood Buffalo National Parks, you will have a front-row seat to not only some seriously spectacular northern lights shows but also clear views of the Milky Way itself. The vast wilderness within Alberta provides you unobstructed views and no light pollution to deter from the dancing lights in the sky. The best times to see the show here is typically between September and April.
  4. Yellowknife, Canada
    Heading north from Alberta into the Northwest Territories you will find another northern lights hotspot, Yellowknife, Canada. This spot has actually been dubbed the ‘aurora capital of North America’, the city providing views of the lights 240 days a year. Due to its high latitude, the winters here are longer and darker, allowing viewing from late summer to late winter. It gets seriously cold here, so opt-in to stay at places like Aurora Village, a teepee camping ground that provides you with heated chairs for your viewing pleasure.
  5. Idaho Panhandle National Forest, Idaho
    Idaho probably didn’t pop up on your radar for optimal northern lights viewing, but surprisingly you can catch seriously stunning aurora vistas here. In the Panhandle National Forest, head to Priest Lake in the winter (typically dark and clear at all times) and catch a mirror image view of the lights off of the lake, this spot is one of the most photographed in the continental U.S for the northern lights.

    A camping tent glowing under the Northern Lights. Nighttime camping scene.

  6. Cook County, Minnesota
    Cook County Minnesota is an especially great spot within North America to see the light show simply because you can catch a glimpse at any time of the year here. Right on the northern shore of Lake Superior, you can see the aurora borealis, meteor showers, and some of the best local views of mountain vistas and waterfalls surrounding the lake. Top viewing times occur between 9 pm and 4 am nightly.
  7. Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge, Maine
    Sitting right on the US Canada border, Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge provides northern lights-seeking guests with one major advantage: no light pollution. This area is very sparsely populated, making the night skies incredibly clear for prime viewing. The peak activity happens during the winter, though it is still possible to see the lights in the fall and spring when magnetic storm activity is at its peak.
  8. Browning, Montana
    Last but not least on our list is Browning Montana, a spot we couldn’t leave out simply due to its breathtaking Borealis viewing backdrops. Head to Glacier National Park and enjoy the camping options, over 700 miles of hiking trails, and unobstructed views of the Rockies as you settle in for an early AM viewing of the lights. Head to St. Mary in the summertime for optimal viewing sessions.

International Northern Light Hotspots to Consider:

Lapland - Finland
Jukkasjarvi - Sweden
Reykjavik - Iceland
Trondelag - Norway