I was surprised that many people don’t even have Alaska on their radar for Northern Lights trips! Go do a search and you’ll be inundated with Iceland and Norway, but Alaska is still a bit of an outlier. And you know what that means? It’s the perfect place to plan your Northern Lights trip because it’s not as crowded or expensive!
A few key things make Fairbanks Alaska one of the best places for northern lights viewing. I’ve been there four times in the winter and have amassed a few of my best tips for experiencing Fairbanks Northern Lights so that you can make the most of your aurora experience.
Northern Lights in Fairbanks
Why Fairbanks Alaska is the best place for a Northern Lights Viewing
Located just below the Arctic Circle, landlocked, and near an international airport, Fairbanks has the perfect recipe for viewing the aurora borealis.
The Aurora Oval and Kp Index
The Northern Lights form an oval shape above the Earth’s geomagnetic poles. Fairbanks happens to be perfectly positioned under the oval surrounding the North Pole. This means that the aurora in Fairbanks is typically seen directly overhead! This unique vantage point is great for aurora photography and is only found under the auroral oval.
The Kp index, a measure of electromagnetic activity in the atmosphere also comes into play for aurora viewing. A reading of two or higher is typically considered good for Northern Lights spotting; however, you can see Northern Lights in Fairbanks even when there is low activity because of its position under the aurora circle.
“You haven’t seen the aurora until you can look straight up and see it overhead. When you see it overhead – you can see how much structure is in it. So it’s best to come north under the aurora oval.”
Aurora Physicist Peter Delemere
Weather in Fairbanks
Aurora season is between August 21-April 21 in the Fairbanks region. And one thing that is required to see them is a clear sky. You are in luck in Fairbanks because it has many clear nights since it’s located in the inland Arctic – an area they call Alaska’s interior. By the coasts, there’s more humidity, precipitation, and clouds. But in Fairbanks, it is a dry climate meaning lots of clear skies!
Beautiful clear night skies abound in Fairbanks
“The northern lights are so prolific in the Fairbanks region and the Arctic that visitors who stay a minimum of three nights and are actively out during the late evening hours increase their chance of seeing the aurora to more than 80 percent!”
Fairbanks Geophysical Institute
The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has earned an international reputation for studying Earth and its physical environments at high latitudes. It consists of seven major research units and many research support facilities, and it specializes in aurora research on Earth and other planets.
Anyone can go visit the Geophysical Institute and take a self-guided tour, however, I went to talk to a physicist specializing in aurora research, Peter Delamere. Learning the science behind the aurora on Earth and Jupiter was fascinating! I learned what makes the different colors we see and how to spot a substorm. His overall advice was to check the northern lights forecasts and be persistent – very persistent.
Some of the smartest aurora people in the world are in Fairbanks, another reason why it’s a great place for a Northern Lights trip!
Visit the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks: Public tours of the Geophysical Institute are free and offered on Wednesdays at 1 p.m. through the summer. A self-guided tour brochure is available in the lobby of the Elvey building. You are welcome to visit the building and take the self-guided tour Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Geophysical Institute Website
The Truth About How We See the Northern Lights
Until I went to Fairbanks Alaska I thought the Northern Lights were all just hype. No – I haven’t joined a Flat Earth Society or decided Global Warming is a hoax, I just didn’t know if I fully believed in them. I had good reason to doubt them.
I had ‘seen’ the aurora borealis twice before – but to my disappointment, it was nothing like what I had seen in pictures and videos. There was no color (except for what long exposure photography could capture), and there was no dancing. Instead what I saw was a gray, cloudy glowing blob. These aurora sightings could’ve been mistaken for moon glow or fog, and I never would have even noticed them except people told me it was the aurora.
After my disappointing experiences, I started to think the Northern Lights were some weird conspiracy by tourism departments and Northern Lights tour companies.
I told Peter Delamere at the Geophysical Institute about my conspiracy theory and he explained, “When it’s faint your eye doesn’t detect it as green, it appears as a grayish glow, and it can be a bit disappointing.”
I guess I just had bad luck with the aurora intensity according to Peter. To see any color in the faint aurora, I had to do photography to know it was there because it’s not always visible to the human eye.
Our eyes use two different types of cells to see light: rods and cones. The cone cells perceive fine detail and color but need bright light. Rod cells can only see black and white and have poor resolution but remain sensitive even in very low light. At night without any bright light source, we normally only see a monochromatic world. However, cameras can show us what our eyes cannot see. This is why you see photos with bright green lights.
How to See the Aurora on your Northern Lights Trip
Check the Northern Lights Forecasts
There are a number of real-time aurora tracker GPS phone apps and websites that will help predict the aurora. I used a combination of all of them!
Aurora Borealis Tracker
Geophysical Institute Aurora Forecast
See where the aurora oval is at any time
Tracking the aurora, it’s coming our way!
Take a Northern Lights Tour
You may want to take a tour, or you may want the freedom of renting a car and chasing the aurora by yourself. Either way is great and I tried out a few different Fairbanks northern lights tours during my trip (more on those in the next section!).
Aurora Photo Tours
If your goal is to get a great photo of the aurora, then I highly recommend signing up for an aurora photography workshop the first night you arrive in Fairbanks. After all, this is a bucket list item for most people and you want to make sure that you know what you are doing as the aurora is not an easy thing to photograph.
A 40-minute drive from Fairbanks will put you firmly in the interior – a perfect place to view Northern Lights. Just off the Steese Highway, you’ll find Aurora Bear Photography Workshops, a small intimate workshop in Frank and Miriam’s off-the-grid home.
Frank offers beginning and advanced photography classes and if you don’t have your own DSLR or mirrorless camera, he rents them along with tripods. You will leave with some spectacular night sky and (hopefully) aurora photos.
Aurora Viewing Tour
These tours normally have big numbers of people with a mix of photo addicts and just people who want to see the aurora. As you might guess – these aren’t my jam. I hate big tours and coach buses, however, it works for some people and it’s nice to know that Fairbanks offers these types of tours to get you out of the city and increase your chance of seeing the northern lights.
Lodges Offer Northern Lights Viewing Packages
Some hotels offer aurora viewing options where people can come and stay up all night in a warm setting like a yurt or lodge but easily run outside and enjoy the show when it arrives. We went to Taste of Alaska Lodge just outside of Fairbanks and they had a perfect setup for viewing. They had a warm-ish yurt where we could stay warm and wait, then run outside and take photos easily. The log cabin lodge provided a beautiful foreground in the photos.
I also went to and stayed at the remote Black Rapids Lodge. It’s south of Fairbanks but frequently gets beautiful northern lights sightings. The beautiful thing about Black Rapids is that it’s surrounded by the Eastern Alaska Mountain Range, so you can see the Northern Lights over the mountains!
It’s also worth noting that all of the hotels around Fairbanks will also give you an Aurora wake-up call if you sign up for it. This means you don’t have to sit up all night waiting, they do all the hard work and call you when they are out. However – it is hard to see the northern lights in Fairbanks due to the city lights, so the wake-up call is best when you are at hotels in the countryside away from the light pollution.
Have an Adventure While Viewing the Aurora
A lot of waiting is involved when chasing the northern lights, so you may want to opt for an activity while you wait. Luckily the people in Fairbanks know how to host a good outdoor adventure! Doing a quintessential Alaska winter adventure while waiting for the lights to show up is a great way to maximize your time…and stay warm!
Here are a few examples:
Ice fishing while waiting for the lights
Dog sledding under the aurora
Snowshoeing under the lights
Rent a Car and Go Aurora Chasing Independently
You can also easily rent a car and head out independently for as long as you’d like. Just ensure you have a full gas tank as the car will be your warm waiting spot in the middle of the night. The Explore Fairbanks website has detailed viewing locations perfect for the independent aurora chaser complete with maps and descriptions of where you can pull over and wait. Bring warm clothes and food and water!
My Favorite Fairbanks Aurora Borealis Tours
If you decide to take a tour, here are six of my favorites I have done around the Fairbanks area.
1. Aurora Bear – Photography
It was 10 PM and we were going to the Aurora Bear Photography Workshop. As we pulled into the driveway lit by torches it gave the whole area a romantic glow in the snow. My excitement level perked up and my sleepiness subsided. This was a small intimate photo workshop in Frank and Miriam’s off-the-grid home.
TIP: Do an aurora photo workshop the first night in Fairbanks to ensure the rest of your time in Alaska chasing aurora will be photographically productive!
A must at a Northern Lights viewing…hot chocolate!
Miriam preparing our snacks
Miriam kept us awake with delicious tapas!
Aurora over Frank & Miriam’s dry cabin
Frank and Miriam immediately turned into fast friends as we talked in their little cabin lit by candlelight. We all had a lifetime of travels under our belts and we bonded on travel stories over tapas as we got to know each other. This workshop was private in that only one party could book it. Frank’s goal was to create something more personal and memorable for people rather than doing a tour with a large group.
“Aurora watching is an emotional thing – it’s something from their lifelong bucket list. They dream of it for a long time. And it’s a lot of effort, money and time to get to where you can see it. When they do see it – it’s emotional and we often hear very personal stories from people. And that’s what makes it special for us too.” Frank explained.
Frank provided us with a scientific background and then we went into photography tips and settings as he primed us for the big show. I learned a ton about cold weather Northern Lights photography. Frank will also take pictures of you with the lights so you have a great memory of the experience. They also offer other varieties of things to do on their property like snowshoeing while watching the northern lights, or you can just hang out and enjoy their dogs. The experience was everything I could’ve asked for and more.
I love this small intimate setting so much that I include it on my Ottsworld Alaska Winter Tour – and it’s always a highlight of the trip!
2. Last Frontier Mushing Co-op Aurora Night – Adventure
Amanda and Ryne, the two women who led our Northern Lights tour, were both experienced mushing racers. They were young, badass, and fun to hang out with. They got us all suited up for a dog sled ride, something I had done before, but I had never mushed in the dark. With the new fallen snow, the black spruce trees were magical all covered with dollops of white. The dogs were eager to run and we were bundled up so much that we resembled Randy from The Christmas Story.
Scared of the cold weather in Fairbanks in the Winter? It just takes the right gear.
Check out my Alaska winter packing list and go prepared!
After the sledding, we warmed up in the comfy yurt and got our cameras ready. The forecast was really positive for the night and the skies were perfectly clear. As we ate delicious smoked salmon and reindeer sausage inside, Amanda was outside watching for the aurora. The aurora forecast was positive for the night.
“It’s here!” she exclaimed and we jumped into action.
The Last Frontier’s Yurt office
Green!!! I finally saw the green with my naked eyes!
Northern lights in Fairbanks
We spent the next 90 minutes outside watching as the lights grew in intensity and started to move and flow like a wave in the sky. This was the substorms I had heard about; streaks of light dancing upwards right above our heads. At that point, I just watched in awe. I didn’t take many pictures that night, because I was mesmerized just watching it with my eyes. The night was cold but perfect. We sat by the fire, had hot chocolate, and took pictures, but mostly we just enjoyed the show.
The Mushing Co-op will also take pictures of you with the aurora, as well as do fun light photography as you wait for the aurora to appear.
Incredible dog sledding under the stars AND dancing aurora…it was two bucket list items in one night!
3. Borealis Basecamp and Viewing Domes
If you are looking for an incredibly unique way to see the northern lights around Fairbanks and have a bigger budget, then check out Borealis Basecamp. It’s a hybrid glamping and aurora experience about an hour’s drive north of Fairbanks where there’s no sign of light pollution.
Borealis Basecamp is the newest and most glamorous way to see the northern lights in the region. I didn’t actually get to have the full overnight experience, but I did go there during the day to check out the unique glamping structures.
These fiberglass domes are reminiscent of igloos and they are what expedition and research teams use in the far polar regions. However, these igloos have been remodeled to include clear, curved windows that stretch 16 feet across each igloo roof. This allows guests to lie in bed and view the northern lights without leaving their cozy duvet.
The igloos are not at all primitive even though they are off the grid. They have kitchenettes, a full bathroom, a real bed and mattress, and they are heated.
4. Aurora Point Tour Experience
Aurora Point is a relatively new experience just outside of Fairbanks that caters to numerous people at once. It’s definitely not intimate, but it is fun and informative. This is basically a comfortable viewing point rather than a tour. You arrive (you have to get yourself there) and enter the large building where you’ll be able to comfortably wait indoors.
Comfort is key in this experience. There are couches and nice tables set up. There are games to play, hot drinks, and all-you-can-eat cookies. While you wait they do a lecture on the aurora explaining the what and how of the phenomenon.
They have someone who goes outside and does the waiting in the cold for you and then will inform you when the lights are out. They even have a live webcam of the sky televised in the building so you can also keep an eye on the activity and know exactly when to go outdoors.
Inside Aurora Point
In addition, they have a couple of lovely firepits outside where you can also hang out and keep watch on the sky. Or you can hike along one of the many paths in the fields to keep moving and keep an eye on the sky.
They will take pictures of you and the aurora and help you with your own photography too. This experience is a great bargain – but you certainly won’t be alone.
Reservations are necessary and you will have to provide your own transportation there.
5. Chena Hot Springs Aurora Tour
I’m not a big fan of Chena Hot Springs – the quality has really diminished every time I return, it’s not well run in my opinion, and it’s outdated. However – they do have a great and unique aurora tour they offer that is worth one overnight stay. Plus – you do get to enjoy the hot springs too of course.
The tour is like nothing I’ve experienced before. They call it a snow coach tour, but it’s not a bus, it’s an old military-style track vehicle connected like a train to other ‘cars’. It slowly and loudly makes its way up the mountain to the top of Charlie Dome where there are two Monolgian-style yurts. That is your base for the night – far from any civilization and far from the resort too!
They provide hot beverages and snacks during the evening. When I went it was a full moon, but don’t let that deter you. You can still get good photography during a full moon. In fact, I got this cool shot of a moondog and the lights at the same time!
The ancient cat machines
aurora over the mountains
6. Arctic Circle Northern Light Tour
This is a long 16-hour tour, but it’s a way to experience the best of the region and cross the Arctic Circle!
Embark on a journey high above the Arctic Circle to Coldfoot by air. Enjoy lunch at the truck stop (a unique experience itself), and then transition to a van for the captivating return drive along Dalton Highway to Fairbanks.
Along the way, we made stops to marvel at the pipeline, engage in some exhilarating sledding, and savor the unique landscapes of the Arctic Circle and the Yukon. Approximately 90 minutes north of Fairbanks we stopped at a small cabin to see the aurora. It gradually emerged during our van ride, reaching its full, mesmerizing display by the time we reached the cabin.
Stay warm in the cabin
This was one of my most memorable nights for aurora activity, with the lights gracefully dancing across the sky for hours. Moreover, the cabin offered a delightful haven for warming up and indulging in snacks during breaks between aurora spectacles. This was a long day – but it was worth it.
Book this tour through the Northern Alaska Tour Company. They offer drive-up/fly-back variations in winter
What Time Do the Northern Lights Appear in Fairbanks
The typical time the northern lights appear around Fairbanks is 10 PM to 3 AM. Oof – thanks Aurora Oval for keeping me up all night. I decided an aurora borealis trip in Alaska is like a trip to Vegas. You end up in a weird sleep pattern where you are awake from 10 PM to 4 AM when the lights are hopefully visible and then sleep until 11 AM the next morning.
There are tons of great things to do in Fairbanks besides chasing the Northern Lights, but just don’t plan too many early morning activities. Late nights and early mornings don’t mix!
TIP: Take a nap in the afternoon to prepare for your late-night aurora chasing.
“Everything good happens after midnight here.”
Peter Delemere Aurora Physicist
I’ve visited Fairbanks numerous times and enjoyed viewing the Aurora Borealis there more than I could count. You have everything you need in Fairbanks Alaska for a great Northern Lights trip. And the best part is that you feel like you have the place to yourself because you’ll be blazing your own trail while others head to expensive Scandinavian countries. Come to Fairbanks Alaska to see for yourself!