Where (and When) You Can See the Northern Lights in the US

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A person looking at the northern lights

When you think of the Northern Lights, you might think you have to fly to Finland, Norway, or Iceland to view the celestial show.

Although these are prime viewing locations due to their proximity to the “Aurora Oval,” you don’t have to take an international trip to view the natural phenomenon. 

Let’s look at where you can see the Northern Lights in the US so you can leave the passport at home. From Maine to Alaska to Pennsylvania, hopefully, a location piques your interest, and you can start planning to visit this winter!

What Are the Northern Lights?

Also called the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon you can only see in the Northern Hemisphere during certain times of the year. This colorful display occurs when electrically charged particles from the sun collide with gasses in the earth’s atmosphere. 

But this solar activity is challenging to predict, so staying alert with NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center will help give you the best nights to view the Northern Lights.

Because Earth has many different types of gasses, which exist at varying altitudes, it produces many colors due to this solar activity. For example, oxygen at a high altitude produces a red color, while oxygen at a low altitude produces a green color. 

Locations in higher latitudes part of the “Aurora Oval” have the strongest solar activity where these colors appear.

View of the northern lights by the mountains

When Is the Best Time to See the Northern Lights in the US?

Although seasonality varies in the United States, you can generally view the Northern Lights in the winter.

This can make it challenging to travel north, where most prime viewing locations are, but these long nights offer the best chance of seeing the dazzling array of colors.

Summer is the worst time for viewing because the nights are less dark and much shorter. But to avoid the bitter winter cold, try visiting in late Fall or early Spring before the nights get too short. Just pay attention to the weather forecast in these northern states.

10 States Where You Can See the Northern Lights in the US

Seeing the Northern Lights are on the bucket list of many Americans. Here are 10 states offering prime viewing locations to see this beautiful phenomenon. Perhaps there’s one closest to where you live to make your dream a reality!

1. Michigan

Home to the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Mackinaw City is a great location to see this natural phenomenon. But the Northern Lights are quite unpredictable. 

Aurora predictions usually come only a day or two in advance, so it’s hard to plan a trip several weeks or months ahead of time. But the park has an entire section dedicated to the Northern Lights, including tips to view the spectacular display.

2. Minnesota

Another great place where you can see the Northern Lights in the US is Cook County, Minn. Drive out along Gunflint Trail and find a spot to pull over. 

The shore of Lake Superior offers a beautiful scene below the stunning colors. Voyageurs National Park, located at the Minnesota-Canada border, also offers a prime viewing location. 

Note that if you plan on staying inside the park, you can only get to the national park by ferry or boat.

3. Wisconsin

Several locations in the Badger State offer prime viewing spots to see the aurora.  Like Michigan, Wisconsin has a beautiful background for viewing the spectacular colors.

Three of the best locations include Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Washington Island in Door County, and the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior when frozen.

View of the northern lights

4. Pennsylvania

Amateur stargazers and professional astronomers can visit another dark sky reserve outside Coudersport, Pa., at Cherry Springs State Park. 

Cherry Springs has a whole section of its website dedicated to stargazing, where you can also find out more about the private guided tours. Or you can join a photography class to try to capture the Northern Lights. 

Keep in Mind: While you’re visiting Pennsylvania, here are our top 10 things we recommend you add to your itinerary!

5. North Dakota

Like Alaska and Montana, North Dakota has a sparse population. The wide-open vistas of the plains and the lack of light pollution make this state another great location where you can see the Northern Lights in the US. 

Although you can spot the lights almost anywhere in the state, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a great settling point. Once the sun goes down, relocate to a spot with a clear northern view. 

Mystical Horizons in the Turtle Mountains also has clear skies where the aurora colors can capture your heart.

North Dakota even has its own observatory where you can watch a live stream. Martens Observatory has a pair of cameras that capture auroras when they appear overhead.

6. Maine

Because of Maine’s northern location, you can find several places where you can see the Northern Lights in this part of the US. These include the Dark Sky Sanctuary at the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, the International Dark Sky Park in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Maine woods, and Acadia National Park. 

Although New England is densely populated, Maine has a smaller population. So you’ll find fewer people and darker skies to enjoy the stunning phenomenon.

View of the northern lights

7. New Hampshire

You can catch a sighting of the Northern Lights in both Vermont and New Hampshire, but it’s tricky because of all of the light pollution in two very small states. 

But if you head to Mount Washington Valley, locals often tell visitors to drive the Kancamagus Highway (Route 112). Then go to the Bretton Woods area, or find a spot in the southern region around Tamworth and Sandwich to get a prime viewing spot.

Keep in Mind: Make the most out of your time in New Hampshire by staying at some of the best New Hampshire Camping spots!

8. Montana

Montana is the least densely populated state after Alaska. This means less light pollution from cities and fewer crowds. Glacier National Park offers amazing outdoor adventure and beauty while also providing a spot where you can see the Northern Lights in the US. 

Many other parts of Big Sky Country will also have great viewing locations, but Glacier has the scenic beauty, hiking trails, and other activities for a fun day exploring nature.

9. Idaho

Although surprising, Idaho is another state where you can see the Northern Lights in the US. Priest Lake and the Idaho Panhandle National Forest are prime viewing locations. 

Because of the clearer skies in this part of the country, a long drive to the panhandle is worth it to escape the light pollution of nearby states. You can reserve a cabin in the forest, but ask a ranger which ones offer the best views of the Northern Lights.

View of the northern lights

10. Alaska

Because of Alaska’s proximity to the auroral oval and its dark skies, it’s one of the best places to view the Northern Lights in the world. 

Places in northern Alaska, like Fairbanks, Utqiagvik, and Coldfoot, are prime locations. You can even book a guided tour and receive expert advice about the best areas to see the phenomenon.

Is Seeing the Northern Lights Worth It?

Most of these states lie far north. Pennsylvania is the farthest south on the list. So if you plan to visit in the winter, plan on bundling up. 

You’ll also want to check the local amenities as many places close for the winter. But once you have plans, you’ll be thankful for all the preparation when you finally catch a sighting of this spectacular light display.

Do you have any other special places where you can see the Northern Lights in the US that you’d add to the list?

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