Aurora Hunter 101 - To See Northern Light in Alaska


I finally made the trip to write this in English, after the Chinese version got published for 8 months, and inspired by co-workers and friends who think an English version would be helpful.

Note: this is an article with instructions on how to hunt the northern light in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Rule #1: Rent a car, drive by yourself, freedom brings surprise.

Rule #2: Try to stay longer (if your goal is to see the light).

Rule #3: Use the apps in a smart way.

Best months to see the lights: October to March (this is simply the best viewing time range, and of course there is possibility that you could see the light in other months, but generally speaking the possibility is low).

Best time to see the lights:9pm to 3am (Technically speaking, as long as it is getting dark enough, usually 10am to 2am is the magic time period.)

Recommended Trip Length:

If your primary goal for the trip is to see the northern light, then stay at/around Fairbanks area for at least 5-7 days. There are many fun winter activities to do in the daytime, and just make sure nights are reserved for the lights.

If you don't have enough time, and if you want to explore other parts of Alaska, then it will be great to reserve at least 3 days around Fairbanks area. Meanwhile, do consider go even north.

The fundamental rule for traveling is simply to enjoy yourself, if that is your philosophy, then just enjoy yourself. When there is luck, you will see the magic lights in one night.

Useful Tools and Apps:

When the sky turn dark, below apps will be the key to the sky.

Weather forecast tools (focus on the cloud cover forecast between 6pm to 3am)

Weather is the most important factor in order to eye catching the northern light. There are many people who only look at the "Aurora Strength Forecast", and that is only certainly need insufficiency condition. If the whole sky is covered by cloud, you won't be able to see the lights even it is really really strong (you might be able to catch something on your camera, but not visually observing) . In contrast, if the sky is really clear, then you will still have a good chance to see green lights with an aurora strength of only 2-3.

All sky camera by Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks

This is a really helpful tool, a camera that is highly sensitive to the aurora, and accessible to the public. The camera will turn on once it is dark enough, and it stays on all the way to the dawn. There are three modes to choose from: Current (the real time moment), Last 30 (the past 30 minutes), and Tonight.

Last 30 and Tonight both show videos, and you could replay the videos to see what has happened in the sky for the past 30 minutes, or for the whole night (which is really useful if you fell asleep during the wait, since you could replay to see if you missed anything in the sky). Current, just like its name, shows you the real time status of the sky (there will be a little bit delay, a few seconds normally).

For example, on Dec. 30th 2015, around 11:47pm, we could see from the camera (as shown below) that there is a "S" shape green light in the northern east part of the sky (and almost the whole sky was covered by northern lights).

On Jan. 1st, 2016, around 1:09am, we could see from the camera that there was a really pretty band of lights in the north-western part of the sky.

When you see the lights on the camera, you can figure the major directions where the lights are showing up, and focus on that direction of the sky. The pretty light band we see in above example, the real time light I caught from the sky is as shown below. Quite similar to what you just saw, right?

(The red light was coming from a local light house, the photo was taken with my iphone 6SP, at Murphy Dome, Fairbanks.)

Aurora Fcst - Aurora nowcast & Aurora Now - 3 Days Kp Forecast

Both Aurora Fcst and Aurora Now are apps which you could download for free from App Store (Android should have that as well).

Aurora Fcst:

The Aurora nowcast function of Aurora Fcst will show something like below. The app will first locate you, and then pin your location on the earth. You could then see the northern light strength band (red is strongest, and green is relatively weaker).

The 3 days Kp Forecast function of Aurora Now will show something like below. The goal is to forecast the Kp index for the next three days. A higher Kp level means that the visual range of the light will be wider, and the lights are stronger. (You could find more information about Kp index at

Short-term (1 hour)forecast of Geophysical Institute.

It tells you the aurora strength of your location in the next 1 hour. From minimum level to High++, meanwhile you could see the covered area, quite straight forward. From the picture below, we could see that in nights when the lights are strong, there will even be chance to see the light from mid-Alaska (city like Anchorage) or south Alaska (Homer).

There are many other useful tools and apps, however with the mentioned ones above, it should be more than enough to help you to catch the lights (of course when weather and light strength permit).

Below are tips for basic Aurora Hunting trip:

1. Looking at the cloud coverage forecast

2. Looking at the right moment (with the help from all sky camera)

3. Doing your homework (get familiar with basic Aurora forecast apps, learn the forecast of Sun exercise intensity and possibility of visualizing the lights.)

4. Locating it! (Finding out which location and what direction)

Best Location to View the Lights around Fairbanks

The whole Fairbanks city is an A++ spot on the earth to see northern lights, which you might already know. If the time is right, you could see the lights almost from anywhere in the city.

Below spots are some of those which I have visited, and it certainly did not include all nice spots.

The easiest spot to reach - Pipeline View Point

Location: Trans-Alaska Pipeline Viewpoint

Pros: Close to the city, easy to drive to, simple road/traffic condition, close to the gas station, easy to buy food/snacks.

Cons:There could be a lot of traffic, which means strong light interference, not too many things to see,only focus on single direction of the sky.

Sample pic: 12/26/2015, Aurora Strength 3, 9:30pm @ Pipeline View, with Iphone 6SP northern light camera.

Chena Hot Spring Rd (Chena Hot Spring is a good spot as well, but there will be a lot of people)

Location:The cross of Chena Hot Spring Rd and Two Rivers. (There is a famous aurora ranch around this location. They charge $30 per person if you did not come with a tour. Since I love outdoors, I would rather suggest anywhere along the Chena Hot Spring Rd. There is a small parking lot if you drove down the same road to the ranch, it is dark and quiet enough for staying and waiting for the light. )

Sample pic: 12/27/2015 midnight

East Dome

Location: Ester Dome : Climbing, Hiking & Mountaineering : SummitPost

Pros: Access to city views!

Cons: Hard to find!

Murphy Dome - Highly Recommended

Location: Murphy Dome

Pros: Easy to find, follow Murphy dome road all the way to the top of the hill, 360 degree full access of viewing the sky, there is a big parking lot.

Cons: Road condition could be complicated, which mean might not be super easy to drive, there is light interference from the light house and the Air Force building.

Sample pic: 12/30/2015 (Aurora strength 4-5) 12/31/2015 (Aurora strength 4-6)(Iphone 6SP Northern Light Camera)

Other nice spots, though I did not get chance to visit: Ski Land - Home of the farthest north chairlift in North America,Dalton Highway (the road to Arctic Circle, I have driven Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Arctic Circle one time in summer, but drove in winter could be really tough), and Birch Hill.

Camera for Photo Shooting

99 cents could get you the northern light camera on your iphone. (I carried camera and lens for my 2014 Iceland and Finland aurora hunting trip, but was not lucky enough to get too many good photos, so I decided to be lazy this time.)

But you should take your best camera with you! Or you should just enjoy the moments, it is amazingly beautiful and moving.

-------------------------All in all, hope this could be helpful.-------------------------

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