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Seeing the northern lights is the stuff of travel dreams, the kind of awe-inspiring encounter with nature that inspires us to keep exploring. And though trips to see the northern lights—also called the aurora borealis—might evoke snowy Scandinavian landscapes, you can also catch its bright blues, greens, and purples in North America.
In fact, displays sometimes appear as far south as Idaho and the upper Midwest, where occasional aurora forecasts send locals outside for midnight viewings. But since the aurora borealis appears most brilliantly, and most often, in the far north, your odds increase as you head into Alaska and far northern Canada. Here are seven of the best places to experience the phenomenon in North America.
The capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories is surrounded by spectacular wilderness, with dark, clear skies that make this one of the best spots on earth to see the northern lights. There’s a local aurora forecast tracking meteorological conditions, and Yellowknife even has a series of beacons called “northern lighthouses” to alert residents when the display might be visible. Prime aurora-watching season in Yellowknife lasts from mid-November through the beginning of April, with tour options that include visits to cozy cabins, half-day excursions, and more.
Alaska’s second-largest city is its top spot for aurora chasing, because Fairbanks’ far north location makes for ideal viewing. The northern lights appear most frequently here from mid-August through mid-April, lighting up the nighttime landscape in paintbox hues. Travel to Fairbanks in the aurora borealis season, and you could spot the display while touring the Arctic Circle, shoot the northern lights with a professional photographer, or head to stargazing hotspot Murphy Dome where light pollution is minimal. Or, to stay extra toasty, catch them after a warming soak session in the geothermal pools of Chena Hot Springs Resort.
Known to some travelers as the “polar bear capital of the world,” this remote city draws wildlife-loving visitors from around the world. Polar bears arrive in October and November, but just as spectacular is the June–September period when beluga whales can be sighted in nearby Hudson Bay. Since the northern lights appear over Churchill up to 300 nights a year, it’s easy to combine a wildlife-watching trip with nights dedicated to viewing the aurora borealis. (The city even has plexiglass “aurora domes” where you can stay cozy while catching the show.)
With a remote location near Wood Buffalo National Park Dark Sky Preserve—among the largest such preserves on earth—Fort McMurray enjoys long, clear nights ideal for stargazing and watching the aurora borealis. The best chance of spotting the northern lights in Fort McMurray is from October through March, with easy viewing access right in town at Parsons Creek Park and Raphael Cree Boat Launch.
With a spectacular perch on Cook Inlet, Anchorage has a wealth of natural beauty that’s best seen under bright-colored skies. The northern lights appear overhead here from August through April, and favorite spots to see the display in Anchorage include the nearby Glen Alps and Knik River Valley, both set apart from the city’s aurora-dimming light pollution. To maximize your chance of seeing the northern lights while visiting Anchorage, however, join an aurora-viewing tour that’s timed to the latest weather reports.
Whitehorse has a frontier feel and a landscape to match; this is gold rush country, and the iconic Yukon River flows right through the heart of downtown. It’s also a top destination to see the northern lights in Canada, with a long aurora-watching season that runs from mid-August through mid-April. (The odds are best in the first few weeks of winter.) Northern lights tours in Whitehorse range from half-day viewing experiences to multi-day adventures that maximize your chances of an over-the-top display.
The northernmost community in the United States is 320 miles (515 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle, and stays dark 24 hours a day from mid-November through late January. That leaves plenty of time for viewing the northern lights in this remote Iñupiaq settlement, where traditions of hunting and foraging are a daily part of life. While only the hardiest travelers reach Utqiaġvik in the winter—the community is only accessible by plane—venturing this far north pays off in unforgettable opportunities to go dog sledding beneath the stars at the northern edge of the United States.