Lighten up a winter weekend with the northern lights

Winter is the prime time to view the colorful dancing lights that cover the night sky all over Alaska. The bright, multicolored and fast swirling aurora borealis can best be seen shimmering across the sky from mid-August through April when the night sky is dark and clear.

Ionized gas particles hitting the Earth’s magnetic field creates the phenomenon of the northern lights. The most common colors are yellow and green, but the aurora can also be seen as red, blue or purple, according to Vist Anchorage Alaska.

The northern lights at Eklutna Tailrace. Photo courtesy of Roy Franklin.

Dark, clear sky

Similar to stargazing, the sky needs to be clear and dark to see the northern lights. Avoid sky glow from streetlights or other bright sources of light. The best displays tend to be on cloudless and moonless nights, according to Visit Anchorage Alaska. The best hours of viewing are usually around midnight or later.

The northern lights may be out and dancing around, but nothing will be viewable through thick cloud coverage. Check weather forecasts and view the sky before heading out on an aurora hunting expedition.

Plan to spend a few nights or a weekend going out to see the elusive northern lights. Just like the weather, the lights are never guaranteed, and it may take a few tries to capture them.

Apps and auroral forecasts

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The Aurora app shows a KP index, percentage chance and map of the current northern lights to give the best idea of how likely you are to see the aurora in a given area. It can be downloaded for free at the App Store. Where the northern lights appear most frequently is determined by the strength of geomagnetic storms. The scale used to measure the storms is the KP index. The scale ranges from zero-nine, with nine being the most activity.

“The most common storms are generally between KP1 and KP3,” an article from The Aurora Zone stated.

The Aurora app’s map displays where the northern lights are currently, as well as a projected path. The app also has a forecast page that displays cloud coverage for the night, next hour KP estimates, upcoming days’ KP potential and long term forecasts.

Best viewing locations near Anchorage

There are many prime viewing locations not far from Anchorage that offer a great chance of seeing the northern lights.

  • Glen Alps (Glen Alps Road) — The parking lot has a high elevation and vantage point, allowing viewers to see the northern lights above the city.
  • Eagle River Nature Center (32750 Eagle River Road) — The entrance point to the Chugach State Park at the end of Eagle River Road provides a light pollution-free area for viewing.
  • Hatchers Pass (30301 N. Willow Fishhook Road) — A mountain pass through the Talkeetna mountains displays the lights right above the mountain scene. A parking lot offers a good place to park and wait for the aurora.
  • Eklutna Tailrace and Knik River Valley (13145 S. Old Glenn Hwy) — This location offers good visibility even when the aurora is low.
  • Point Woronzof (Point Woronzof Road) — The location is wide open to the night sky and a few miles from city lights.

Bundle up, use a tripod for photos, bring snacks or friends and enjoy a beautiful display of dancing lights.