18 Apr Searching for Northern Lights in Fairbanks, Alaska
Fairbanks is often regarded as one of the best places to see the northern lights, not only in Alaska and the United States but the world. So, it only made sense when we returned to Alaska for another winter visit, that we made searching for the northern lights in Fairbanks our priority.
There are a couple of reasons why Fairbanks is an ideal location for viewing the northern lights. First, it is located under the “Auroral Oval,” which is the area where the aurora is often concentrated. Second, Fairbanks is located far from coastal areas which means that they have a low level of precipitation and a high number of crisp, clear nights. During aurora season, when the skies are dark enough, the aurora borealis is visible an average of four out of every five nights.
Well, with all this going for Fairbanks and the northern lights, we should have witnessed some amazing auroral displays, right? Unfortunately, no. Nature is unpredictable, and when we flew into Fairbanks, we seemed to have brought the clouds with us. We spent 5.5 nights in Fairbanks, and it was cloudy almost the entire time.
It wasn’t until the last night of our trip before our 1:30 a.m. flight out of town, that we FINALLY caught a beautiful aurora show with no clouds in the sky. Now, just because we didn’t see the lights during the first five nights of our trip, doesn’t mean they weren’t active. Quite the opposite actually—the skies were frequently ablaze with lights, but the heavy, thick clouds obstructed our views for all but a flash of a moment. Even though we didn’t have a ton of luck searching for northern lights in Fairbanks, it doesn’t mean that the statistics are wrong. It just means that nature isn’t always on our side.
Nonetheless, we still had some fun experiences while searching for the elusive lights, so read on to get the full scoop.
Aurora Borealis Lodge
Our flight in to town landed in Fairbanks after midnight, so by the time we got our car rental and checked into our hotel, we were pretty exhausted. The cloud coverage was thick anyways, so we decided to call it a night.
On our second night in town we made plans to drive out to the Aurora Borealis Lodge. The property is located 20 minutes from Fairbanks near Cleary Summit, which has very little light pollution and a clear view of the northern sky. The summit area is known as one of the best places to view the northern lights, so we figured we had to check it out. Their website states that if the skies are clear or partly clear, you have around a 90% chance of spotting the aurora from this location.
The lodge is open from 10:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. and provides visitors with a warm place to wait until the action begins. You can view the lights from inside through the large picture windows or outside on the deck. While you wait for the aurora you have access to hot coffee, tea, or cocoa, and perhaps most important of all, there are inside restrooms, which is something I’ve found I needed while out searching for the aurora all night! The cost of admission to the Aurora Borealis Lodge starts at $25 for self-drive tours ($15 for children), and the rates increase based on if you are a solo traveler or if you would like to take a shuttle to the site. If you drive yourself, AWD/4WD is required to reach the lodge.
With that said, we never did end up visiting the Aurora Borealis Lodge. We attempted a visit on our second night in town, but the skies were overcast, and we decided that we’d rather go back on a night with better conditions. Instead, we found a nearby parking lot and sat for about an hour just in case the skies decided to clear up. We waited…and waited…and waited. All we spotted was a car buried deep in the snow.
Then, right as we were about to pack up for the night, we saw a faint glow peeking through the clouds. The glow became brighter and brighter, and just as it was starting to look really intense, the clouds closed up again and completely covered the skies. If the clouds would have stayed away, it looked like our viewing session would have been pretty amazing!
Because of the clouds, we were glad that we went with the free route that evening. We wanted to head back to the lodge later in our trip on a night with better weather, but the cards (and schedules/forecasts) just weren’t in our favor.
Aurora Viewing Tour at Chena Hot Springs
For the next night of our trip, we made our way out to Chena Hot Springs where we ended up booking a last minute overnight stay. We decided that we were going to take the 4.5-hour Aurora Viewing Tour and figured we would be too tired to drive over an hour back to town after the adventure. The forecast wasn’t looking good this night either, but we figured, what the heck, let’s give it a go anyways!
Our tour started out around 10 p.m. and we met at the onsite activity center where we hopped into our snow coach. The giant, blue snow coach took us up a nearby mountain to a cozy yurt with a clear view of the sky.
Inside the yurt we found a wood burning fireplace, games, plenty of snacks (ramen, chips, and granola bars to name a few), and drinks like coffee, tea and water.
We spent the night alternating between the warmth of the yurt and the chill outside. The sky was completely cloud covered for most of our visit, but we did have a few moments of a partially hazy sky. Unfortunately, during the brief period when we could see the sky, the northern lights were nowhere to be found. So, it was another long, unsuccessful night of searching for the northern lights.
What we did see, however, was a big fight between two people on our tour! No one got physical, but a game was thrown across the room and a girl ended up crying. Awkward. Thankfully, our guide handled the situation well, and everyone continued on with their night as if nothing had happened.
In retrospect, after looking at the forecast, we should have taken the Sunset Snow Coach Tour instead. We still would have gone for a ride in the snow coach (which was a blast!), and we would have actually witnessed a beautiful sunset in the sky. Hindsight is 20-20, no?
Searching On our Own
The next couple of nights we had more of the same weather: clouds, clouds, and more clouds. We were pretty exhausted from the previous couple of nights, so we didn’t do any extreme searching on nights four and five of our trip. However, on the last night, our luck started to change just like it did in Anchorage the year prior.
We had super late flight out of Fairbanks on our last night in town. Our plane had a 1:30 a.m. departure time, so we went out looking for the lights one last time before heading to the airport. The skies were actually clear, and the forecast looked promising. We made our way to the Alyeska Pipeline Viewing Point (a location we had scouted earlier in the trip that wasn’t too far from the airport), and we settled in to wait. As is typical when searching for the northern lights, we waited, and waited, and waited some more, when all of a sudden, we saw some movement in the sky. The northern lights were coming out to play!
They got brighter and brighter and soon we could see them dancing across the sky. Even though it wasn’t a crazy intense show, we were still happy to catch a glimpse of their beauty. It was another wonderful send off from the great state of Alaska.
To learn more about when, where and how to see the northern lights, check out our post on spotting the northern lights in Anchorage. We go into detail and share tips for how to see the lights from any location.