8 Places in the United States Where You May Spot the Northern Lights

Where can you see the northern lights in the U.S.? The answer might surprise you.

You don’t need a passport to catch one of the world’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders. Normally, you’d have to head north to destinations like Norway, Finland, and Iceland in hopes of catching a glimpse of the northern lights, and while all of these destinations are well worth traveling to, there are a few less-expected spots right here in the United States where you can see the spectacular celestial show.

High solar activity is essential to seeing the lights, particularly in the U.S. When the sun emits superheated plasma, otherwise known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), it can trigger a massive “geomagnetic storm,” which causes the Earth’s auroras to ramp up. However, solar weather is hard to predict, so you’ll need to be prepared (and have a little resiliency) for your best chance at an aurora light show. Use digital tools like NOAA’s forecast tool and Night Sky Alerts to keep track of solar activity and be alerted to the best times to catch the northern lights in your area.

Locations in higher latitudes (which are closer to what’s known as the “Aurora Oval,” or the area with the strongest geomagnetic activity) are ideal for spotting the aurora borealis, so the phenomenon can be seen in the northern United States if the conditions are right. Longer, darker nights (like around a new moon) and clear skies are best. You’ll also want to be aware of when the equinoxes occur (in September and March) because solar activity tends to be high around these times due to the Earth’s tilt in relation to the sun.

With that in mind, here are eight of the best places to spot the northern lights in the U.S.

1. Idaho

When geomagnetic storms are big enough, the northern lights can be visible as far south as northern Idaho. Head to sites like Priest Lake and the Idaho Panhandle National Forest to maximize your chances of seeing the lights.

2. Minnesota

The northern lights can be seen in parts of the Midwest, like northern Minnesota, when the conditions are just right. Cook County is actually one of the best places to spot the phenomenon in the lower 48 states.

Not only will there need to be a massive solar storm, but you will also need to be in an area that is dark and free of light pollution. When a solar storm happens, make your way out of the city and into a dark area. Park yourself beneath the stars and wait for the show to (hopefully) begin.

3. Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has an advantage when it comes to northern lights viewing potential, as it is home to Cherry Springs State Park, a Dark Sky Reserve. There, visitors can stay overnight, join tours, and even take a photography class to improve their skills and possibly capture the aurora in action. Visit the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field for 360-degree views of the night sky — even if you don’t spot the northern lights, you’ll still enjoy some of the country’s best stargazing.

4. Michigan

The northern lights can sometimes be spotted from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Michigan is also home to a Dark Sky Park, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park. Although the park has ideal conditions for viewing the northern lights, they can be unpredictable. Keep your expectations low and you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you catch a glimpse of the lights over these woodlands.

5. Alaska

Because of its location within the auroral oval and dark skies, Alaska is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights, and lucky for American travelers, you don’t even need a passport to get there. Fairbanks, Utqiagvik, and Coldfoot are among the best places to visit for a chance to see the northern lights. Visitors can even opt for a guided tour for expert viewing advice. Head to an inland location during March for your best chances of seeing the phenomenon in the Last Frontier.

6. Wisconsin

Auroras have been known to appear in the skies over several of Wisconsin’s natural landscapes. Head to the Apostle Islands or Washington Island in Door County for the chance of glimpsing the lights. The Great Lakes are another perfect backdrop for viewing the colorful phenomenon, and Wisconsin is situated on both Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, all the better for northern lights viewing when frozen over.

7. North Dakota

This northern state is the perfect place for night sky viewing if you’re trying to see the northern lights. Scenic areas like Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Mystical Horizons in the Turtle Mountains near Bottineau are ideal for those clear skies you’ll need to catch the auroras. North Dakota’s Martens Observatory has actually installed a pair of cameras that provide a public livestream of the night sky that will capture auroras when they appear overhead.

8. Maine

The mostly rural state offers plenty of stargazing opportunities. It’s also home to the Dark Sky Sanctuary, the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, making Maine the best place east of the Mississippi to catch the northern lights. There’s also an International Dark Sky Park in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Maine woods, as well as other remote, clear spots where the auroras might be spotted.

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