The northern lights are one of the most magical natural phenomenons you can experience. They are on everyone's bucket lists! Most people don't realize that you don't have to escape to Norway or Finland to see these colorful lights dancing above your head. Instead, you can head to Fairbanks, Alaska!
Actually, pretty good! So long as you’re visiting during the darker months, according to Explore Fairbanks’ website, “The northern lights are so prolific in the Fairbanks region and the Arctic that visitors who stay a minimum of three nights and are actively out during the late evening hours increase their chance of seeing the aurora to more than 90 percent!”
I wanted to prove that fact so I went out 3 nights in a row, actively hunting the aurora. I’m glad to say, this is absolutely a true fact from my experience! The first night was clear and starry, but had minimal auroral activity. The second night was better, but still only offered a haze of green without any ‘dancing’. Then on the third night, WOW, aurora showed up with her best dancing shoes on and what a performance she had! Watch the time lapse video to see my 3-night aurora compilation.
Did you know "The northern lights are so prolific in the Fairbanks region and the Arctic that visitors who stay a minimum of three nights and are actively out during the late evening hours increase their chance of seeing the aurora to more than 90 percent!" - Explore Fairbanks
With my job, I was lucky enough to spend 5 months living in Fairbanks (February - July). Upon my arrival to Fairbanks I'd never before seen the northern lights (aurora borealis) and wasn't quite sure what to expect. The first time I went out searching I saw some faintly moving strips of what looked like clouds. To be sure, I used my camera. With a 4 second exposure, my Sony a6000 confirmed that those whispy grey clouds were in fact green bands of aurora dancing overhead.
As I trained my eyes over the winter months to look for the northern lights, the colors and motion became more obvious to me.
Now, there are several places to search out the northern lights in Fairbanks. The general rule is it has to be dark, and it has to be clear (no clouds)! My favorite places to watch the aurora are:
Located north of Fairbanks just off of the Steese Highway between mile markers 20 and 21. On your right you’ll see signs for Skiland, turn right and immediately off that road you’ll see a parking lot. This is probably the most popular place to see the northern lights. There are always cars here even on low forecast nights hoping for a chance to see the aurora…which I can’t blame them for trying! Please PLEASE be respectful of others trying to get their photos of the aurora and turn your headlights ALL THE WAY OFF once you have safely parked. Facing north you’ll be looking over Poker Flats, which is where the UAF’s aurora research range is located.
This spot is my absolute FAVORITE place to see the northern lights around Fairbanks!
As mentioned above, the Poker Flats Research Range is the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ place to study aurora and arctic atmospheric sciences. They actually work with NASA and launch sounding rockets. You may even see a green laser beam shining straight up into the sky some nights. This is UAF’s Lidar Research Laboratory which uses lidar (laser radar) to measure echoes and build an atmospheric profile of what’s going on above. While you can’t enter the grounds or facility at night, they do have tours during the summer.
Poker Flats is located at mile 30 on the Steese Highway. There’s no true marked pull out here, but you can find partially plowed gravel spots that are safely off the side of the road enough to park. It is VERY dark out here, with minimal traffic. There is also NO cell service. Please plan accordingly! It’s also important for this location to read my safety tips at the bottom of the page.
I have a friend from work who pointed out this little location to me. Away from the Fairbanks light pollution is a small gravel pull-out located around 1680 Goldstream Road. I’ve gone here three times and the parking area was always empty. You can see the stars perfectly here! However, this is one of the main roads outside of Fairbanks so there’s a decent amount of traffic even late at night. So for me, when trying to shoot time lapses, it wasn’t ideal. But just shooting stills of the aurora was perfect! Beautiful spruce trees lined the foreground of my photos.
Just up the narrow gravel lane from Cleary Summit is the farthest north chairlift in North America, at Skiland. Situated on top of the plateau overlooking Poker Flats, is Skiland’s Aurora cafe and ‘lodge’ if you will. *This is not a free location.* I was searching out new locations one night, no idea that the forecast would pan out, so I headed down the lane from my usual Cleary Summit spot. A mile down this road is a small ski hill and Aurora Cafe. I was driving through the parking lot and saw a sign saying aurora viewers were charged $30 to park. Pft, I wasn’t about to pay just to have a chance at seeing something that is otherwise completely free.
Then I saw a woman bundled up with a flashlight waving at me, so I rolled down my window. She worked at the lodge and explained they were open until 3 AM and they provided unlimited warm beverages inside the heated lodge as well as bathrooms. I told her I wanted to scope out the views before paying the $30 fee. I was PLEASANTLY surprised! Epic vistas with 180 degree views facing north. I paid my way and set up shop outside starting my time lapse just after sunset. The aurora was in my favor this night because it was the most EPIC show I’ve yet to see in Fairbanks!
I was a brand new northern lights photographer and had to play around with the settings of my camera for the first few aurora chasing sessions. ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop were all completely different settings than my beach days in Bali! Here's what I have written on my blog post about Northern Lights camera settings:
If your camera has the ability to change out lenses, that will make capturing the aurora all the better! So let’s talk f-stops. When looking at your lens there’s going to be a range of numbers, or one number if it’s a prime lens, that correlates to the aperture of that lens. These numbers are going to be written in the mm (millimeter) format. You want a LOW f-stop to provide a WIDE aperture. For aurora photography, you want the widest angles possible to capture as much of the aurora in one single shot. The aurora can move so quickly that when you’re shooting, especially time lapses, it can dance on your far left for a second or two and then flash to the right side of the screen 3 seconds later. If I’m shooting a 10 second exposure, I want as much width in my frame as possible!
If you don’t have a lens (or camera) that you trust to capture the northern lights, you can rent one for your trip in Fairbanks! Alaska Camera is located right by the hospital in Fairbanks and they have lenses for many different camera makes and models. This is a really cost effective way to rent a lens for a night or two instead of spending hundreds of dollars to buy one outright. I rented a lens one night and it was only $15!
Or if you don’t have a camera yet but are looking into getting one, I honestly can’t recommend my Sony a6000 mirrorless camera enough! I’ve had it for 3 years now, and it’s gone to 7 countries with me traveling through jungles, rainforests, glaciers, beaches, etc. Best part? It’s mirrorless which = light weight! Oh and bonus, the kit lens that comes with it is the lens I used for capturing the northern lights! I could go on for days about how much I love this camera, but let’s get back to the aurora….
This will vary depending on the photographer and what kind of effects they’re wanting. I’ve run anywhere from a 3.2 second exposure to a 30 second exposure. Here’s how to decipher what to choose: Lower exposure time = less light, crisper definition of the aurora. Longer exposure = brighter lights, with a softer glow to the aurora.
This important numerical setting measures the sensitivity of your image sensor. My camera starts at 100 and increases up to 25,600. The lower the number, the darker the photo, which means the higher the number the brighter the image. So when it’s pitch black outside and you’re shooting the aurora we should go with the highest ISO right? Wrong. ISO is a great way to brighten your photos, however with every increase in ISO, your photos will take on a grainy appearance. It’s important to note that with each different lens, your settings will need to be altered to adjust to that lens’ f-stop and aperture.
Personally when I shoot the northern lights, I have my kit lens (16-50mm, f/3.5-5.6) set at f/3.5 (wide angle), 8 second exposure, and 8000 ISO. This is just my personal preference. I prefer to capture the whiter form of the green auroras, as I feel that’s closer to how we see them with our naked eyes. Hence my higher ISO to brighten the photos. Of course I do edit all of my photos in Adobe Lightroom once I get home from shooting each night.
If you’re renting a car during the winter months when there is snow on the ground, you’re going to want to make sure your rental car company puts snow tires on their rentals. I rented my car from Alaska Auto Rental and I know for a fact all of their rental cars come standard with winter tires, engine block heaters, extension cords for plugging in those heaters, and an ice scraper.
Why do you need a car with winter tires? The roads around Fairbanks are plowed, but not heavily salted like most of the lower 48. They let the snow compress and form an ice pack that you drive on top of. While they do spread some sort of rock/gravel near the intersections to provide traction when stopping, you still want a nice winter tire to help grip that hard pack…especially out of town!
Speaking of driving out of town, depending on the time of night and what day it is, you might not see another person on the road for HOURS! My coworker and I went out to the Poker Flats area the other night at mile marker 30 on the Steese Highway, and we were there from midnight to 2:30ish before we even saw another car drive by!
I didn’t have to book a hotel room because I was living in Fairbanks at the time, but if I had to recommend a general area to stay that is both safe and provides ease of quickly escaping town, it would be the northeast side of town on the Johansen Expressway. There's a Walmart, gas stations, restaurants, and other big box stores in this area.
Happy hunting! :)