Seeing the Northern Lights (this month, Alaska) (Part 3 of 3)

This item appears on page 37 of the April 2016 issue.

Jack and Elizabeth Kaufman of Lake Quivira, Kansas, wrote, “We would like ITN readers to share their experiences in chasing the northern lights (aurora borealis). Where did you go to see them? Did you travel on your own or take a tour? When did you go (month and year)? To glimpse this marvelous show of nature, how long was your wait? How long did they last?” Additionally, ITN asked what a person could do to increase the chances of seeing the northern lights, about the costs involved and about any gear or equipment that would come in handy.

In the previous two issues, we printed subscribers’ letters about seeing the northern lights in Norway, Iceland and Canada. While we print in ITN information about destinations outside of the United States, we’re making an exception this month, for this final installment, and are printing subscribers’ responses about seeing the northern lights in ALASKA.


I was facing west when I photographed the Aurora Ice Museum and the aurora borealis at Chena Hot Springs Resort — Alaska. All photos by Gordon Kilgore

The aurora borealis had been on my “bucket list” for some time. Finally, on March 12, 2015, I flew to Fairbanks, ALASKA, to join a group of nine other people who had signed up for a 7-night tour with Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris (Vashon Island, WA; 206/673-3828, This tour’s main quest was the northern lights, with time also to see and experience sled dogs and ice carvings.

Excluding round-trip air from Atlanta, Georgia, my cost for the Van Os tour was $3,995 plus a single supplement of $601. This price included everything, with no limits as to what food to order, extra water, soft drinks, coffee or tea.

The tour began and ended at the Fairbanks airport, where our group met before spending the first three nights at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks. 

Each night we went out to look for the northern lights. We had two vans and two leaders, so our excursions were never crowded.

The first night, we went to Mount Aurora SkiLand in Fairbanks, where Troy Birdsall ran a nice operation. There was a comfortable warming hut with a flat-screen on the wall connected to a video feed from the outside. When we saw the sky was looking interesting, we could run outside and have a look. 

Troy told me that the show that night was perhaps a 4 on a scale of 1 to 10. For those of us who had never seen the northern lights, we thought the show was excellent.

The next night we went to Ester Dome, up Sheep Creek Road in Fairbanks. Ester Dome was a nice site, but there was no warming hut and it was cold. I should mention that we were out most nights from about 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., sometimes a little earlier and sometimes a little longer.

The third night, we went back to Mount Aurora SkiLand and did not leave until almost 3.

On March 16, we drove about 60 miles north to Chena Hot Springs Resort and stayed for four nights, which turned out to be excellent for watching the lights. 

On the final day of the tour, we went back to Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, which was very close to the airport and, so, handy for those of us who had early-morning flights the next day. Pike’s provided an airport shuttle at no cost.

It would be simple to go to Chena Hot Springs on your own, utilizing a shuttle service from Fairbanks. Another good option is going with local people in Fairbanks who run photo trips for the northern lights.

The northern lights were better on some nights than on others. First, there needed to be a clear sky without heavy clouds. If they appeared, the lights could begin at 9:30 some nights and midnight other nights. Once the lights began, they varied in intensity, location and the length of time they could be seen. 

We were lucky with the lights but unlucky with the cold. It was the sixth day before even the daytime temperature got above zero. Three nights in a row it was -28°, -33° and -39°F. I could not have made it without the packs of Hothands Hand Warmers in my pocket. 

For photography, you will need a steady tripod. I used all manual settings for my camera. While it was still daylight, I set the focus to infinity and put a piece of tape on the lens so it couldn’t move. 

I used a 14mm-24mm f/2.8 lens on a camera with a full-frame image sensor. The lens was always wide open at f/2.8. I tried to keep the time to 15 seconds or less,  preferably about 4 seconds, when possible. The brighter the northern lights, the faster the exposure I was able to use. The ISO was generally about 800 to 1600. 

I never looked through the camera’s viewfinder. I framed each shot by pointing the camera, taking a capture and then making an adjustment based on the composition on the camera’s screen and the histogram.

The challenge for me was finding different foreground material. At Chena Hot Springs there was the Aurora Ice Museum, an ice igloo with ice carvings inside. This museum was probably my favorite foreground subject. 

A word of caution — leave your camera outside, because if the camera spends time in the warm hut, it will fog up.

Remember, should you breathe on the camera’s monitor or viewfinder in very cold weather, it will frost up. My cable release froze solid and became useless, so I used the 2-second timer. I experienced no other problems with my camera. I kept a fully charged battery in my inside jacket pocket but never needed it.

Of course, you will need warm clothes. Glove liners under fingerless gloves will be most useful if you are going to be operating a camera. Regardless of what you paid for a pair of warm boots, you will not regret the expense if it is as cold as we experienced.

The good news, for us — a local told me that the lights seemed to be peaking in 2015, that it was the best northern lights he had seen in many years.

If anyone has more questions, please contact me c/o ITN.

Gordon Kilgore
Sharpsburg, GA


The door to this cabin at Chena Hot Springs Resort was unlocked, so I slipped in and turned on a light, making for a better photo.

My wife and I took incredible pictures of the northern lights on a trip to ALASKA with Road Scholar (Boston, MA; 800/454-5768,, March 11-23, 2015.

The value of the Road Scholar trip was amazing. I didn’t find a better deal anywhere, I couldn’t have gone to a better place, and the food, lectures and accommodations were awesome. 

My wife and I paid $2,799, including six nights at the Marriott in Fairbanks and five in Coldfoot, above the Arctic Circle. The trip included many additional features, including dogsled racing, seeing ice sculptures, etc.

Everything you need to know about viewing the northern lights is in the book “How to Photograph the Northern Lights” by Patrick J. Endres and Neal Brown [available as an ebook for $27 on iOS or visit and click on “PRODUCTS,” then on “BOOKS/EBOOKS”].

I cannot emphasize it enough; if you read that book, you need nothing else. It covers the phenomena, all of the places to go to see the lights and aurora photography. It includes scientific notes by one of the world’s leading aurora scientists, but it’s written in plain English, so even I could understand almost every sentence.

The two best times to see the lights are March and September/October. March is very cold, but having snow in the pictures is nice. In September and October you have the chance to photograph the aurora reflections in lakes and rivers.

In March of 2015, we were at the end of the latest peak period of auroral activity, which comes in 11-year cycles.*

If going to Alaska, you want to be in the interior to reduce the chance of cloudiness. Many trips go out of Fairbanks, but, if possible, you should get away from Fairbanks or any other city. 

Our tour group went to Fairbanks first, then to Coldfoot, March 16-21. Coldfoot is a truck stop with very few lights and no civilization for hundreds of miles. Coldfoot resides right in the aurora band, which is a circular band around the magnetic north.

As author Patrick Endres advises in his book, do not go to bed for the night expecting to be called in time. By the time you’re called and get dressed for the cold, the aurora might be gone. On both of my trips, there were some people who did not see the aurora or barely saw it because they did not want to miss their sleep. (Fortunately, Road Scholar kept the breakfast buffet open until 11 a.m., so my wife and I just slept in.)

To spend the middle of the night outside, dress very warmly; it can easily get to -30ºF in Coldfoot. Most people did not take adequate clothes and had to retreat. 

The other problem I observed with other people on the trip was that, with respect to photography, they had not done their homework and did not have good equipment. You should use a digital SLR with a full-frame sensor. Have a very sturdy tripod and a shutter release and take a wide-angle lens. 

I had a 16mm lens for my camera and an 11mm lens for my wife’s Canon EOS 7D Mark II, which had a small-sized sensor. Focus the lens in daylight, then set the focus to manual and tape the lens focus in place. 

I took pictures in 6-second to 30-second exposures. I found that the shorter-time pictures were better. Exposures of over 15 seconds caused the stars to begin to streak and the aurora to become more of a blur, losing some of the interesting details one could see with the naked eye.

Elston Hill
Burien, WA

* The winter of 2015-2016 was the first year of the downward cycle after the 2014-2015 peak.


I went to Fairbanks with two friends to photograph the northern lights in March 2014, as it’s warmer in October and March compared to the middle of winter. We went out on days without a full moon, as the moon can distract from the colors (though some people like the moon effects). 

Tours are expensive, so we booked our own lodging in Fairbanks and then, online, for variety, booked different mountaintop locations, places where you can shoot the lights and go into a building for cocoa if you get cold. These cost about $50 per person, with pickup from Fairbanks. 

These locations included the Aurora Borealis Lodge (www.aurora
, Chandalar Ranch (www.
and the ski area Mount Aurora SkiLand (, all of which I found by Googling “Fairbanks lodges for aurora viewing.” Most of the places would either pick you up or let you drive yourself for a lesser price, and you could cancel if the weather was not good.

We splurged a bit with a 3-day stay at Chena Hot Springs Resort ( This cost $500 each and included a northern lights shoot but had other features, such as hot springs, dogsled rides, etc.

The northern lights can be tricky, as the conditions may not be right to see them (you don’t want cloudy skies), but the best way to optimize your chances is to plan on staying at least four days. We stayed a week and had four or five clear nights.

In terms of equipment, a good tripod and a camera with a decent ISO option (1600-3200 or so) makes your life easier, as the exposures are long. You will want both a wide-angle lens to catch the width of the night sky and a medium zoom for narrower views. Take extra batteries, and keep them warm in your pocket, as cold affects batteries. 

We lucked out in that the week we were there, the temperature warmed to 20ºF during the day and 0º at night, which was chilly but endurable (rather than 0º and -20º, respectively, as it had been just prior). Also, there was a lovely ice-carving festival in Fairbanks that was colorful and photogenic, both day and night, and a few cute shops with handicrafts, so there were things to do if the weather wasn’t cooperating.

It was a semistrenuous trip, dealing with the elements, but seeing the northern lights was worth it, and soaking in the Chena Hot Springs was nice, too.

Laurie Friedman
Davis, CA


When hunting for the northern lights, there is only one way to go, and that is Chena Hot Springs Resort. We have done three trips to ALASKA looking for the northern lights. The most recent trips were in February of 2012 and February 2013, both at Chena Hot Springs, and we were not disappointed.

The resort is 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks and has packages that include multinight stays with snowcat tours to the top of their mountain, where 30-foot yurts keep you warm while you wait for the northern lights to start the show.

While at Chena, you can take the geothermal energy tour (they make their own electricity), visit the hot tubs and springs, tour their Aurora Ice Museum with artists in residence at work, take a 3-day ice-carving workshop, take a dogsled ride, attend the dog-mushing school, take a snowmobile tour, enjoy flightseeing from the Chena Hot Springs airport or rent snowshoes, cross-country skis or ice skates.

Listed on the resort’s website, the 2016 price for the 3-night “Aurora Odyssey” package is $2,330 for two or $1,690 for one, which includes round-trip transportation from the airport or downtown Fairbanks to the resort, accommodation at Moose Lodge, three dinner vouchers and five breakfast or lunch vouchers, snow coach aurora-viewing tour, unlimited-swim-and-soak pass and much more.

On our first trip in search of the lights, we discovered that Fairbanks sits in a hole, and during winter the ice fog and lights make it impossible to see the northern lights from town. To improve your chances of seeing the lights, you really need to get away from town and have a moonless night. 

We arranged to be picked up by local folk and driven to cabins that were away from Fairbanks to view the lights. These trips were fun, but we later found that the lights were better at Chena Hot Springs. 

Lastly, with a Fairbanks visit, you can stay in town, but we found that Pike’s Waterfront Lodge (, near the airport, provided everything we needed and more. The lodge van picks you up from the airport for free, and during your stay they will take you anyplace in town for $5 per person, round trip.

Sandy & Scott Graham
Orange, CA


I have been lucky enough to see the aurora borealis three times. The first two times were in ALASKA, traveling with Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris (Saratoga, CA; 800/527-5330, in October 2005 and with AlaskaPhotoGraphics (Fairbanks, AK; 907/750-4065, http://alaskaphoto
in October 2007. I would recommend both companies very highly. 

We started in Fairbanks and saw the aurora there, but the best views were at Wiseman, which is north of Coldfoot, where we had some spectacular aurora activity lasting for a couple of hours.

In February 2015, I saw the aurora in ICELAND and it was quite the experience. 

Concerning gear and how to photograph the aurora, there is an excellent book by Patrick Endres and Neal Brown called “How to Photograph the Northern Lights.” It covers everything you need to know. I highly recommend it.

Give yourself a couple of nights, at least, and hope for clear skies. Also, there are numerous websites that give predictions of solar activity, which can affect the aurora.

Larry Flinner
Cincinnati, OH


My wife, Shirley, and I were able to cap off a 4-month RV trip to ALASKA in 2009 by seeing the northern lights outside of Fairbanks.

Winters can arrive early up there. In order to see the northern lights, and hoping that we would get lucky with the weather, we waited until around Sept. 15, the latest we felt comfortable leaving Alaska to drive south through Canada on the Alaska Highway before the snow arrived.

I went online to a forum on northern lights photography, and a local told me that there was a parking lot on the way up to a ski area that would offer the best view of an open sky. He was right.

We planned to camp there in the RV. The location, Cleary Summit, had been recommended by a Fairbanks photographer, and we found a good, level place off the road to park. Arriving in the daylight, we got all set up and got some chairs out that swiveled and laid flat — perfect for sky viewing. It was a beautiful clear day, and the fall foliage was spectacular. 

The initial sight was surprising, since it was not what we expected. It seemed as if there were a car on top of the mountain coming down with its headlights on shining across into the woods. The light grew stronger and arched across the sky. After some time, color arrived, then a second arch built below the first, and on one side it developed vertical striations.

The show continued. At times, it seemed as if a vertical curtain was walking across the sky. At other times, there seemed to be a wide, billowing cloud, with arches moving from left to right.

I had my camera set up, and we found that the best scenes of the northern lights were actually seen from my camera screen with a 2-minute exposure time (really slow). 

We saw several cycles of the lights come and go over the evening, and locals popped in for a view and left throughout out the night. 

We were thrilled to have seen the northern lights.

Jim Meehan
Clarksboro, NJ


I enjoyed a spectacular auroral display in Fairbanks in the middle of the night in mid-January several years ago. Sheets of green and red undulated across the sky all night as we stood on a frozen river at the edge of town. The temperature was a brisk -50ºF. 

The middle of the night in midwinter in Alaska is, by far, the best time to see the northern lights. It is possible to see them in warmer months as well, which is when most tour groups visit Alaska, but they are much more rare then, in part because of the lengthy daylight hours.

Central and northern Alaska are the best locales for seeing the lights. The polar magnetic “oval” that marks the rough boundary of the display passes more or less through Fairbanks. The geophysics department of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks publishes a daily aurora forecast at

Rich Isaacman
Edgewater, MD


Trees to the left and northern lights above at Mount Aurora SkiLand, near Fairbanks.

My wife and I took a cruise from Vancouver, British Columbia, north to Seward, ALASKA, one September in the early 2000s. We then booked the Alaska Railroad trip from Seward to Anchorage, rented a car and traveled independently to Fairbanks. On the way, we stayed overnight at a hotel outside Denali National Park

While checking in, we learned that we could be put on a list for a wake-up call if the northern lights appeared. We figured, ‘Why not?’ We didn’t think much of the possibility. 

Around 1 a.m., as I recollect, the phone rang. The lights were “on.” I struggled to get my camera ready and we put coats over our pajamas, then stepped outside. In the chill and silence of night, we saw the eerie panorama of greenish-glowing light moving back and forth in changing patterns, alive, like a sheer curtain blowing in the wind. 

We watched, captivated, as the spectacle continued for a long time. We both felt privileged to have seen such a stunning scene.

Mike Rothenberg
San Jose, CA


Decades ago, my husband and I traveled in our motorhome via the Alaska Marine Highway to Skagway, continuing northwest. Our first exciting sighting of the northern lights was from our campground in Dawson City. It was late in the evening when the lights appeared. In our pajamas, we sat around our almost-out campfire for nearly two hours watching the spectacular show.

A few days later, we were fortunate to see another show while at another campground in Fairbanks. The northern lights in Dawson City, more remote than Fairbanks, were more vibrant.

We were very fortunate to have seen them twice. They are truly unforgettable.

Martha L. Lance
Fullerton, CA

About 12 years ago, my husband and I were on a flight from Hong Kong to Chicago via a polar route. It was the middle of November, and once we started across the Pacific our flight was mostly in the dark. I was sitting next to the window on the left side of the plane, with a view to the north. 

About an hour before we reached the Alaska coastline, I could see a green glow in the distance. As we approached Alaska, the glow became much bigger and I knew I was looking at the northern lights. The sight eventually filled the plane window. The lights were a bright green and looked like large curtains shimmering in a breeze. 

This thrilling sight continued for at least three hours, never wavering in intensity. Even though it wasn’t planned, this awesome sighting allowed me to cross the northern lights off of my bucket list.

Barbara McMahon
Williamsburg, VA