The northern lights often steal the show on arctic and northern adventures, soaring across the night sky in curtains of red, green and purple. The cascading lights, also known as the aurora borealis, arrive when solar winds from the sun collide with the Earth’s atmosphere. Each color appears as a result of reactions to gases at different altitudes.
Beyond the science, these lights also hold cultural significance. According to Norse mythology, Vikings believed the lights were reflections from the shields of the Valkyrie. Odin sent the mythical female warriors to battlefields where they chose which fallen champions to escort back to the hallowed halls of Valhalla.
The Inuit people who lived in the Arctic Circle believed the lights were their ancestors dancing and playing sport in the sky. Pulsating beats of light reflected the different teams and players chasing after the ball to the far reaches of the horizon.
The name aurora borealis combines the name of the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora, and the Greek word for North Wind, Borealis. Both French scientist Pierre Gassendi and astronomer Galileo Galilei coined the phrase at the beginning of the 17th century.
Churchill, Canada; Denali National Park and Fairbanks in Alaska; Acadia National Park in Maine and Glacier National Park in Montana find nature lovers immersed in days of exploring amid polar bears, whales, moose and grizzly bears. At night, all eyes are on the sky as the aurora borealis comes to life overhead in dazzling displays of color and celestial choreography.
4 Places to See the Northern Lights in North America
There are a handful of places to see the northern lights in North America. Each has its fair share of wildlife and natural attractions that merit a place on our list. Combined, they offer a chance to see a natural celestial wonder during different times of the year.
On our Northern Lights & Arctic Exploration trip, Natural Habitat Adventures Expedition Leaders take guests into the wilds of Churchill, Canada, at the height of winter in February and March. Traveling by snow coach to heated cabins and taking in the view from custom-built Aurora Pods, the dark skies overhead open up into living paintings that shift with every glance.
Exclusive to Nat Hab, mobile Aurora Pods® sit far away from the lights of Churchill. Glass roofs and all-around windows belie the comfort of a heated interior. Other vantage points on nightly trips to see the lights are clear Aurora Domes, where stargazers view the sky from comfortable couches. Guests will also take a trip to a deep-woods cabin in a custom-built snowcoach. Time spent marveling at the sky outside is just a quick journey from the toasty outback enclave.
Churchill sits underneath the auroral oval, a ring over the magnetic North Pole that wanes and waxes with the frequency of solar winds. The aurora borealis appears 300 nights a year around Churchill, giving those who visit with Natural Habitat Adventures multiple options for travel to see the lights depending on their other interests.
Between July and August, the Belugas, Bears & Summer Wildlife of Churchill trip sets out in search of Beluga whales during the day by helicopter, zodiac and kayak. At night when the days shorten and the conditions are just right, the northern lights add to the adventure through the rugged tundra.
Polar bear season is at its peak from October to December. Nat Hab has led expeditions to Churchill for more than 30 years on trips like our Classic Polar Bear Adventure. Our guides are chosen for their good nature, expertise and passion for the protection of polar bears in today’s climate.
Family-friendly adventures in the Arctic to see the northern lights include helicopter rides over the tundra in search of polar bears and dog sled journeys with adorable huskies before an evening spent gazing up in search of the aurora borealis. The Churchill Arctic Family Adventure was created to give families a full range of activities that exhilarate, educate and rejuvenate during time spent on vacation together.
We hold one of a few permits that allow our Polar Rovers access to areas that others seldom see. We work closely with World Wildlife Fund and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, whose mission is to “Understand and Protect the North.” The organization facilitates international scientists’ research that is constantly changing the way conservation initiatives are implemented and addressed in and around the Arctic Circle.
Elsewhere along the Aurora Belt, the people of Fairbanks, Alaska, start the search for the lights from mid-September to late-April. Fairbanks is on the top of the world, and its clear skies, cool temperatures and proximity to the North Pole give it bucket-list status for travelers who want to see the aurora borealis from a front row seat. The wild expanses of nearby Denali National Park are free of light pollution that diminishes the chance of seeing the spectacle elsewhere. The aurora borealis awakens from its slumber in the fall through early spring, blanketing the caribou and moose below in a hypnotic blanket.
Scientists who try to understand and predict the frequency of the lights have made great strides here since the inception of the space age. NASA and researchers study sun spots and solar flares and chart solar winds as they make their way to the magnetic poles of the Earth.
The best time to see the aurora borealis in Acadia National Park in Maine is during the long, dark period from December to February, although lucky stargazers may also see the northern lights there during the spring.
You can also enjoy other celestial events here throughout the year. For instance, Acadia National Park is the first place to see the sunrise in the United States from October until March. These early morning starts offer panoramic views from high vistas overlooking the fall foliage below.
Montana’s Glacier National Park is another oft-mentioned place in the American West to find the northern lights. During the day, travelers can explore the park’s canyons and alpine lakes along trails overlooked by the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
The night sky moves to center stage once the sun sets. Late fall, winter and early spring are the best times to see the northern lights in Glacier National Park. Peak viewing times start around an hour before midnight and last until about an hour after. Different viewpoints hold sway as locals’ favorites, but one that tops the list is the view from Lake McDonald. The soft glow of the lights reflected in the still waters of the lake finds many reaching for their cameras while marveling at the constellations above.
Nat Hab’s trips to see the northern lights in North America are multi-faceted and have special dates reserved for bespoke tours. All of our trips are limited in number, allowing for a more personal experience. Guides and guests have more time and space to enjoy exploring and learning about the cultures, wildlife and conservation challenges along the diverse legs of our journeys.
Exclusive women-only trips are designed to give people the chance to let loose with kindred spirits. Groups travel alongside expert female guides while learning about influential women explorers in each of our destinations. These trips allow you to push your limits, whether it be hiking, kayaking, honing photography skills or simply renewing a sense of wonder and connection to nature.
Nat Hab offers photo trips to see the northern lights with much the same itineraries as the core adventures, but with expert photographers and guides in tow. These custom tours are open for all levels of photographers. Guides help with photography tips and tricks while finding the ideal places to spot wildlife and see the wonders of the night sky. Our Know Before You Go guides provide suggestions for gear, explain basic principles of photography and give detailed information about what flora and fauna to expect while on an adventure.
Each trip in our catalog is also available for private tours. Activities, transportation and guides are exclusive to your group, giving all ages of travelers more flexibility when it comes to choosing excursions based on passions and interests.