With careful planning, timing and luck, witnessing the aurora borealis in the Lower 48 is one of the greatest yet most rarely seen spectacles for anyone willing to sacrifice a bit of sleep.
Several years ago, on a cold, mid-March evening at about 10 p.m., I took my dogs out for a walk beyond the lights of our home in Carbondale, Colo. The sky was ablaze with stars, and as I looked up for the Big Dipper and the North Star, I noticed that the far horizon pulsated in a green glow. I couldn’t believe that I was seeing the northern lights.
Like other aurora borealis sightings I’d had in New Hampshire and Alaska, the glow transformed into green strobes, as if multiple search beams were working the sky. Charged particles from the sun had entered the Earth’s magnetic field thousands of miles above, and as they rained into the planet’s upper atmosphere, the particles collided with nitrogen and oxygen atoms, lighting the sky with rose pink and pale green bands of shimmering light.
One needn’t incur frostbite, climb to high altitude or journey to Sweden or the Alaska’s Far North to see the northern lights. With careful planning, timing and luck, bearing witness to the aurora borealis in the Lower 48 is one of the greatest yet most rarely seen spectacles for anyone willing to sacrifice a bit of sleep.
“Whether you are lucky enough to witness them depends on a number of things, including how active the current solar cycle is,” said Mirka Zapletal, the director of education at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, N.H. And in 2022, there is expected to be more activity — more charged particles brought to our upper atmosphere by sun flares and the solar wind — than in recent years.
Patience is mandatory, along with clear, darkened skies and an aurora forecast in order to catch the elusive spectacle. The fact that there are no guarantees to see the lights makes a sighting all the more spectacular. Here’s a selection of outdoor destinations in the continental United States that offer a chance to see the northern lights if your timing is right. These places are also rich in recreational opportunities in case the weather fails to cooperate or you sleep through the alarm.
The aurora borealis, which often blazes for half-hour cycles followed by two hours of dormancy, can be seen only after dark, with the hours surrounding midnight offering the most optimal viewing conditions. The lights are not visible on full moon nights or amid city lights and rarely in summer.
The equinox months of March and September are the most ideal times to catch the display. (But on clear nights, with an unobstructed and darkened vantage point of the northern horizon, they can occasionally be seen from fall through early spring as far south as Pennsylvania — in 1958, viewers witnessed an extremely rare aurora display from Mexico City.)
In addition to obtaining a weather forecast for cloudless skies, aurora borealis forecasts are essential. The website of the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, Alaska, provides weekly updated North American aurora forecasts for the next three hours, three days or 27 days. This year, their index that measures disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field forecasts that the nights of March 11 and 19 (the day after a full moon) will offer the best chances of seeing the lights in the Lower 48. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also provides advance predictions in half-hour increments online.
Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine is a rare dark sky enclave amid the otherwise illuminated Eastern Seaboard, with the nearby town of Bar Harbor — known for its seafood, locally owned shops, breweries and museums — making a good base camp. Ideal spots for viewing the lights are on the north end of the park, at the easily accessible Jordan Pond on Mt. Desert Island or down on the Schoodic Peninsula, away from the lights of town, on Schoodic Head. If the aurora is absent, the stargazing is usually superb in this region. Adventurous souls can snowshoe by headlamp or snowmobile up Cadillac Mountain (1,532 feet) on the carriage road to catch the continent’s first sunrise from October through March, a rite of passage for those who chase the dawn light. The fabled green flash that occurs over the Atlantic Ocean as the sun’s first rays are bent over the horizon are as rare as the northern lights.
In northern New Hampshire, beneath Mt. Washington outside the small town of Carroll, is the Bretton Woods ski resort at the Omni Mount Washington Resort. Since the ski area faces north with little light pollution, this is one of the more accessible places in New England to hunt for the aurora borealis.
Ryan Knapp, a meteorologist for the Mt. Washington Observatory, a scientific and educational nonprofit atop that peak, has seen the northern lights about three dozen times in the past 15 years. “I’ve seen sunset-to-sunrise displays,” he said. “On the opposite side of things, the shortest was roughly five minutes.” His experiences were mainly while standing in the valleys below, because the skies can be cloudy at the observatory.
Several thousand feet below the summit, Bretton Woods offers numerous daytime activities, including downhill skiing open until mid April, snow tubing, 60 miles of groomed cross country trails, guided backcountry skiing, a zip line and fat bike rentals for taking a spin across the snowy landscape. A less expensive option with plenty of potential hiking and snowshoeing viewpoints of the aurora can be found four miles south on Route 302 at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center. Overnight guests there can take part in guided hikes or borrow any necessary equipment such as packs or snowshoes.
Short of climbing to the top of the Green Mountains, Causeway Park, 10 miles north of Burlington, Vt., and alongside Lake Champlain, may offer one of Vermont’s best dark sky vistas, with spectacular sunsets, too, across the frozen water. And if the northern lights are out, the reflections off the vast surface of ice will remain unforgettable. The 4-mile-long, 10-foot-wide Causeway Trail offers a superb and darkened vantage point from which to walk over the lake. With cottages and other lodging options nearby, the eclectic and outsized Shelburne Museum (with works by Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, and Grandma Moses) is a 15-mile drive south, while the temptation to sample the wares at Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory (35 miles down Interstate 89 in Waterbury) might prove hard to resist.
Several miles west of Mackinaw City in Northern Michigan, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park sits on 600 acres of old growth forest on the Lake Michigan shoreline. As a certified Dark Sky Park, the Headlands is known for its starry nights, and offers free visitor programs and celestial phenomenon events at the waterfront center and in the observatory. Limited lodging is available on-site, but the park is open 24 hours a day with no access fees. A half dozen miles of trails feature signs that direct visitors — using flashlights with red lenses to preserve the night — to the stations to view the skies.
Rodney Cortright, an astronomer for the park, said on some nights, hundreds of viewers arrive at the park to see the lights. “You don’t need a dark sky park,” he said, but “anyplace that’s dark in a rural area will work.”
“We’re at a point where we’re going to be seeing more solar activity,” he added.
For a less structured adventure, Lake Superior is a 50-mile drive north, with hundreds of miles of ideal and starry panorama above America’s largest body of fresh water.
Minnesota offers the largest zone of potential aurora viewing in the contiguous United States, with about 30 nights of displays each year, according to Jim Gilbert, an author of several naturalist books about the state. Besides the northern lights, the area often visitors brilliantly lit constellations at night, as well as ice fishing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and dog sledding tours, through the Gunflint Lodge, 43 miles up the paved Gunflint Trail. Of the many places to view the aurora display in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, bets can be hedged by driving to the end of the Gunflint Trail to Seagull Lake near the Canadian border. The owner of Seagull Outfitters, Deb Mark, said “my neighbors are constantly posting spectacular photographs of the northern lights.” The area feature incredible vistas into the remote north as well as the likelihood of hearing howling wolves.
Since the aurora experience can be an elusive quest, if you get skunked in the spring, canoe rentals are available from Gunflint Lodge or Seagull Outfitters on warmer fall nights when the lights begin anew. The original Ojibwe inhabitants considered the kaleidoscopic night sky, Wawatay, as a cultural reaffirmation, believing the aurora was a performance of their ancestors dancing above to celebrate life and remind onlookers below that we are all part of the celestial wonder of creation.
Jon Waterman is the author of 15 books, including “National Geographic’s Atlas of the National Parks.”
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