Alaska’s “staycation summer” is likely to stretch into “staycation fall” and “staycation winter.”
One of the fastest-growing activities during the fall and winter is northern lights viewing. Sure, on a good night you can see the aurora borealis loud-and-proud from your back porch. But if you want to have a better shot at seeing the best display, why not work with a pro?
Folks who really love the northern lights will recommend that you head north of the Alaska Range to Fairbanks to get the best, consistent views. This makes for a great weekend getaway — you can even ride on the Alaska Railroad’s “Aurora Winter Train” on Saturdays.
Still, if you want to stick around Anchorage and learn how to get the most out of your camera, check in with Carl Johnson of Alaska Photo Treks. Carl is a published photographer and enjoys seeking out the aurora borealis while offering hands-on instruction for nighttime photography. “We go to places that are really photoworthy, but also offer hands-on instruction,” he said. Don’t forget your tripod. The itinerary includes getting out of the Anchorage Bowl to avoid the “light pollution.” Cost is $249 per person.
Dora Redman is another professional photographer who just loves the northern lights. Originally from Brazil, Redman had never heard of the northern lights until she arrived in Talkeetna 20 years ago. “I saw them for the first time in September and knew that I needed to share them with my friends and family.”
Redman, also known as “Aurora Dora,” now has a gallery on Main Street in downtown Talkeetna. But she doesn’t do tours to see the aurora borealis. Rather, she offers a private, one-night photo workshop. “We meet at 10 p.m., talking about cameras and nighttime photography,” she said. “Then we go out and shoot.”
Redman stays within 70 miles of Talkeetna — from Palmer to Denali State Park, because she loves the landscapes. Cost for the one-night workshop is $400.
Mandy Garcia, co-owner of Anchorage-based Salmon Berry Tours, offers a nighttime tour to see the northern lights — but only in Fairbanks.
“Especially in Fairbanks, it’s possible to go out and see the aurora borealis on your own. But I always tell my friends to go out on one night with a guide,” she said. “That way you’ll learn a little bit about the science of the northern lights.”
Salmon Berry Tours will pick you up at your Fairbanks hotel and take you to the northernmost ski hill in North America — just outside of town. Guests can stay warm in the ski patrol hut, with hot drinks and snacks. Cost is $115 per person and your return time back in Fairbanks is about 2 a.m.
Aaron Lojewski of Fairbanks Aurora Tours has a different approach. Rather than going to a fixed location, he and his guests hop in the van. “We’re based in Fairbanks, but we’re mobile,” said Lojewski. “We’re able to select the best viewing conditions for the night, without local light pollution.”
Based on the weather and reports from the nearby Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, “We see the lights 80-90 percent of the time,” said Lojewski. Tours are $195 per person.
Fifty miles outside of Fairbanks on a north-facing slope sits a group of igloos with one unique feature: the northern third of each igloo is clear plexiglass. At Borealis Basecamp you can actually lie in bed and watch the northern lights. Of course, you’ll get a better picture if you bundle up and stand out on the deck! But it’s nice and cozy inside.
“There are 15 igloos right now,” said co-owner Adriel Butler. Guests dine at Latitude 65, the on-site restaurant. During the day, there are dogsled rides and snowmachine tours. Guests also have access to fat bikes on-site.
Butler offers a four-day, three-night package which includes accommodations, transportation from Fairbanks and breakfast each morning. Cost is $1,100 for two people, provided they are Alaska residents.
Kathy Hedges of Northern Alaska Tour Company offers several options to see the northern lights. The one-night tour features a drive from Fairbanks beyond the city lights to the remote community of Joy, Alaska. The Arctic Circle Trading Post will be warmed up and ready on arrival. Grab a cup of hot chocolate and walk outside to look for the northern lights. Departure from Fairbanks is between 8:30 and 9 p.m. Arrive in Joy around 11:30 p.m. Arrive back in Fairbanks about 3:30 a.m. Cost is $89 per person.
Northern Alaska Tour Co. also offers a variety of packages from Fairbanks to Coldfoot, which Hedges said is “right under the auroral oval.” That means if it’s a clear night and there is northern lights activity, you’ll see it in Coldfoot. You can take a van north from Fairbanks, featuring a stop at the Yukon River Camp for lunch and at the Arctic Circle for a photo op. Arrive in Coldfoot in time for dinner. Then, later in the evening, catch a van north to Wiseman, about 14 miles.
In Wiseman, learn from your host about the mining history of the region and the unique challenges of living off the grid in the far north. There’s a wood stove inside a small cabin that’s nice and toasty while you watch for the northern lights. Return to Coldfoot around 3:30 p.m.
While it’s possible to return by van on the same route, it’s just a quick flight back to Fairbanks. Pick the three-day/two night “Aurora Fly Drive” package. Cost is $799 per person.
There are many other adventures for northern lights lovers, especially in Fairbanks. Amy Geiger of Explore Fairbanks lays it out simply: “There’s less precipitation and getter visibility in Fairbanks,” she said. “There’s a reason the Geophysical Institute in here.”
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