How to see the Northern Lights from New England and the Midwest
Several years ago, on a cold mid-March evening around 10 p.m., I took my dogs for a walk past the lights of our home in Carbondale, Colorado. The sky was lit with stars, and as I looked up for Big Dipper and the North Star, I noticed the distant horizon pulsating in a green glow. I couldn’t believe I was seeing the Northern Lights.
Like other Northern Lights sightings I’d had in New Hampshire and Alaska, the glow turned into green strobes, as if multiple search beams were working across the sky. Charged particles from the sun had entered Earth’s magnetic field thousands of miles above, and as they rained down on the planet’s upper atmosphere, the particles collided with atoms of nitrogen and oxygen, illuminating the sky with pale pink and green bands of shimmering light.
You don’t have to suffer frostbite, climb to high altitudes, or travel to Sweden or Far North Alaska to see the Northern Lights. With careful planning, timing, and luck, witnessing the Northern Lights in the Lower 48 is one of the greatest but most rarely seen shows for anyone willing to sacrifice some sleep.
“Whether you’re lucky enough to witness it depends on a number of things, including current solar cycle activity,” said Mirka Zapletal, director of education at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, NH And in 2022 there is expected to be more activity – more charged particles brought into our upper atmosphere by solar flares and the solar wind – than in recent years.
Patience is key, along with clear, cloudy skies and a forecast of the Northern Lights to capture the elusive spectacle. The fact that there is no guarantee of seeing the lights makes the 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 does not cooperate or you sleep during the alarm.
What to know, wherever you go
The Northern Lights, which often shine for half-hour cycles followed by two hours of dormancy, can only be seen after dark, with the hours around midnight offering the most optimal viewing conditions. The lights are not visible on full moon nights or in the middle of 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 a clear, cloudy vantage point on the northern horizon, they can sometimes be seen from fall to early spring as far south as Pennsylvania – in 1958 viewers witnessed an aurora extremely rare from Mexico.)
Along with getting a weather forecast for cloudless skies, the Northern Lights forecast is essential. The Geophysical Institute of Fairbanks, Alaska website provides weekly forecasts of the North American Aurora Borealis for the next three hours, three days, or 27 days. This year, their index that measures disturbances to the Earth’s magnetic field predicts that the nights of March 11 and 19 (the day after a full moon) will offer the best chance of seeing auroras in the Lower 48. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also provides advanced forecasts in half-hour increments online.
In New England
Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine is a rare enclave of dark skies in the middle of the otherwise illuminated east coast, with the nearby town of Bar Harbor – known for its seafood, local shops, breweries and museums – making up a good base camp. Ideal places to view the lights are at the north end of the park, at the easily accessible Jordan Pond on Desert Mount Island or on the Schoodic Peninsula, away from the city lights, on Schoodic Head. If auroras are absent, stargazing is generally superb in this region. Adventurous souls can snowshoe with a headlamp or snowmobile up Cadillac Mountain (1,532 feet) on the carriage road to see the continent’s first sunrise from October to March, a rite of passage for those who chase the light of dawn. The legendary green flash that occurs over the Atlantic Ocean as the first rays of the sun bend over the horizon is as rare as the Northern Lights.
In northern New Hampshire, below Mount Washington, outside the small town of Carroll, is the ski resort of Bretton Woods at the Omni Mount Washington Resort. Since the ski area faces north with little light pollution, it’s one of the most accessible places in New England to chase the Northern Lights.
Ryan Knapp, meteorologist for the Mt. Washington Observatory, a nonprofit science and education organization atop that peak, has seen the Northern Lights about three dozen times over the past 15 years. “I’ve seen shows from sunset to sunrise,” he said. “On the other side of things, the shortest was about five minutes.” His experiments were mostly in the valleys below, as the sky can be cloudy at the observatory.
Several thousand feet below the summit, Bretton Woods offers plenty of daytime activities including downhill skiing open until mid-April, snow tubing, 60 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, guided cross-country skiing , a zip line and fat bike rentals to take a ride through the snowy landscape. A cheaper option with plenty of potential vantage points for hiking and aurora snowshoeing is four miles south on Highway 302 at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center. Overnight guests can join guided hikes or borrow any necessary equipment, such as backpacks or snowshoes.
Unless you climb to the top of the Green Mountains, Causeway Park, 10 miles (16 km) north of Burlington, Vermont, and along Lake Champlain, can offer one of the best views of dark skies in Vermont, with some spectacular sunsets over frozen water. And if the northern lights are extinguished, the reflections on the vast surface of ice will remain unforgettable. The Causeway Trail, 4 miles long and 10 feet wide, offers a great, dark vantage point from which to walk across the lake. With cottages and other accommodation options nearby, the eclectic and oversized Shelburne Museum (with works by Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer and Grandma Moses) is 15 miles south, while the temptation to sample the products of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory (35 miles on Interstate 89 in Waterbury) might prove hard to resist.
In the Midwest
Several miles west of Mackinaw City in northern Michigan, Headlands International Dark Sky Park sits on 600 acres of old-growth forest on the shore of Lake Michigan. As a certified Dark Sky Park, the Headlands is known for its starry nights and offers free visitor programs and celestial phenomena events at the waterfront center and observatory. A limited number of accommodations are available on site, but the park is open 24 hours a day with no entrance fees. Half a dozen miles of trails feature signs that direct visitors — using flashlights with red lenses to preserve the night — to stations to see the sky.
Rodney Cortright, an astronomer at the park, said some nights hundreds of spectators arrive at the park to see the lights. “You don’t need a dark sky park,” he said, but “any dark place in a rural area will work.”
“We’re at a point where we’re going to see more solar activity,” he added.
For a less structured adventure, Lake Superior is a 50-mile drive north, with hundreds of miles of picture-perfect, star-studded vistas above America’s largest freshwater body.
Minnesota offers the largest potential aurora-viewing area in the contiguous United States, with about 30 nights of displays each year, according to Jim Gilbert, author of several naturalist books on the state. Besides the Northern Lights, the area often hosts brilliantly lit constellations at night, as well as ice fishing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and dog sledding excursions, through the Gunflint Lodge, 43 miles down the trail Gunflint pavement. Of the many places to view the Northern Lights in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which is managed by the US Forest Service, bets can be covered by driving to the end of the Gunflint Trail to Seagull Lake near the Canadian border. Seagull Outfitters owner Deb Mark said “my neighbors are constantly posting spectacular photos of the Northern Lights.” The area offers incredible views of the far north as well as the likelihood of hearing howling wolves.
Since experiencing the Northern Lights can be an elusive quest, if you’re skunk in the spring, canoe rentals are available from Gunflint Lodge or Seagull Outfitters on warmer fall nights when the lights come on again. Early Ojibwa inhabitants viewed the kaleidoscopic night sky, Wawatay, as a cultural reaffirmation, believing the aurora was a performance of their ancestors dancing above to celebrate life and reminding viewers 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”.