Aurora Borealis and Star Gazing

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A 2012 time-lapse compilation of the Aurora Borealis with original composition, "Coronal Mass Ejection," by Peter Van Zandt Lane.

 
 

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)

The aurora is a beautiful, if hard to predict, phenomenon, that occurs year-round. Only in the fall, winter and early spring, however, is there enough darkness to allow us to see the northern lights when they occur. Plan the logistics of your trip using the resources below and then read about what to expect when viewing the aurora.

How and When to See the Aurora in Denali

  1. The aurora must be occurring.
    First and foremost, the phenomenon must be occurring. The aurora can be predicted like weather, although in a less precise way. Check an aurora forecast for the Kp index—a number on a scale from 0 to 9 that indicates how strong the auroral activity is expected to be. When reading the forecast, don’t forget to account for time zone conversions—Alaska Standard Time applies for most of the winter and is nine hours behind Coordinated Universal Time (UTC); Alaska Daylight Time is eight hours behind UTC when daylight saving time is in effect.
  2. The sky must be dark enough.
    Even if the aurora is happening, the sky can't be too light. Because Denali is so far north, the summer sun keeps the sky too bright to see any aurora. Visitors who come within six weeks before or after the summer solstice (around June 21) should not expect to see the aurora. Look up sunrise and sunset times for your visit and keep in mind that in the winter the sky will generally be dark enough for aurora-viewing from two hours after sunset until two hours before sunrise.
  3. The sky must be clear enough.
    Auroral activity happens high in the upper atmosphere, more than 60 miles above the ground. So even if the sky is dark and the aurora is happening, clouds can block it from our view. Check a standard weather forecast as well as the astronomer’s Clear Sky Chart (look for dark blue squares in the cloud cover row) to see if the weather is in your favor.

Where to See the Aurora

In the Denali area, nearly everywhere is free from human light pollution. No matter where your lodging or campground is located, you should have a good chance to see the aurora if the three factors above align for you. The best locations are those that provide a clear view of the northern horizon with no buildings, dense trees, or nearby mountains to block your view. Although the aurora can appear anywhere in the sky, it is most likely to first appear in the north, especially when auroral activity levels are low.

If you are traveling elsewhere in Alaska, it may be possible to see the aurora from other locations. Areas north of Denali, around Fairbanks, offer a higher likelihood of seeing the aurora than areas south of Denali, towards Anchorage. However, these cities have more human light pollution, so look for darker, natural areas outside of more populated areas for the best viewing experience.
 
snowy landscape under a night sky filled with stars
A winter night sky view at Wonder Lake

NPS Photo / Jacob W Frank

Stargazing

With long hours of darkness, the fall, winter and early spring can be a fantastic time to view stars in Denali. Very little light pollution makes Denali a particularly great location for stargazing. Here, it's possible to see the Milky Way and thousands of faint stars that cannot be seen near cities.

Use the forecasts above to ensure a good chance of clear, dark skies and consider bringing along a star chart or downloading a stargazing app to identify stars and planets.

The long hours of darkness continue through early April, though by the end of that month the sun is making its stunning, and often welcome, return. Eventually, it obscures all glimpses of the stars during the summer months.

 

Learn More About the Aurora

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    Last updated: June 9, 2020

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    Denali Park, AK 99755

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