Northern Lights

Two bright green curtains of light shine against a dark, starry sky over a tree-lined horizon and a scenic lake.

NPS / Lavoie

The Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the northern lights, are radiant shimmering colors that sporadically light up the night sky and have fascinated mankind for ages. The word "aurora" comes from the Latin word for "sunrise," and "borealis" means "to the north."

The Aurora Borealis shines sporadically over the middle and high latitudes of the northern hemisphere, including Voyageurs National Park. Your chance of seeing the northern lights is impacted by the type of radiation produced by the Sun, your location on the Earth, and whether night sky is both clear and dark. Chances increase slightly during the winter because there are more hours of darkness.

Check out our night sky photo gallery to see more Aurora Borealis photos.

A silhouetted figure stands on a dock and watches a bright green curtain of light shining above a tree-lined horizon.

NPS / Dimse

Will You See the Northern Lights in Voyageurs?

You sure might! Several things must happen to produce the northern lights.

  • The aurora must be active. If the particles that produce the aurora are more active (e.g., due to solar flares), there is a higher chance you can see them in Voyageurs.
    • You can check the Alaska Geophysical Institute's Aurora Forecast up to about a month in advance of your trip to predict how active the aurora is likely to be.
  • The sky must be clear. Clouds can obscure the aurora, even if it is active.
    • Check the weather forecast before and during your trip to learn when to expect cloudy skies or storms.
  • The sky must be dark. The aurora may be active all day long, but the lights will only be visible against dark skies. A full moon and man-made lights might make the northern lights appear dimmer.
    • To give yourself a longer timeframe for seeing them, prepare to stay up late.
    • You can check NASA's sky calendar to learn when the moon will rise and how bright it will be during your trip.
  • They can appear any time of year. However, Voyageurs winters provide longer periods of darkness, which can increase your chances of viewing them if they are active.
  • Find an open horizon facing north. The distance between Rainy Lake and other lakes to the south like Kabetogama, Namakan, and Sand Point is generally not significant enough to impact the visibility of the aurora, if it is active. A clear spot free of branches and a wide view of the horizon will give you a better vista in which to search for the lights. Some suggested viewing areas in the park are:
    • Ash River Visitor Center grounds
    • Meadwood Road Day Use Area
    • Rainy Lake Visitor Center upper parking lot
Explanation of how northern lights occur


What Causes the Northern Lights?

The Earth is constantly being bombarded with debris, radiation, and other magnetic waves from space. Most of the time, the Earth's own magnetic field does an excellent job of deflecting these potentially harmful rays and particles.

When charged particles from the Sun encounter the Earth's magnetosphere, the particles are deflected by magnetosphere's spiraling motion around the field lines. This deflection slows the particles streaming from the Sun, causing them to flow around the Earth like water in a stream being diverted by a rock.

Sometimes the particles penetrate the Earth's magnetosphere and collide with nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our atmosphere. This releases photon energy in the nitrogen and oxygen atoms, producing amazing aurora lights. The color of the aurora depends on which atom is struck, and the altitude of the collision.

  • Green: oxygen, up to 150 miles in altitude

  • Red: oxygen, above 150 miles in altitude

  • Blue: nitrogen, up to 60 miles in altitude

  • Purple: nitrogen, above 60 miles in altitude

When these constantly-shifting magnetic and electrical forces react with one another, the aurora appears to dance in the night sky.

Bands of green and blue light appear to dance and swirl in the dark night sky above a scenic lake.

NPS / Johnson-Bice

What You Might See

The northern lights will appear as streaks or cloud-like patches of light. Depending on their intensity, the lights might be just a patch of band on the northern horizon; at higher intensities the northern lights can fill the entire sky. The lights will usually be white or a pale green, but will sometimes appear in colors such as yellow, red, blue, or even purple.

If you're uncertain if that patch of light is indeed the northern lights, watch and be patient; the northern lights can disappear completely, only to regain their brightness minutes later. If the patch grows brighter, fades, then reappears, it is most likely the northern lights. When the conditions are right, the northern lights offer an entrancing, almost magical display that fascinates all who see it—a true North Woods experience.

A long, bright cluster of stars stretches across a dark horizon, with trees on either side.
The Milky Way, seen from the Voyageurs Forest Overlook


What to Do if You Can't See The Aurora

Even though the Northern Lights are only seen intermittently in Voyageurs National Park, don't despair if—despite your best planning—you do not get to view them. They may be more active the following night, or during future trips. And while watching for the aurora, you can also see the Milky Way, satellites, shooting stars, and more as you view the dark skies of Voyageurs.

So step out, turn off the light, look up...and behold the wonders of the night.

Last updated: February 26, 2024

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Voyageurs National Park Headquarters
360 Hwy 11 East

International Falls, MN 56649



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