Is Fairbanks the Best Place in America to See the Northern Lights?Photo by Blake Snow Travel Features Alaska
“Get Out There” is a column for itchy footed humans written by Paste contributor Blake Snow. Although different now, travel is still worthwhile—especially to these open borders.
You need three primary ingredients to really see the Northern Lights: Proximity to the North Pole, maximum darkness, and clear skies. Fairbanks, Alaska has all three and more, making it one of the best places in America (if not world) to see the elusive Aurora Borealis.
But Fairbanks features a lot more than just shimmering ribbons of light swathing across the northern night sky. On a recent bucket list trip with my wife, I braved the coldest city in America to delight in dog sledding, hot springing, arctic snowmobiling, and even reindeer walking.
Before following suit, here’s what you need to know.
Remote outpost plus amenities
Extreme north but with lots of uncannily good restaurants, hotels, taxis, and an international airport without the city feel. That’s the best way to describe Fairbanks, which is Alaska’s second biggest city, but still just a tenth of the population of Anchorage (the largest). In that way, the former has everything visitors want without feeling overrun or overly developed, unlike other Northern Light hotspots with little to no amenities.
For example, Chena Hot Springs Resort is undeniably developed. But it’s also an hour outside of town, serves amazing produce via greenhouse, and was the best light experience during our entire stay. We were hauled to the top of Charlie Dome via snowcats for a once in a lifetime viewing in the early morning hours and stayed warm with wood burning stoves, hot cocoa, and warm noodles in cozy yurts.
To see the rest of the area, we base-camped at Springhill Suites in downtown Fairbanks and enjoyed the blackberry and birch salmon from Pump House, devoured savory crepes from The Crepery, and were wowed by the roasted beet salad and potato encrusted salmon at Lavelle’s Bistro. All of this goes a long way to warming your bones in between frigid adventures.
Best things to do
My Uber driver to the airport wasn’t having it. “You should fly towards the sun instead,” he reacted in vain after learning of my destination. But you can’t find arctic adventure that way, so we headed to Fairbanks instead. I’m thrilled we did.
Although less than 90% look like the dazzling, almost “catfish” style photos you’ve seen before (more on that later), standing under the Northern Lights is a magical experience. It’s an otherworldly look into what happens when our magnetic poles protect us from the sun’s endless barrage of solar storms. It’s beautiful in more ways than one.
While we came for those lights, we stayed for the dog sledding with Paws for Adventure. (Getting pulled by a dozen huskies is an exhilarating ride!) We zigzagged through snow canopy trees on snowmobiles at Chena Hot Springs and blew off steam in the namesake waters.
We didn’t stop there. Creamers Field (also a great place to see the lights in town) and Chena River Trail were two of the most wondrous winter hikes I’ve ever been on. But Walking with Reindeer turned the magic up a notch further while our guide Tyrone drew genuine laughs and told the story of 10 non-flying reindeer we had the pleasure of interacting with—as if they were family pets rather than domesticated caribou. It sounds perplexing, but it’s unexpectedly lively and even uplifting look into the symbiotic parallels of man and animal.
Fact vs. fiction
To see the lights, you’ll lose precious sleep between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. (don’t give up). You’ll also be exposed to below zero temperatures and the underwhelming realization that to the naked eye, the Northern Lights usually appear as cloudy gray or shimmering silver. Two local guides admitted they only see full color skies about once every 14 nights (or 7% of the time).
So are the remaining 93% worth it? Yes. They. Are. Although published photos exaggerate the truth, the Northern Lights I saw still danced, shimmered, and ribboned across the extreme sky, as they have for millions of years. On Earth, it’s the closest you can get to outer-space without strapping yourself to a rocket. That’s a fact.
Another truth: Fairbanksian people have no business being this warm and kind in such a harsh environment. “Alaska’s a good spot,” one guide modestly explained. “No sense messing it up with bad manners.” Spoiler alert: they haven’t.
Blake Snow contributes to fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies as a bodacious writer-for-hire and frequent travel columnist. He lives in Provo, Utah with his adolescent family and two dogs.