Until I went to Fairbanks Alaska I thought the northern lights were all just hype. No – I haven’t joined a Flat Earth Society or decided Global Warming is a hoax, I just didn’t know if I fully believed in the northern lights. I had good reason to doubt them.
Often the Aurora Isn’t What You Expect
I had ‘seen’ the aurora twice before – but to my disappointment it was nothing like what I had seen in pictures and videos. There was no color (except from what long exposure photography could capture), there was no dancing – it was more of a gray, cloudy glowing blob. These aurora sightings could’ve been mistaken for moon glow; and I never would have even noticed them except people told me it was the aurora.
After my disappointing experiences, I started to think the northern lights were some weird conspiracy by tourism departments and northern lights tour companies.
I even went as far as talking to an aurora physicist at the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks Alaska. Peter Delemere has built his whole career on studying the northern lights – not only on Earth but also on Jupiter and Saturn! I told him about my conspiracy theory and he explained, “When it’s faint your eye doesn’t detect it as green, it appears as a grayish glow, and it can be a bit disappointing.”
I guess I just had bad luck with the aurora intensity according to Peter. To see any color in the faint aurora, I had to do photography to know it was there because it’s not really visible to the human eye.
Our eyes use two different types of cells to see light: rods and cones. The cone cells perceive fine detail and color but need bright light in order to do so. Rod cells can only see black and white and have poor resolution, but remain sensitive even in very low light. So at night without any bright light source, we normally only see a monochromatic world. So cameras can actually show us what’s there that our eyes cannot see.
I still sort of felt like this whole northern lights thing was a sham if only people taking long exposure photography could see them – right? But I was willing to give it another shot, so I headed to Alaska to see if Fairbanks Northern Lights tours could produce the Northern Lights trip of my expectations.
4 Great Fairbanks Northern Lights Tours
1. Aurora Bear Photography Workshop
I felt as if it were tornado season in Oklahoma, as we drove 40 minutes north of Fairbanks to chase aurora. I was slightly on edge, and also fighting to stay awake after an early morning flight to Fairbanks and no time to nap. Now it was 10PM and we were going to Aurora Bear Photography Workshop and somehow I had to stay awake until 3 in the morning. I might need a miracle, I thought to myself.
As we pulled into the driveway lit by torches it gave the whole area a romantic glow in the snow. My excitement level perked up and my sleepiness subsided. This was a small intimate photo workshop in Frank and Miriam’s off-the-grid home. Despite being sleep deprived, I thought doing an aurora photo workshop the first night we were in Fairbanks was the perfect idea to ensure the rest of our time in Alaska chasing aurora would be productive!
Frank and Miriam immediately turned into fast friends as we talked in their little cabin lit by candlelight. We all had a lifetime of travels under out belts and we bonded on travel stories over tapas as we got to know each other. This workshop was private in that only one party could book it. Frank’s goal was to create something more personal and memorable for people rather than doing a tour with a large group. He had traveled for 10 years around the world and now people get welcomed into his home as they travel.
“Aurora watching is an emotional thing – it’s something from their lifelong bucket list. They dream of it for a long time. And it’s a lot of effort, money and time to get to where you can see it. When they do see it – it’s emotional and we often hear very personal stories from people. And that’s what makes it special for us too.” Frank explained.
They’ve hosted Make A Wish recipients, travelers who were mourning friends and wanted to connect again through the aurora, and they’ve hosted people who only had a few months left to live. They obviously offer a very special experience.
The excitement in me was building as we talked about this great scientific phenomenon called the northern lights. Frank provided us a scientific background and then we went into photography tips and settings as he primed us for the big show. All of our apps and forecasts were looking positive. I was hoping this was the night the aurora would finally meet my expectations.
Miriam came in from outside and announced the aurora was just starting to come out. We quickly got our gear ready, bundled up for the cold temps and shoved a bunch of batteries in our pockets. Frank and his dogs led the way into the snowy woods until we came to a clearing where we could get some trees in the foreground of our shots. “There it is,” he said, as he looked skyward.
I looked up in excitement and could discern a faint discrepancy in the sky. Or was it just some cloud? Or was it just the glow of the moon behind a cloud?
Nooooooo, my heart screamed. “That is it?” I asked Frank in a disappointed voice.
He said, yes it was faint but once we set our up cameras we’d see it. I had been around this block before. Sure enough when we photographed it with a long exposure the whole sky was actually glowing green. I was really happy with the photos, but I was still really let down with the overall northern lights experience.
This had nothing to do with the tour, the workshop was excellent and we not only learned a ton about cold weather northern lights photography, but we ate like queens, and made new friends in Frank and Miriam. The tour was everything I could’ve asked for and more. I loved the intimacy of the small group. I started nodding off around 3AM when we finally called it a night and Frank drove us back to our hotel in Fairbanks.
Our first outing with Aurora Bear was lovely, but I still felt as if I was cheating by only seeing the colorful aurora through my pictures.
Aurora Bear Photography
Read what other people thought of Aurora Bear Photography on Trip Advisor. We had the Deluxe tour which not only gave us photography instruction, but it also kept us nibbling all night on incredible tapas made by Miriam.
Aurora Bear Photo Workshops
2. Last Frontier Mushing Co-op Aurora Night
When we arrived at the Last Frontier Mushing Co-op we were met with bad news, the original overnight aurora tour we were going to do (mushing dogs to a yurt an hour away, and then stay over at the yurt to view aurora and mush back in the morning) had encountered a snag. The previous night’s big snowstorm obliterated the trail due to the winds. We went with plan B, doing late night dog mushing there and then back to their office to watch for the aurora. Let me first just explain, the Last Frontiers ‘office’ was not a normal office. It was this adorable off-the-grid yurt, toasty warm complete with an adorable retired sled dog, Maddie. This seemed like a great alternative!
Amanda and Ryne, the two women who led our northern lights tour, were both experienced mushing racers. They were young, badass, and fun to hang out with. They got us all suited up for a dog sled ride, something I had done before, but I had never mushed in the dark. With the new fallen snow, the black spruce trees were magical looking covered with dollops of white. The dogs were eager to run and we were bundled up so much we resembled Randy from the Christmas Story.
Scared of the cold weather in Fairbanks in the Winter? Don’t Be!
Check out my Alaska Winter Packing List and go prepared!
After the sledding, we warmed up in the yurt and got our cameras ready. The forecast was really positive for the night and the skies were perfectly clear. As we ate delicious smoked salmon and reindeer sausage inside Amanda was outside watching for the aurora. “It’s here!” she exclaimed and we jumped into action.
This time I had adjusted my aurora expectations to pretty low when it came to colors, but I was still eager to photograph it and capture the color. However as soon as I walked outside the yurt I saw it. “Holy crap, “ I said with my mouth agape. There it was, a bright green glowing streak in the sky right above all of the dog kennels. I was about brought to tears; after 3 previous viewings, this scientific wonder finally looked as I had expected it to look.
We spent the next 90 minutes running around outside watching as the lights grew in intensity and start to move and flow like a wave in the sky. This was the substorms I had heard about; streaks of light dancing upwards right above our heads. At that point I just watched in awe. I didn’t actually take many pictures that night, because I was mesmerized just watching it with my eyes. The night was cold, but perfect. We sat by the fire, had hot chocolate, took pictures, but mostly we just enjoyed the show.
I felt like I had finally lost my northern lights virginity…which is entirely different than losing your virginity under the northern lights!
How you Can do Aurora Watching and Dog Sledding
Read what other people had to say about the Last Frontier Mushing Co-op on Trip Advisor.
4 Hour Aurora Watching and Dog Sledding
Overnight Aurora and Dog Sledding Adventure
See all of Frontiers North Aurora Tours
3. Taste of Alaska Lodge Aurora Viewing
Now since I knew the northern lights were not some sham, I wanted more; I was hooked. Kory, owner of the Taste of Alaska Lodge, met us and got us all settled in. This wasn’t really a tour, but more of a way to view the lights. This was going to be our home base for the night for one last chance at aurora chasing.
The forecast was a little iffy for the night. The temperatures had taken a nosedive, but it was a perfectly clear sky. However, the intensity in the forecasts were not too strong. “Ignore all weather forecasts and aurora predictions. Nature is out of your control. I repeat nature is out of your control! The only thing you can control when trying to view the aurora is your being awake,” Kory reassured us.
We set up our gear outside and first did some full moon photography. Contrary to what you mainly read – a full moon is great for northern lights photography. It lights up the snow in the foreground perfectly enhancing the contrast of the shot naturally.
And then we waited.
We drank hot chocolate.
We watched our aurora apps.
We played games on our phones.
We drank scotch.
We walked in circles to stay warm and awake.
And we waited some more.
The temperatures were plunging, it was 1:45 AM and the northern lights still hadn’t shown up. We looked at each other and decided to call it a night. We went out in the cold to get our tripods and cameras (which were completely covered in frost!), and we looked up one last time.
“Is that it?” Michaela asked me. I stared at it – I wasn’t sure if my eyes were just playing tricks on me or not. But as we stood there contemplating they grew in intensity and suddenly the green was just starting to get visible.
We quickly put the batteries back in our cameras and started shooting. My camera slowly tried to come back to life after sitting in -15 F for the last couple of hours. I felt like I was moving in slow motion I was so cold! But sure enough, with a long exposure, there it was – a streak above the lodge!
We stayed out for 45 more minutes as it grew in intensity and even popped up a little substorm for a fleeting moment. So fleeting I couldn’t even turn my camera quick enough to capture it! Then is all died back down.
Michaela and I looked at each other and agreed, “never give up!”. We took Kory’s advice and somehow stayed awake and were persistent; and it paid off!
4. Borealis Basecamp and Viewing Domes
If you are looking for an incredibly unique way to see the northern lights around Fairbanks and have a bigger budget, then check out Borealis Basecamp. It’s a hybrid glamping and aurora experience about an hour’s drive north of Fairbanks where there’s no sign of light pollution.
Borealis Basecamp is the newest and most glamorous way to see the northern lights in the region. I didn’t actually get to have the full overnight experience, but I did go there during the day to check out the unique glamping structures.
These fiberglass domes are reminiscent of igloos and they are what expedition and research teams use in the far polar regions. However, these igloos are have been remodeled to include clear, curved windows that stretch 16 feet across each igloo roof. This allows guests to lie in bed and view the northern lights without leaving their cozy duvet.
The igloos are not at all primitive even though they are off the grid. They have kitchenettes, a full bathroom, real bed and mattress, and they are heated.
I heard of the Borealis Basecamp because Frank from Aurora Bear lives right next door to it and also works as a photography instructor. He took me over for a visit and I met the people behind this unique idea. I checked out the igloos as well as the yurt tent where there was communal dining available. I also went snow shoeing around the area to get a feel for the daytime activities they offer. They also offer dogsledding and snowmobiling outings during the day.
The Basecamp is the hottest new thing for aurora viewing, so you have to make your reservations well ahead of time as they will be booked out most of the winter!
Over the course of 9 nights, we saw the northern lights 3 times! Just like each Fairbanks northern lights tour was different, each of the three nights produced auroras of different intensity. I can now confidently say the Earth is round, global warming is real, and the northern lights are not all hype – they are real! Come to Fairbanks Alaska to see for yourself, it’s the best place for a northern lights trip!
I was a guest of Explore Fairbanks for this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.
This post contains some affiliate links. If you choose to purchase items through these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the costs of running this site
By Sbobet Piala Dunia 2018 March 22, 2018 - 7:23 am
Thank you for sharing with us your thoughts and pics from this experience!
It looks unbelievable. Your post got me fascinated about Alaska. I read about it before but always tried to keep myself from reading more, because I had the feeling that if I will find more about it, I will get obsessed. I must say, I was right.
I am fascinated with all what you described Alaska was for you, as it is all I ever imagined this experience should be for a traveller.
Thank you for staying true to reality, for sharing real-life travel experiences and photos. Thank you so much.
By depobola March 26, 2018 - 6:45 am
Thanks so much for writing about this! A travel blog of my own is slowly forming in my mind.
Did you ever take lessons for journalism/ writing to feel confident about your writing style? Or did you intuitively post articles? (if that makes sense).
By Sherry March 26, 2018 - 6:15 pm
No, no lesson or classes…I just started writing and have refined through the years!
By Northern lights vacation alaska December 14, 2018 - 4:22 am
Thanks for sharing this nice post. Northern lights looks amazing. In the darker area you will be able to see colorful and beautiful northern lights.
By reena rani February 6, 2019 - 3:20 pm
Hi Thank you for your post.
Can I ask when you visited Fairbanks?
And who did you book with please?
Thanks in advance
By Sherry February 6, 2019 - 3:23 pm
Sure! I was there Feb 2018 – just last year! I loved it. We saw the northern lights 3 different times – but the best experience was going outside of Fairbanks an hour to Aurora Bear. They will pick you up and drop you off and also teach you how to photograph them! Contact Frank there – http://www.aurora-bear.com/Home.html
By Cinna March 6, 2019 - 12:23 am
Hi! I enjoyed reading your blog, it was interesting.
I’ve been obsessed with the Northern Lights for God knows how long and I’m finally traveling to Alaska for a week to see them. Next week infact. I’ve been checking the GI institute’s website which typically give week long predictions on the Kp Index. From what I gather, Kp 2 is considered quiet, and any value above 2 translates to a more visible aurora. Needless to say, it’s predicted to be quiet throughout my entire trip and coincidently peaks the week after I’m scheduled to leave. Now I can either hope and pray to see a showing during my time in Alaska or prolong my vacation a bit just to see them. I guess I’m inquiring as to the info you received during your stay regarding the “strength” of the aurora during a “quiet” period, and if you recall, what level the Kp index was when you finally saw green.
Greetings from Florida!
By Sherry March 6, 2019 - 10:26 am
It’s been a year now – but I believe we saw aurora under kp 2. And do keep in mind that forecasts are just that…forecasts and they change. Just like weather forecasts! However – I’m going to ask my friend Frank from Aurora Bear to weigh in on your question too! Regardless – you will have a great time in Alaska and I think your odds are high. There are different levels of what you see though of course. During my 10 days there I would say we saw them in different intensities 4 times – 2 were really noticeable to the naked eye and 2 were more or a camera thing.
By Frank Stelges March 6, 2019 - 4:22 pm
Hi Cinna, great that you are coming to Alaska!
The Kp index is always a bit confusing…It is basically the “probability to see the Aurora depending on your geographic location”
A Kp2 means an Aurora which happens to be only visible further north in a more narrow area ( regarding the north-south width) than a Kp3-Aurora.
It has not necessarily something to do with the quality of the display regarding movements or colors.
Fairbanks has the advantage that is more or less always under the “Aurora-belt” so in a clear night your chances are still good with a Kp2.
A Kp2 Aurora will just happen further north which means it is lower above the horizon than a Kp4 Aurora which is happening further south and will be visible right above you/Fairbanks.
The distance from your viewing point to the Aurora makes it then also a bit brighter or darker. Also a Kp4 Aurora might appear more active with movements and colors – but that is just a statistical average. We have often Kp2 Auroras which are super colorful and dancing – but last only 10 minutes and the rest of the night nothing is going on. On the other side we had last week a Kp5 but it was just a dim glow – all over the night sky from north to south but no colors at all.. For a real good forecast you have to dig deeper and look also on the amount of particles and their speed – and also the Bz index, which is the orientation of the magnetic field of the solar wind. Just in short – it has to be negative for creating Aurora and this can change from minute to minute and is not very predictable. It’s just nature! 🙂
Staying a couple nights definitely increases your chances!
If you want to learn more about the science behind it and how to take nice pictures of it – check out our website http://www.Aurora-Bear.com and maybe come out for an evening with us!
Safe travels! Frank
By Cinna March 6, 2019 - 8:06 pm
Hey Sherry & Frank,
Thank you so much for getting back to me and leaving such a detailed response. I gather that predications cannot attest to the fickle nature of the Aurora and that I shouldn’t be dismayed because I may in fact see a great show. I referenced the numerous graphs that are on the Space Weather website, but I have to be honest…I barely understand basic physics so it is a bit confusing to me. So an increase in the Kp index just means a more vibrant, dancing display? Got it! Luckily I’m a night owl so I have the whole night to wait for her. I booked a week long tour with Salmon Berry Tours but I will see about your tour as I want my own personal picture with the Aurora.
By Telly Gabriel March 11, 2019 - 8:20 am
Thank you for your input on auroras. I will try my best to keep my expectations low that I will see a dancing aurora in Fairbanks. There are 4 of us planning to chase an aurora in Fairbanks October 24-28, 2019. We do not want to exactly “rough” it or plan to get frozen while in the chase. We plan to stay in a Fairbanks hotel (perhaps the Hampton Inn Fairbanks). What is your best advice for us? Should we book an aurora tour on the day that the forecast is clear instead of booking a tour ahead of time since we will lose what we paid if we don’t see one? Or is it hard to book on the day when it is clear? Can one see the aurora from Fairbanks? Or if you have to go farther out of the light pollution, where is the best place to view it with roundtrip pickup & return from Fairbanks? Sorry, I have tons of questions but any advice you can give will be much appreciated. Thank you.
By Sherry March 17, 2019 - 3:20 pm
You may be able to see it from the city – but I really think you need to get away from the light pollution to really experience it and see the colors. I wrote about a number of different ways you can do that and stay warm without leaving the city far – https://www.ottsworld.com/blogs/northern-lights-trip-fairbanks-alaska/
YOu can watch at a hotel outside of the city – or better yet – I highly recommend the Aurora Bear tours – Frank will come out and even pick you up so you don’t have to drive!You can stay in his house until they come out – so you stay toasty warm too!
Hope that helps! Let me know if you have other questions!
By Frank March 17, 2019 - 4:43 pm
Hi Telly Gabriel! Thanx for being interested in the Aurora and for coming to Fairbanks!
Have you already booked your flights? Maybe check first for the activities you want to do while you are here – a lot of tour operators are closed in October and reopen November 1st. October is shoulder season in Alaska and everybody takes a break to get ready for winter! Also the wether is in-between – rain, snow, freezing, snowing – often muddy and not much snow on the ground. Typical winter activities like dogmushing, snowmachinig, snowshoeing, skiing, ice fishing will very likely be not possible at that time..
The advantage is, that you don’t have to worry about many other tourists, full hotels or tours.. 🙂
To your concern about the weather – we always try to postpone a tour when the weather forecast is really bad – but most of the time, you guys have such a full program that this doesn’t work. If we cancel because it’s snowing you will get a full refund.
If you are interested to learn more, have a look at http://www.aurora-bear.com or https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g60826-d11913363-Reviews-Aurora_Bear-Fairbanks_Alaska.html
By James Sloop August 31, 2019 - 9:44 am
we plan on going to fairbanks in March and hopefully see the lights with the naked eye I know there are many tours availible which one would you most recommend
By Sherry September 2, 2019 - 1:15 am
I really, really enjoyed Aurora Bear – it was by far the furthest out of town and the most immersive!Frank is incredible and he can teach you how to photograph the aurora or simply photograph you with the aurora!