Chasing the Elusive Northern Lights in Alaska
After our wild Denali National Park Experience, we had one big bucket list item left on our radar: See the Northern Lights! We know Mother Nature is generally unpredictable, but the Aurora activity forecast was on high for the next few days and we couldn’t miss it.
The Northern Lights are also called the Aurora Borealis in the north, and the Aurora Australis in the South. The Auroras are electrically charged particles from the sun reacting with the Earth’s atmosphere. AKA, mother natures awe inspiring, mind blowing light show! The Aurora light display happens above the north and south poles. In general, the further north (or south) you are, the better chance you have of seeing the lights. This is why Alaska is one of the best locations in North America for viewing the Northern Lights and we’re aching to see them!
Before we head out into the dark, we check the Northern Lights Forecast that shows the intensity and the general areas where the Auroras can be seen. The forecast is not exact, nor is it always accurate, but it’s a great start before stepping out and braving the frigid Alaskan weather.
We set out on a quest to chase down the northern lights and in true explorer fashion, we found them in the most unlikely place! Enjoy.
Whaddya think? No better place to spot the auroras than the Wal-Mart parking lot, right? However, there’s one part of the story we didn’t catch on video that I’ve gotta share. We left the Wal-Mart parking lot and saw them dancing a bit in the sky. Once we arrived to the gas station across the street I must have banged on the wall like we we’re getting robbed and scared the pee out of Nikki. Still standing with the pump in hand I’m screaming at Nikki, “they’re going insane, you gotta come see!” Within a few seconds everyone stopped filling their cars, walked out of the quick mart canopy and gazed above. What a show it was, and that was just the beginning.
What We learned from our Northern Lights Experience
From our experience it’s best to throw all expectations out the window when dealing with the Auroras (or mother nature in general). We heard stories of people that flew up to Alaska in the dead of winter. Braved the sub-freezing temps, spent thousands of dollars on a Northern Lights trip, yet never got to see them. Sure the Auroras are more common than the Sasquatch, but much like the elusive furry beast you can’t go out looking and assume you’ll see them. It’s best to go in with the attitude of “man I’d love to see the lights, but it’s all about the journey, not the destination.”
Gear for Capturing the Northern Lights
As you can see from the video we captured images of the Northern Lights for several hours but I only had a few seconds of timelapse photography to share. As a general starting point, this is my gear and settings for capturing the Auroras: camera Canon 5d; lens 16mm f2.8; exposure 15 seconds; ISO 800; image format RAW. I want 24 frames per second to match my video settings, that means I will need to take 24 different photographs for each second of video. The final timelapse in the video last 17 seconds and it took me approximately 2 hours to capture.
For the best chance of capturing the Northern Lights on film you’ll want the following items:
- A good Camera with a high ISO sensitivity, full manual controls and preferably a full-frame sensor. If I was purchasing a new camera right now for night photography I’d select the Sony a7R II Full-Frame Camera, if I wanted good quality in a compact affordable camera I’d probably stick with my Sony a6000.
- Wide Angle Lens, the wider the better without going to a fisheye. I use a 16-35mm lens with a full frame sensor, if you’ve got an APS-C cropped sensor (like the a6000) you might want to go with a 10-18mm lens.
- Intervalometer is the function that will capture images with a defined amount of time between shots. This is often built into new cameras, or it’s accessed through a phone app like our Sony PlayMemories. With my Canon 5d I had to purchase a separate cable release called the Timer Remote Controller.
- A Tripod is a MUST because it’s impossible to hand hold at such a slow shutter speed. I use this lightweight Carbon Fiber Gitzo Tripod with the Fluid Video Head and it works great for most applications.
- You’ll also want warm clothes, your favorite warming beverage (coffee, tea, bourbon) in an Insulated Mug and a lot of patience…no, scratch that, you’ll need saintly patience!
Why Fairbanks and Chena for the Auroras?
When checking the daily Aurora Forecast, it seems Fairbanks is often in the sweet spot for the strongest Aurora Activity. It turns out Fairbanks is in a ring-shaped region around the North Pole called the “Auroral Oval”. The skies are often clear since the city is inland, vs. a coastal town where clouds are more common. Just a few miles outside of downtown Fairbanks you’re in the wilderness and away from light pollution.
Fairbanks is far enough north that the skies begin turning dark in August. By September 1 the sun sets around 9pm creating dark skies by 11pm. All these factors are why we ended up in the Chena River SRA area just an hour northeast of downtown Fairbanks.
Chena River SRA Camping
There are several free and paid spots to camp as you make your way down Chena Hot Springs road. Since we arrived later in the afternoon (and the first two free places we scouted were under 2” of water because of the recent rain) we decided to make our basecamp the Tors Trailhead and Campground at mile 39½. Its $15 per night with zero services but it’s a good location for hiking in the Chena River State Recreation Area. We paid for two nights and we put together an action packed list: Take the Smart car up to the hot springs, hike the Tors Trail and watch the Northern Lights from the campground’s scenic day use parking area.
As we drove up and down Chena Hot Springs Road we found an awesome free camping spot between mile 47 – 48. We could have been on the river with lots of sun for solar and an equally good viewing spot for the Aurora Borealis. If we’d have planned more than a couple days in Chena we would have moved the RV and saved the cash.
Chena River SRA Hiking
The Tors Trail looked amazing, but we stayed up so late each night waiting on the Northern Lights we couldn’t wake up early enough to tackle this 10-hour hike. We did get to spend an afternoon on the Angel Rocks Trail. It’s a great day hike that climbs nearly 2 miles along the north fork of the Chena River, through a forest and up to spectacular panoramic views of giant granite outcroppings with the Alaska Range in the distance. Pack a lunch and plan on taking lots of photographs of these giant rocks of granite towering into the sky. Trailhead begins near Mile 48 on Chena Hot Springs Road.
Chena Hot Springs Resort
This is a fine spot if you want to soak in the hot springs for a couple days. However, it doesn’t hold a candle to Liard Hot Springs. Chena resort has an onsite “campground” for $20 per night. There are no hook-ups and it does NOT include the $15/pp Hot Spring day passes. I put campgrounds in quotations because it’s more of a parking lot with a little extra space and a few trees.
We love the eco-friendly mantra the resort follows; however, this stop was not a highlight for us (watch the video above for a closer look at the resort). We’ve heard it’s wonderful in the winter to sit in the springs surrounded by snow as the Northern Lights fill the sky. For us that mental picture sounds like a completely different experience! The resort is at the end of Chena Hot Springs Road, Mile 56½.
Harding Lake SRA
One downside to capturing night timelapse video is I have to setup the camera where I think is a good location and I cannot move it for at least an hour! The bummer being the Aurora activity dances all across the sky so what is good at the current moment might disappear and never come back. Which leads me to my favorite Northern Lights Experience.
There was one moment, in a direction opposite of my camera, where the Auroras surrounded us like a circus tent. It was the most impressive, most beautiful experience we’ve had in Alaska.
I wish we could have captured it to share but it’s something Nikki and I will hold onto forever in the most advanced capturing device known to man: our minds and hearts. I’m so happy we stumbled upon Harding Lake when we did, I can’t imagine leaving Alaska without this wonderful experience.
Campsites are $15 per night and it was a great location for our Northern Lights Experience. It looked like a fine place to park it for a few nights, but then again we never saw the place since we spent our several hours there looking up the entire time. The Harding Lake State Recreation Area is located 30 miles south of North Pole, AK at mile 321 of the Richardson Highway.
After chasing down and finally capturing the Northern Lights we feel our Alaska conquest is complete! What more could we possibly ask of this incredible state. She’s given us so much in these few short months. Now it’s officially time to make our way to the Cassiar Highway and start our decent back into the lower 48 with our hearts and hard drives full.
Have you experienced the Northern Lights? Share your favorite Aurora story, viewing tips, locations (and what’s in your Thermos) in the comments below…inquiring minds want to know!
Fuel Prices – Fuel is least expensive in Fairbanks. This time through regular unleaded gas was $3.459/gallon. We fueled up in Fairbanks on the way up to Chena and again on the way out of Chena before hitting the Richardson Highway and the ALCAN.
Road Conditions – All the roads from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs and Harding Lake SRA were in prefect condition.
Weather – We can now feel the grip of winter beginning to settle in up here. High temperatures ranged from 49° – 62°F and lows ranged from 43° – 28°F. It was mostly sunny during the day with only a few clouds hanging out into the night.
Dates Visited – September 1 – September 4