Chasing auroras Alaska

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.

Chasing auroras Alaska

Aurora Borealis Northern Lights

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.

Aurora Borealis Northern Lights

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.

Chena Hot Springs Alaska

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.

Great Success

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!


Road Report

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


See all our Alaska Travels and Tips here: #ALASKABOUND

Famous for my "how-not-to" videos, and typically the man behind the camera, sometimes I’m forced to be here in the “spotlight”. When you see my face you’re probably reading something more technical than adventurous, but either way I do my best to tell it like it is and infuse my opinions into the commentary…after all this is a blog and not MSN.

Comments (25)

  • Randy Johns

    I was near Wickersham Dome on the Elliot Hwy, a good 30-45 min from Fairbanks. And I saw lights. Not aurora lights. City lights. Lots of it to the south. Very discouraging to be that far away and still be inundated with light pollution. If aurora shows in the opposite direction, you might be ok. But I consider the south view to be unacceptably polluted.

    Some say Chena Hot Springs is a good place to see the lights. I disagree. There are too many hills boxing in your view. And the steam. Yeah that’s no good. But the resort is awesome. Just not great for aurora. I met a van driver named Bill who told me about an excellent location. I was there and highly recommend it. It’s about 5 miles west of the resort. On your way out you’ll see the views open up (less trees). There is a turnout here. Much better than being at the resort. The forecast was only 3 out of 9. But it was still very strong to me. And I used a micro 4/3 camera. Small sensor but did the job. F2.5, 6 sec, ISO 800 got good results.

  • Really wonderful. Thank you!

  • Jellie A

    I found your video on Youtube while researching Fairbanks! We just got back after a week in Fairbanks and had the complete Alaskan package! Forecast says high of 40’s lows of 20,,well we got hit with a winter storm that brought temperatures down to -11F! Were from Las Vegas so needless to say we have not experienced anything that cold.. Skies were mostly clear 4 of the 5 nights we were in Fairbanks and the locals said that that was the best week so far for Auroras.. Where we went to watch it was at the Elliot Hwy just past Fox,theres tons of pullouts there and dark skies. Cleary Summit was good too,you’re up a hill and away from city lights.Chena Lakes Recreation Area Rd is a couple miles from North Pole,Ak and is an excellent and convenient place to go as well and not so far south as Lake Harding.

  • Dale Watkins

    My wife and I spent a 5 week vacation in August of 2015 travelling the Yukon and Alaska! Yes, we went to Chena Hot Springs as well, and it looks like you didn’t take the ‘Geothermal’ tour, as to us, that was truly the highlight of the area, where all of Chena is run off the geothermal grid, including all the fruits & veggies grown in the greenhouses there. We where at Chena in August though, where it wasn’t cold at all, and was pleasantly nice of course. Just prior to getting to Chena there is a river (go over the bridge) and there is a roadway down to the small clean running river itself, and we boondocked right there.
    Oddly, being there in August, the sun was still up at midnight…so a much different situation than when you where there, but since we live in British Columbia…I personally have gone on northern hunting trips and seen spectacular Northern Light displays…so much, that you HAVE to pull over and watch in awe!
    I’ve yet to watch your whole Alaska trip, and I’m looking forward to doing so to see if you hit most of the small towns we did on our trip. While in Seward overnight, we stayed at the campsite right on the ocean’s edge, and there was a 6.8 earthquake that rocked our RV for about 10 seconds…so that was sure different. We also drove just out of town and hiked up to one of the Glaciers in the area. We also had our pedal bikes with us, so when in the campground we toured the area on our bikes.

    We’re just at the point of deciding which Class A to buy, as we’re recently retired, so I’ll be exclusively checking (hopefully) the many points you might have in what to look for in a motorhome. I did watch the Solar portion you folks did, which was excellent, as we too will want to boondocks for lengthy periods during our winter trips to warmer weather at times. I will mention as well, that my wife and I ‘did’ do another Alaska trip back when we first got married….and for 5 weeks lived out of the back of the canopy on the back of our pickup truck….so we now of course want to find a more comfortable mode of travel…via the Class A. The kids have left home, and we’ll maintain owning our house here, but would like to perhaps spend a few months of winter time in the southern reaches of California/Arizona, and hopefully will branch out to other states as we learn more about that region. Absolutely loving your blog, video’s and great information you are sharing. Will send my ‘tip’ once I get more use out of the website. Thanks for keeping this going!

  • Deborah Kerr


  • Everything about this post is stunning, especially the photography.

  • your write, your pict, your video huft… I don’t know what I can tell… just “wow” amazing!

  • T C Spencer

    map is still showing Bakersfield CA.

  • Jason, what ISO did you use? All the other settings were listed.

  • Hope to see some when we make our Alaskan trek next summer. I believe the Northern Lights have forecasts when they will be more prevalent. Will be boon-docking some at family in North Pole.

  • By the way, Hi Jason too!

  • Great Video, and it was great to see you driving, as we are two females who will be taking turns driving next September, here’s one for the female drivers of Class A’s….Did you pass Alabama Hills? We hang out in the red rocks at Ricardo Campground as often as possible, wish we had time to come by to say high, but we live at the beach…If you get down towards Huntington Beach give a holler..been following you for 3 years now, would be nice to just say hi!.

  • Can you tell us why picked the Smart car as your toad? What other vehicles if any did you consider? In the years since you have been towing your Smart car what are your experiences-positive or negative?

    Thank you

  • John S.

    If the Northern Lights were easy to see and capture then the thrill would be lost. It is great that you were able to see them on your trip and perhaps next time they will be even brighter, larger and last longer.

    One of my bucket list items is to get to Aurora Village (North of Yellowknife) with my camera gear and try to duplicate shots like the pros take. (Check out for some good photos.) Until then I am content with the sighting I have had flying up north where the Auroras can dance for hours.

    Unfortunately, even with decent DLSR gear and the cockpit lights dimmed my best high-altitude aurora photos were always blurry. So I really feel a kindred spirit when I read your quote “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.”

  • William (Bill) Weaver

    Another great post. During my 5 trips to Alaska and a trip to New Zealand, I was on “lights” patrol with no success. However, over 30 years ago on my annual fishing trip to Canada, I did see them on 2 occasions by total luck and surprise. On one of the occasion, we were driving at night and bam there it was. We pulled over and enjoyed the show. On the other, we were fishing after dark and again by surprise there it was. I put down the fishing pole and enjoyed. This time the show was filling the sky, like one of your shows. The guys that I go with now are younger and have never seen the lights. They have apps on their phones that forecast events. They set their alarm and get up in the middle of the night in hopes of seeing them without success. Someday. I am so happy that you got to see this natural wonder. It was the cherry on top of your Alaskan adventure. Good for you.

  • Loved this video Nikki and Jason! not just the lights but to see you on the road and the inside of the RV again. Loved Singa checking out the quails or partridges ?

    • Hey Karin, thanks for the love! Those are ptarmigans that singa was watching cross the road. They are somewhat like Alaskan chickens. We have seen them on just about every hike we have taken in Alaska!


        Nikki and Karin ….. Did you know that Chicken, Alaska was meant to be named Ptarmigan because of the bird life around the area. But no one could get the spelling of the name correct so they named it Chicken!
        Some useful trivia I learnt from our RV trip.

  • julie Pullum

    Amazing post. We live in the uk and last year we saw the northern lights here in Norfolk. Apparently it was an amazing once in a lifetime show this far south, I was asleep in my bed! ? Your fuel prices are also amazing our Rv is a diesel, diesel is at a low at the moment of $7.57 per gallon!

  • Kathy

    I grew up in northern BC and saw the lights often. I miss them but so glad you caught them on video to see again. Thanks!

  • mary

    I’m so glad you got to see them! I’ve heard people spend thousands of dollars on trips to see the show and it may be hit or miss. It is something I can’t wait to see! Wish I was still tagging along. Thanks for staying up such long hours so we could see them too!

  • John

    I swear you guys must be my spirit animal. This post is one of my favorites. If you need anything while you are local, my wife and I live in Ridgecrest.

    • Awe, thanks so much! We are heading to red rocks tomorrow for a couple of days. If you’re in the area or see us, come say hello!


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