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Where to See the Northern Lights in the Contiguous United States

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 10/27/2021 Stephanie Vermillion
© Getty

Iceland and Norway may dazzle with northern-lights displays, but you don’t have to go abroad to enjoy a night beneath auroras. These kaleidoscopic swirls dance above the U.S.’s northernmost states—and we’re not just talking about northern-lights hunting in Alaska.

If and when the conditions are right, you can catch auroras in most northern-border states such as Maine or Montana. And catching the lights here isn’t merely a pipe dream: In early October 2021, northern lights painted the skies from New Hampshire to Glacier National Park. One month before that, aurora hunters caught them in North Dakota. And they danced as low as Muskegon, Michigan, in the spring.

Aurora experts say there’s more where that came from. The sun sparks northern lights during solar storms, when it emits charged particles that collide with Earth’s atmosphere, creating the glowing green, purple, and even red displays that top travelers’ bucket lists. In December 2019, the sun entered a new cycle of solar activity—and this transition bodes well for those eager to spot auroras.

“The solar cycle is associated with an increase in solar activity,” says Mike Shaw, an astrophotographer and co-founder of the annual Aurora Summit. Each solar cycle is roughly 11 years long; the mid-point, roughly five years in, is the peak of northern-lights activity, known as solar maximum. “A new cycle correspondingly increases aurora activity, so the next several years will be much better than the last several years,” Shaw says.

How (and where) to find U.S. northern lights

Whether it’s Norway or North Dakota, the same aurora-hunting guidelines apply: Look for a place with dark, clear skies and minimal obstructions to the north, where auroras appear. And unlike high-latitude locales like Iceland, the lower 48 enjoys nighttime darkness all year—that means aurora sightings can happen year-round.

But, they only occur with geomagnetic activity; disturbances in Earth’s magnetosphere, caused by particles spewed from the sun's atmosphere. Without geomagnetic activity, you have no auroras—and that’s true no matter your latitude. Geomagnetic activity is measured via Kp, an indicator of disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field, on a scale of zero to nine. On a normal night, activity hovers between Kp1 to Kp3. At Kp3 and higher, you can see auroras in places like Iceland and northern Norway, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Not too far below Iceland on the NOAA’s Kp map is northern Minnesota, which requires just a Kp4 for visibility. From Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to northern Montana, auroras dance with a Kp5. You can track Kp index, monitor local forecasts, and watch the live map to see how far the aurora’s dipping via apps like My Aurora Forecast and Space Weather Live. Since aurora intensity can skyrocket [or plummet] without notice, lower-48 astrophotographers recommend heading out to these spots if the Kp reaches four or higher.

Ready to get out there and see the aurora-borealis magic? Here are seven spots to chase northern lights in the lower 48 states. 

All listings featured in this story are independently selected by our editors. However, when you book something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Moosehead Lake, Maine

Moosehead Lake has all the makings of an aurora-hunting hotspot. It’s remote, with inky-black skies and more moose than people. It’s enormous, at roughly 75,000 acres—promising clear vistas to the north. And, it’s sprinkled with north-facing lookout spots, such as Mt. Kineo State Park

Where to stay: For aurora views from your doorstep, rent a cabin at The Birches Resort, a cozy spot with nighttime access to a north-facing shoreline.

Auroras over Lake Champlain © Getty Auroras over Lake Champlain

Lake Champlain, Vermont

Lake Champlain, an idyllic sliver of water between upstate New York and Vermont, is another northeast aurora-hunting getaway, particularly in Malletts Bay, just beyond Burlington. Head to the south end of the bay’s Causeway Park, the starting point of the four-mile Lake Champlain Causeway, for open views to the north. 

Where to stay: Unwind after a night of aurora chasing at nearby Hotel Vermont, an earthy-chic getaway in the heart of downtown Burlington.

Mackinac Island, Michigan

Horse-drawn carriages, no cars, and a lake-fringed bike path are Mackinac Island’s main tourist allures. Northern lights, on the other hand, are the island’s best-kept secret. The majority of establishments lie on Mackinac Island’s southern end, and face south. 

Where to stay: From the island's easternmost hotel, Mission Point Resort, you can stroll half a mile along the Lake Shore Drive bike path to the north-facing shoreline below Arch Rock, a perfect spot to wait for those elusive auroras.

Northern Lights and the Milky Way over Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, Montana © Getty Northern Lights and the Milky Way over Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier National Park, Montana

Few scenes impress like auroras dancing above the Rocky Mountains, and that’s exactly what Montana’s Glacier National Park has to offer—particularly at Lake McDonald. 

Where to stay: The rustic Village Inn at Apgar near the lake’s southern end, peers north across the 10-mile-long waterway. Book a room with a lake-view balcony for the ultimate northern-lights splurge: Watching for auroras from the comfort of your bed.

Cook County, Minnesota

Cook County, Minnesota, just north of Duluth, is one of the lower 48’s most active aurora zones. With the help of a local astrophotographer, its tourism board created a northern-lights road map with suggested aurora-hunting stop-offs in and around the state’s pristine Boundary Water Canoe Wilderness Area, an International Dark Sky Association sanctuary. 

Where to stay: One of the area’s best northern-lights-chasing basecamps is Clearwater Historic Lodge & Canoe Outfitters (from $200). These cabins, just minutes from BWCA, provide north-facing panoramas from the shores of Clearwater Lake.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

You can spot auroras in several places throughout North Dakota, but few top the otherworldly scenery at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Drive up to Big Badlands Overlook for wide-open aurora views out to the horizon, with the steep, dramatic Little Missouri badlands in the foreground. 

Where to stay: For easy nighttime access, book a room nearby at the new Watford Hotel in Watford City, just three miles from the park.

Priest Lake, Idaho

If the Kp hits four, Idaho aurora hunters flock to Priest Lake. Go hiking or cross-country skiing by day, then aurora hunt on the north-facing beach by night. Visit Idaho also recommends scoping out the beach near Priest Lake Museum for a clear and quiet northern-lights show.

Where to stay: One of the go-to spots here is Hill’s Resort, a posh getaway on the lake’s southern end. 


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