Alaska is known for iconic views and unforgettable activities, and winter lures guests seeking one of the state's most legendary experiences: watching the northern lights dance across nighttime skies.
"It's not really a phenomenon that you can describe easily," said Amy Reed Geiger, Explore Fairbanks director of communications. "The aurora show is different every single time. Lights might be fast or slow or bright green or red. The way it moves, the way it looks, the way it appears in different places in the sky you really have to see it to understand."
The aurora season in Fairbanks stretches from mid-August to mid-April, and it's a particularly popular viewing spot due to its location under the "Auroral Oval." This ring-shaped zone over the far north sees some of the region's most concentrated aurora borealis activity. With an inland location and low precipitation levels, Fairbanks is also likely to have clear skies and good viewing conditions.
While aurora intensity varies daily, the best displays typically take place between the late evening and early morning hours. When the sky is clear and dark, displays will be visible in Fairbanks an average of four out of five nights. Guests who stay at least three nights and go out actively looking for lights during late evening hours increase their chance of seeing the aurora to more than 90%, according to Explore Fairbanks.
"Fall and spring are great times to visit and view because it's a little warmer, but if you want a winter experience, January and February are the best time," Geiger said. "There's often snow on the trees, and with the sundogs, ice pillars and snow crystals, it's a really interesting and beautiful landscape."
While visitors are welcome to outline their own aurora-viewing adventures in any season, Fairbanks-area outfitters offer convenient tour options, as well.
Guests at Chena Hot Springs can watch the northern lights from the property's aurorium, a heated log cabin with plate-glass windows that's open 24 hours a day. When at least 12 inches of snow cover the ground, the resort runs large-track snow coach tours that carry groups to a heated yurt perched on a ridge above the property. Guests staying in the Moose Lodge room at Chena Springs can also request an aurora wake-up call when nighttime staffers see the lights.
Several new seasonal additions bundle aurora borealis viewing with other popular winter activities.
Last Frontier Mushing, for example, offers four-hour and overnight aurora tours that combine dogsledding outings and viewing experiences. The five-hour aurora viewing and ice fishing excursion by Rod's Alaskan Guide Service includes bait, tackle and fishing time in a heated cabin, plus special Alaska touches like reindeer sausage, hot cocoa and access to dark nighttime skies.
Aurora Bear's aurora and wildlife photography classes include workshops for beginning outdoor photographers, advanced instruction and a deluxe outings customized for up to six people. Owners Miriam and Frank Stelges moved to Alaska from Germany in 2016, and they share food, drink and stories with their guests during each class.
These combination tours are especially attractive to visitors with limited schedules, explained Geiger.
"People who are only in town for three or four days might want to go dog mushing, ice fishing and snow machining, in addition to viewing the aurora. There are several providers who can combine those adventures," she said.
For more information and ideas, visit www.explorefairbanks.com.