If you’ve always dreamed of seeing the Northern Lights, there’s good news: You don’t have to leave the U.S. You can also catch the aurora borealis—the scientific name for the phenomenon that sends colored swirls across the night sky—in our northernmost states.
The Northern Lights occur when explosions on the sun’s surface send particles into the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s hard to predict when this will happen, but spotting them is easiest in winter, due to longer nights and less cloud cover. Pack your parkas and head to one of these destinations for a chance to see the Northern Lights stateside.
1. Fairbanks, AK
This approachable frontier town is the country’s prime location for Northern Lights adventures. It sits within the “aurora oval,” which is a ring-shaped zone around the artic where the lights are visible for more than half of the year. You can sign up for a Northern Lights tour, hang out around a bonfire at the Aurora Pointe Activity Center, or just watch the sky from a northern-facing hotel room or cabin.
Have a Frozen fan in the family? During the day, check out the sculptures that look Elsa-made at the Aurora Ice Museum and then go dog sledding at Chena Hot Springs Resort. You can also go on a guided walk through the forest with Sven and the rest of the reindeer herd at Running Reindeer Ranch.
Recommended Hotel: Chena Hot Springs Resort
2. Couer d’Alene, ID
A family-friendly destination year-round, Coeur d’Alene hugs the namesake lake nestled between pine-covered mountains. In the winter, the ideal place to watch for the Northern Lights is Heyburn State Park, at the southern end of the lake.
When the sun’s out, you can search the sky for eagles, too. From November through February, up to 200 of them gather here to feast on the lake’s supply of sockeye salmon. Hop aboard Lake Coeur d’Alene Cruises to get an up-close look at the majestic birds swooping down to the water. If you’re looking to get your blood pumping, you can go skiing, snowboarding and tubing at nearby Silver Mountain Resort or splash around in the huge indoor water park.
Recommended Hotel: La Quinta Inn and Suites by Wyndham Coeur d’ Alene
3. Presque Isle, ME
So far north it’s nearly in Canada, Presque Isle is what people like most about Maine: It’s a quaint town filled with friendly locals that’s surrounded by woods and water (in this case, Echo Lake). To keep you busy until sunset, strap on snowshoes or cross-country skis and hit the groomed trails at the Nordic Heritage Center. Or, stroll down picturesque Main Street. You can duck into Braden Theater to see a new movie in an old-fashioned theater or try for a strike at Northern Lanes Bowling Alley. Come nightfall, locals say Conant Road is a good place to stargaze and possibly catch the Northern Lights, since it’s at a higher elevation and has fewer trees.
Recommended Hotel: Hampton Inn Presque Isle
4. Marquette, MI
It may be the biggest city in Michigan’s upper peninsula, but Marquette still has a ton of small-town charm—from its historic downtown with shops and eateries to the uncrowded Lake Superior beaches, where ice shards stack up along the shore. On clear nights, bring a chair and lots of blankets to the beach at McCarty’s Cove. When the Northern Lights put on a show, the reflection off of Lake Superior makes it doubly stunning. But even if you don’t get lucky with a sighting, there’s plenty of family fun to be had here, from seeing frozen waterfalls on a guided hike to Eben Ice Caves to speeding like an Olympian down a natural ice luge.
Recommended Hotel: Landmark Inn
5. Grand Marais, MN
By day, this small harbor town along Lake Superior is the perfect place to get out on the ice. You can go ice fishing with a guide (don’t worry, you’ll be in a heated ice house) or rent skates and cruise around Cook County Community Center’s outdoor ice skating rink. Before nightfall, take a look at Cook County’s Northern Lights Map for all the best places to view the Northern Lights. One of them is Artist’s Point, a rocky beach with easy access from the road; you’ll want to visit during the day, too, for postcard-worthy views of Lake Superior.
Recommended Hotel: Gunflint Lodge
6. Whitefish, MT
This rugged-but-adorable mountain town is about a 30-minute drive to Glacier National Park, an ideal place to wait for the aurora borealis to show up. Park near Lake MacDonald, just a few miles from the park’s west entrance, to get an eyeful of stars, milky way and maybe even the international space station as it flies over. Of course, there are fun daytime activities in this winter wonderland, too. Register for the park’s ranger-led snowshoe hikes (ages 6 and up) or sign up for a sleigh ride at Bar W Guest Ranch.
Recommended Hotel: Kandahar Lodge
7. Door County, WI
Better known as a summer lakeside destination, Door County also makes a spectacular home base for chasing the Northern Lights. Night arrives fast when you spend the days at Peninsula State Park’s sledding hill (complete with a tow rope), on a naturalist-guided snowshoe hike or horseback riding through a snowy forest. When it gets dark, station yourself at Newport State Park—designated an International Dark Sky Park for its exceptional views of the night sky—to watch for the Northern Lights.
Recommended Hotel: Scandinavian Lodge
8. Coudersport, PA
In this remote part of the state (referred to as the Pennsylvania Wilds), you won’t have to worry about bright lights getting in the way of seeing the aurora borealis. Here, astronomy fans flock to Cherry Springs State Park for the magnificent 360-degree, mountaintop viewing area. Definitely plan on spotting more stars than you knew existed, as well as planets and maybe the Northern Lights, too.
During the day, drive to Kinzua Bridge State Park to stroll a railway-turned-walkway high above a gorge in the Alleghany Forest. Access may be limited when it’s icy or snowy, so call ahead to make sure it’s open. Or, hit the slopes at Ski Sawmill Family Resort, where there are three tubing runs and a lift.
Kristi Valentini is a Detroit-based travel writer who has been featured in Redbook, Parenting and Good Housekeeping. You can find her free (and fun!) trip itineraries at ReadymadeTravelPlans.com.