There is nothing quite like seeing the northern lights to make your dream Alaska vacation complete. Observing them while cruising along the Alaska coastline is an experience like no other. If seeing the northern lights on an Alaska cruise is on your holiday agenda, it is important to pick the right cruise and to travel at the right time. This article will give you some insight into how to do this.
The peak cruise season in Alaska is in the summer, but this is the least likely time for northern lights viewing because they can only be seen in a dark sky. So while Alaska is one of the best places on Earth to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, and travelers from around the world come for this purpose, a successful Alaska northern lights cruise must be carefully planned.
What are the northern lights?
Technically known as the aurora borealis, the northern lights look like colorful bands or curtains of light that flash in the dark night sky. They are caused by energized solar particles that are released from the sun through space and blown into Earth’s magnetic field where they collide with atoms and can last from 10 to 30 minutes. Sunspots and solar storms that occur on an eleven-year cycle cause the most intense displays of northern lights. They occur 60 to 70 miles above the earth’s surface, 10 times higher that a jet flies and can extend hundreds of miles into space. The most common color is yellow-green but red, blue, purple, and pink can also be produced.
Where can you see them?
These magical light displays can be seen anywhere above 60 degrees north latitude, an area referred to as the Aurora Oval or aurora zone. They can be seen in either the North or South Pole where the Earth’s magnetic field lines cross. In Southern Hemisphere, they are known as the southern lights or aurora australis. The best places to see northern lights are Alaska and northern Canada, Scandinavia, Greenland and Russia while the best places to see the southern lights are in Australia, New Zealand, and Chile. Occasionally, they can be seen at lower altitudes during strong geomagnetic storms.
In Alaska, the further north you go, the better your chances of seeing them. Towns and cities produce light that interferes with aurora viewing so it is best to see them outside of town. Fairbanks and other interior regions in the far north are the most likely places to see the northern lights in Alaska.
Located 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks is Alaska’s second largest city. As an interior city that is geographically inside the aurora oval, Fairbanks provides the best location and clear skies for aurora viewing in Alaska. In Fairbanks, the northern lights can be experienced from a cabin, on an overnight dog sled trip, or on a flight. It might also be possible to spot the northern lights from Anchorage, Ketchikan, Nome, or Denali.
When is the best time to see them?
Seeing the northern lights depends on timing and luck. While you might be able to see them from late August to April, the best time is between October and March on clear, dark winter nights. They are most frequent on the spring and fall equinoxes, which occur on March 22 and September 22. It is more likely to see them in the spring than the fall, so the best viewing is around the time of the new moon in March. Their appearance is most intense from December to March, when the nights are long and dark and the air is cold. The summer is the hardest time to see them because of the long daylight hours. The best time for viewings is the middle of the night from 11:30 pm to 3:30 am. Many hotels offer northern lights wake up calls, so you won’t have to stay up all night waiting only to be disappointed.
Alaska northern lights cruise
Because the best time for the northern lights is in the winter and Alaska cruise season is in the summer, you will have to plan carefully and be flexible if you want to see them on a cruise. Although the aurora borealis can occur at any time of the year, you won’t see it unless the sky is dark and clear. With 21 hours of daylight, you are not likely to see the northern lights on a summer cruise in Alaska. Your chances improve if you go early or late in the cruise season in May or September. Taking a cruise during the shoulder season is also less expensive and less crowded.
Which cruises are best for seeing the northern lights? Smaller cruises, like Cruise West, that start their seasons earlier, offer the best chance to see the northern lights. Cruises that travel through the Northern Passage are also good options. It is a good idea to look for a package that includes a visit to Fairbanks, which is the best place in Alaska to see the northern lights.
Whether or not you see the northern lights on your Alaska cruise, you will definitely be in store for a great adventure. You will view breathtaking scenery, wildlife, glaciers, and more as you cruise through Alaska. Most northern lights cruises last for 6-9 days and offer lounges, bars, and entertainment. Remember that the evenings will be chilly so be sure to bring a warm coat, hat, gloves, waterproof pants, wool socks, and winter boots.
If experiencing the northern lights is your number one priority, you might consider riding on the Alaska State Ferry instead of a cruise. The Alaska Ferry, also known as the Alaska Marine Highway, runs year round, extends across 3500 miles, and provides service to more than 30 communities.
If you plan well, you will have a fairly good chance of seeing the northern lights on an Alaskan cruise, although your chances might be better on other northern lights tours. When making your decision, it is important to take your priorities into account. If you primarily want the experience of an Alaska cruise and seeing the aurora is a secondary goal, then taking a northern lights cruise won’t disappoint you.