Scout Out the Best Viewing Locations

Over my years of Aurora Chasing, I’ve come to appreciate the difference between being below the 45th parallel, which doesn’t really feel like the north to me, and above the 45th parallel, which is much better for Aurora Chasing in my experience.

It’s possible to view the Northern Lights below the 45th Parallel, of course. But this can take a lot of dedication, extremely strong space weather conditions, and an ideal viewing location.

Giving out tips on the best viewing locations can be a controversial issue in Aurora Chasing groups. Just think about other hobbyists such as geocachers, mushroom foragers, rock collectors, hunters or fishers. When they reveal their most treasured spots, they may have to compete for space along a river or lakeshore. Or they may not be able to find their treasures because everyone else got there first.

A Delicate Balance

Now, there’s plenty of Aurora to go around! That’s the good news.

Just like anything in nature, though, the best viewing locations can be vulnerable to human exposure. Therein lies the bad news. Whether a location provides a home for protected wildlife, becomes susceptible to erosion or decay, or risks getting dangerously overcrowded, there are many issues to consider when venturing into nature at night.

I’d like to thank everyone who has helped share tips on locations for new Aurora Chasers. You’re very generous with your advice, and those of us who run Aurora Chasing groups appreciate your help. As you share these tips, please keep in mind that sometimes large hobby groups result in high traffic or overcrowding at these locations, and it is not always sustainable in the local environment.

Feel free to keep your best and most primitive viewing spots a secret, and be mindful of whether a location can support a large group of viewers when you share a location publicly. That’s my advice, at least!

Personally, I am not against sharing viewing locations. But I do sometimes feel anxious or concerned when a mass gathering occurs in a previously unknown location. Will the gathering go smoothly? Will anyone get lost or injured? Will there be enough parking? Will a problem arise for law enforcement?

That’s why I think this information should be given out carefully and kept off of public forums whenever possible. When you see someone looking for a viewing location, why not share that information privately, one on one? Another good option is to only share tips on locations in small groups. This can prevent a number of issues before they start.

Maybe I sound a bit stand-offish when it comes to the question of “Where” to view Aurora, but it truly is a question that can — and should — be answered on your own.

An Ideal Perspective

The ideal perspective is one that is uniquely yours, chosen with your own individual lifestyle and goals in mind. If you’re new at this, here are a few tips that can help you scout of the best viewing locations.

I believe the best viewing location is one where you have:

a) Traveled to in both daylight and darkness to evaluate safety and darkness.
(Don’t fall in a lake in the dark because you didn’t know it was there!)

b) Found within a close or reasonable drive to your home or current lodging

c) Scouted out on your own to avoid unsustainable crowding, while also determining if the viewing location is walkable and not too rigorous for your own personal fitness level

d) Checked laws and regulations to ensure you can stay there safely, and

e) Chosen with your own creative vision in mind to achieve unique foregrounds and silhouettes in your photos.

If you do receive a tip on viewing locations, please remember to be respectful of the land and the inhabitants (wild or human) when you go. That’s my two cents!

What’s the bottom line? Anywhere with clear, dark skies and a northward facing view will work. At Kp6 (which is very rare, granted) Northern Lights may be visible anywhere in Michigan, and in many states in the northern tier of the U.S. So, just find dark skies!

Dark sky parks: A good place to start

We’re fortunate in the lower 48 states to have many beautiful parks and publicly owned lands for recreational use. While it is quickly becoming a dwindling resource, we’re also lucky to have many parks devoted to preserving the dark sky.

Dark Sky Parks make a perfect destination for Aurora Chasers. They are located far from light pollution centers, they often include amenities that keep human needs in mind, and they are usually open for long periods of darkness — or even 24 hours a day. When you visit these parks, even if you don’t catch the Northern Lights, you’ll be able to view shooting stars, comets, the Milky Way, and the International Space Station as it makes its routine pass in orbit.

Better yet, International Dark Sky Parks offer even more perks for stargazers and night sky enthusiasts. These parks must demonstrate that they hold a number of qualities that lead to better dark sky viewing, natural preservation and a better future for our planet and our communities.

Aurora Chasing on the open road

Do you ever take road trips? Do you ever watch for opportunities to stop alongside the road and take in the scenery?

Have you ever paused for a moment to watch the sunset or view the Milky Way? Or the northern horizon? One of the best places to do this is at a roadside park! I love that we have so many in the Midwest, especially along the Great Lakes shoreline. Some of the most magical views I’ve seen have been sunsets on these routes.

Next time you’re looking for a viewing location, why not stop at a roadside park if Aurora are active? These areas tend to be safe, well-marked spots with enough parking for passers-by. Some will even have small peninsulas or sections that are very dark, tucked away from the traffic. To find one, just search your mobile maps or the internet for “Roadside Parks.”

This general guideline is one I’m happy to share regarding Aurora viewing locations. I believe everyone should scout out locations with good proximity, safety, northward views and amenities to suit their needs. But you never know. You might catch your next Aurora on a road trip!

While Northern Lights do sometimes appear at the 45th Parallel and farther south, visible sightings of the Aurora can be very rare in this region. It’s not possible to simply go out on any given night to view the phenomenon without thinking ahead.

If you want to catch the Northern Lights here, you either have to be really lucky, use live sightings to know when to see Aurora in the moment, or more likely, study as much as you can to understand how and when Aurora occurs.

Other factors to consider

There are other factors that may increase your chances of spotting the Northern Lights, even at low latitudes or on unlikely nights.

As you scout out the perfect viewing location for you, look for these attributes:

  • High altitude will allow you to see the view low on the northern horizon more easily.
  • Open views of the northern sky, cleared of tall trees or other obstacles may give you the best vantage point.
  • The south side of north-facing lakes make fantastic viewing locations, because of the panoramic skies. These lakes may also give you a view of Aurora reflecting on the water or the ice.
  • Views to the northeast may work better early in the night, while views to the northwest may work better in the pre-dawn hours, because of the way the Aurora rises and sets.
  • As always, the farther north the better!   

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