Not sure where to view the Northern Lights? In northern states, you can view the Aurora from any location that has clear, dark skies with an open view of the northern horizon.
This simply means the weather forecasts indicate a chance of clear skies, the light pollution registers low on a dark sky map, and the view to the north is cleared by a hill, a field or a lake — to name a few.
If you’re just getting started, it might be worth searching the skies in your own backyard or a park within 10 or 20 miles of your home. During strong geomagnetic storms, which can bring colorful, pulsing Aurora down into the lower 48 states, this may be all you need to catch a stunning view.
Many people are seeking an ideal viewing experience, and they’re willing to adventure out in the dark to find it. If you’re into learning new viewing locations, keep in mind that nature, wildlife and property are vulnerable to large crowds, and try to share viewing locations in small groups or private conversations.
That said, there are many options available to night sky enthusiasts, with varying levels of risk — whether it means closing signs at dusk or rigorous terrain. Know your limitations, pack well for your trip, and scout out your favorite locations during the daytime, so you don’t find yourself in a bind later, when everyone is asleep.
Now, here’s a list of general viewing locations to get you started on your adventure. Simply pull up a map, an app or an internet browser, and search for these types of locations near you. Once you find them, gather details or call ahead to find out what rules and regulations are in place.
- Roadside Parks — A simple search on the map for Roadside Parks in Michigan, where I live, pulls up dozens, if not hundreds of locations that are easily accessible along many routes. Some of these parks are designed to be used as picnic areas or informal rest areas, which makes them easily accessible during most seasons.
- Public Boat Launches — Boaters like to go out on the water both during the day and at night, or before the break of dawn, to catch fish while the getting is good. That’s good news for Aurora Chasers, because many of these scenic spots never close. It’s particularly special if you can find a north-facing spot on the south side of a lake.
- Shorelines along the Great Lakes — The Great Lakes boast over 9,400 miles of sandy and rocky beaches along the shore and many of these areas are designated as public beaches, state parks or national lakeshores. With a search of the map and a little planning, you may find a piece of shoreline that works for you.
- Lighthouses — Lighthouses have long served as a beacon in the darkness and they were built to be seen at night from open vantage points. Many of these time-honored landmarks also have become parks or popular spots for stargazing. Just follow any posted rules and be cognizant of the fact that there may be lighthouse keepers sleeping on the property, to protect the iconic structure from damage.
- Campgrounds — Why not chase the Aurora while you are gone camping? Two adventures in one! While many campgrounds close at night except to the campers, these spots can make for ideal locations for dark sky viewing — and catching the Northern Lights.
- Empty Community Buildings or Churches— In the country, and in some other cases, a building that is a treasured gathering space for the public during the day could also become an admired viewing location by night. Always maintain the utmost respect for anyone who you come into contact with at night and heed their words of caution, but some churches, old schoolhouses, or rural town halls have open parking areas and opportunities for great foreground. If you photograph these historic landmarks, you might even garner appreciation from locals.
- Bay Towns — When Aurora Chasing in populated areas or near private property, in general, you should take the utmost care to proceed with caution, quiet, and respect for those around you. In fact, do not venture onto private property without permission. People tend not to take kindly to strangers trespassing on their land in the dark. However, with a bit of research for local parks or bay views, you might find a perfect spot where you are not bothering anyone.
- Your Neighbors’ Beautiful [ANYTHING] — Ask permission and enjoy a unique view! The flip-side to the hazards of trespassing without permission is that you can easily ask permission from a friend or neighbor to step onto their property in the dark. Whether their land is perched high on a hill, includes a great lake house, features an antique barn, or has unique sculptures in the garden, receiving the permission of a neighbor to do some night photography could be your ticket to a truly unique photography composition.
This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, but doing your own research to find some of these beautiful locations will make a world of difference. Not only could it lead to a truly unique viewing experience, but it will also save you the hassle of battling lots of headlights and large crowds to find your spot under the Aurora Borealis.
Knowing the local risks and rules becomes a part of this, too. With a quick internet search, we can find information on just about anything. So, do yourself a favor and read up a little bit before you go!
The difference between looking up any of these viewing locations near you, versus sharing the exact location of one of these places broadly is this: By choosing the first option, you are helping to preserve pristine viewing locations everywhere. Whether due to noise pollution, litter, trampled wildlife, disturbed nests, or the need for law enforcement, these places tend to suffer when faced with large crowds. We can make an impact in preserving our beautiful natural places by treading lightly and moving through the darkness with great respect.
The night is unpredictable. Please always keep safety in mind, do not go farther than you are comfortable with, take precautions and pack the 10 essentials before you go, and respect others in the dark. With that, I hope you feel encouraged to scout out an incredible viewing location!
Good luck on the Aurora Chasing trail!