Chasing the Northern Lights in Alaska

by Mike Still
Chasing the Northern Lights in Alaska

I first arrived in Alaska in late September 2017 and told myself that I’d stay as long as it took me to see the northern lights.  In this post you’ll find everything I learned on a dozen or so aurora hunts out of Anchorage, Alaska between my arrival and early April 2018.  I’ve been able to photograph the aurora a few times but I don’t want you to get the wrong idea from these photos; the truth is the green glow you see in these aurora pictures appeared as a gray cloud dancing across the night sky on my self-guided Alaska aurora tour.  The aurora borealis is caused by photons coming off of the sun during intense solar storms and everything I saw was a relatively mild solar storm which means I’ll have to go hunting again next year!This photo has beautiful star trails with a faint green aurora from an 8-minute exposure.  Scroll down for more! 

Aurora Planning Tips

The best northern lights I’ve seen were in early April in Talkeetna but this post is about Aurora Chasing Alaska so I’ll start from the beginning.  If you’re too impatient and just want to see my best aurora photos scroll down to the Hatcher Pass and Talkeetna sections at the bottom!

Backpacking at Eklutna Lake

I moved to Alaska in late September and a few weeks later joined my brother and his friend Sam on a 2-night backpacking trip to Eklutna Lake.  We didn’t know much about the aurora borealis yet or even check out the aurora forecast but were excited to do some trekking anyway.  It turns out we got a perfectly clear sky but there was no solar activity and I still came away with a gorgeous Alaskan night shot.

Beluga Point with family

My parents were still visiting when I noticed it was a clear night and we Googled Aurora Forecast in mid-October.  It seemed like there was a good chance to see the northern lights so we piled into the car and went for a drive.

We figured there’s a good stretch of open sky with mountains and the sea nearby Beluga Point.  Even though there was no aurora that night I enjoyed taking another starry night photo in Alaska!  The glow of Anchorage made me realize that I needed to get further away from the city if I really wanted to find the best night skies in Alaska.

Aurora Photography Gear

  • Warm, layered clothing
  • Tripod
  • A camera capable of doing a long exposure
  • Hand/foot warmers
  • Hot Cocoa/Coffee in a travel mug

Check out my tripod recommendations on Amazon

Hiland Road

After 2 unsuccessful trips, I thought I’d learned enough to find the aurora when a friend told me about My Aurora Forecast. This awesome app predicts the aurora and will send you a notification when you might see the northern lights.  Well that app was pushing notifications to both our phones so we asked some locals where to go and they recommended Hiland Road.  We jumped into a car and went for a ride scouring the skies but once again we were rewarded with only a clear, starry night.

A Quick Drive with Ben

My Aurora Forecast sent me another notification one weeknight after Ben heard from a few coworkers that the lights were out so we jumped in his car and went for a quick drive.  Both of us had to work early the next day so we didn’t bring any camera gear but we DID see a faint glow!  It looked like a strange cloud coming out of the Chugach Mountains to the east of us as a thick band waved along the sky.  If we stretched our imagination it might have looked green and we could see it moving ever so slightly.  But seeing as how we both had to be up early the next day we turned around shortly after spotting it and went back home.   Now that I knew what to look for I was sure the next aurora hunt would be successful, or at least I hoped so!

Hillside Aurora with Dad

My parents came back to visit for the holiday season when my aurora forecast sent me a notification again.  By now a friend had told me about the Aurora Borealis Notification Group on Facebook and they suggested heading to Hillside for a chance to see the aurora.   The only problem was the notification came around midnight so instead of a whole family outing this adventure was just for my dad and me.  We still didn’t really know where to go but I put “Hillside” in my GPS and we drove around until we found a good lookout.  Now that I’ve been back to that area a few times it’s funny to think how close we were to the Glen Alps Trailhead and what would have been a much better view.  But alas we were still new to this.

At first, I thought the aurora hadn’t shown her face yet so I began to take some night shots experimenting with different compositions.  But then when I turned around I saw that same strange cloud I’d seen with Ben a few weeks earlier. I quickly turned my camera to face it and sure enough, the exposure turned out green, I had finally captured my first aurora!

Otto Lake Aurora with the Family

Christmas is a good time for northern lights in Alaska because the nights are long and dark.  My family and I drove up to Healy for a 2 day trip to Denali National Park over the holiday, specifically to look for aurora.  A local told us to check out Otto Lake after dark and we were pleasantly surprised by the starry skies.  When we arrived at Otto Lake we were staring over the frozen water to Mount Healy hoping to see some beautiful glow but settled for hundreds of stars.

Turning around I noticed the telltale gray glow on the horizon and quickly realized that the northern skies were filled with this light aurora.  The Milky Way Galaxy sprouted vertically just past the edge of the aurora as an unnamed mountain loomed in the distance.  On the previous Hillside Road venture, I captured an aurora but here in Otto Lake was the first aurora photo that I was happy with.

Hatcher Pass Aurora Solo

After Otto Lake I started to get a good feeling about aurora-chasing and knew that it was just a matter of time before I got another clear night.  When that fateful notification came I was playing board games with some friends.  Luckily it was already late and everyone else was heading to bed but instead, I jumped in my car and drove north to Hatcher Pass.

Halfway through my ride I saw a series of green flashes high up in the mountains and knew it would be a good night for some photos.  Unfortunately, those flashes were more of a finale for the aurora show on this night.  By the time I got to Hatcher Pass all that was left was a gorgeous night sky with the same green glow I was growing accustomed to.  The photos come out brilliantly but if not for the camera this would have been a let down of an aurora hunt.

The Best Northern Lights I’ve ever seen were mild according to some lifelong Alaskans

Talkeetna Northern Lights

Shortly after my trip to Hatcher Pass, I began working more and then we had weeks of snowy weather.  This meant there were fewer clear nights for the aurora to come out and I missed a few good nights because I had to teach the next day.  A little over a month went by without me going on any aurora hunts and I started to think I wouldn’t see them again until next year since I was leaving Alaska on April 18th.  I checked the long-term forecast and it looked like there might be a good chance to see them just before I got on the plane.

I checked all my usual channels and a was given a few new suggestions for predicting the northern lights thanks to this awesome aurora facebook group.  Someone said the skies were clear in Talkeetna but I didn’t know if I wanted to make a 2.5-hour drive at 11 pm and decided I would drive up to Nancy Lakes Recreation area, just an hour away and recommended by friends as a good place to see the aurora borealis. I stopped in and searched for that telltale gray glow finding it faintly on the northern horizon.  Without a good show here I checked the time and made the decision to keep driving up to Talkeetna.

It was after 1 am when I finally arrived at the Denali Overlook in Talkeetna but was immediately rewarded with my first aurora dance!  The lights weren’t especially bright but could clearly be seen dancing across the sky.  Another band appeared low on the horizon while some lights dazzled their way across the skies.

Two experienced aurora photographers were already there and while I gasped with glee they told me this was a pretty mild showing!  I guess that just means mother nature wants me to take it slow with my aurora experiences so each time I see a stronger showing I get a little more excited.

If you enjoyed this post please share it by clicking the buttons on the bottom of the page.  You can pin the image below on Pinterest too!

More photos from this adventure and others can be found on the @LiveTravelTeach Instagram Account and don’t forget to follow by adding your email at the top of this page to make sure you don’t miss any of these amazing adventures!

Disclaimer:  This is the internet and It is safe to assume that links and content contained on this webpage provide compensation to the website’s owner.  The opinions here are my own and the information here is accurate as of April 2018.  Unless otherwise labeled, all photos and video were taken by Mike Still.

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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

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