It's the absolute best time to be outdoors, when some of our unique landscapes come brilliantly alive
The aurora borealis (the northern lights) is the most mind-altering spectacle on our planet. It’s also nature’s biggest tease. It happens at the poles and is visible only in the clear night sky.
Which is why I landed in Fairbanks a few years back, with 19-hour nights and lows of -19°. An aurora website predicted a busy week, electron-wise, and the weather called for cloudless night skies. (Fairbanks gets clear winter skies, making it a world center of aurora tourism.)
I went to Chena Hot Springs (from $189; chenahotsprings.com), a resort with a lookout where you can see the lights if they’re visible anywhere in the northern sky. No dice. I moved to a different lodge. Nada. Nearly a week passed. I developed a grudge against the sun, the magnetic field, the entire cosmos, as if it were a maître d’ denying me entrance to a snooty restaurant: So sorry, monsieur, but Chez Aurora is not available until 2024.
The next fall, I went back to Alaska, to the rainy southeast panhandle. Latitude and weather made the aurora seem an impossibility. But as I walked back to my hotel one night, it was as if somebody flipped a light switch marked “aurora.” The sky began to shimmer with waves of green light: Imagine that night had been turned to music—that’s what it was like.
I gaped at it for an hour, going inside only when the rhythm ceased. Now, if anybody asks, I say of course you should fly half a continent north to see it. Otherwise, you haven’t lived the life you deserve.