I bought my first world map a few months ago and hung it above my bed. Lately, whenever I have downtime, I lie on my bed with my feet on my pillow, gazing wistfully at the map hovering above them. I mentally map out my next road trip and daydream about all the things I’ll someday see. And then I look at Alaska.
Alaska is big. I mean, really big. As odd as it sounds, I had never really mentally registered its size before. I knew it was the largest of the United States, but on a U.S. map it is always scaled down in order to fit in a box in the corner. I had never noticed its size in relation to the contiguous portion of the nation—it is nearly a quarter of the size! So, where to begin in a state of Alaska’s magnitude?
My criteria for selecting each state’s bucket list item isn’t exactly concrete. In some instances, like is the case for the state of South Dakota, my selection is predictable: Mount Rushmore is the obvious choice. In other cases, I believe my selections are more unique. The one criterion I have determined, however, is that the selection must be something that is specific to that state; it must be something that I can see/do/taste/feel in no U.S. state aside from that one. In the case of Alaska, then, I must choose a viewing of the Aurora Borealis Though sightings of the Northern Lights do sometimes occur in the lower states, there is no where in the nation that offers sightings as often and as clearly as Alaska.
So what is the Aurora Borealis? Essentially, the sun is bursting with charged particles. When these particles interact with our atmosphere, they bounce back, concentrating around the Earth’s magnetic poles. The result is a winding ribbon of fluorescent color. In the arctic region, this phenomenon is commonly referred to as the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis); in the antarctic region, these particles create the (predictably-named) Southern Lights (Aurora Australis). The Lights can best be seen when skies are clear and dark. According to the Geophysical Institute, sightings in the north are most likely around the spring equinox during a new moon in a city with low light pollution (Faust, 2013). The best shows are often between midnight and two o’clock in the morning.
A midnight trip to a remote area in Alaska during the winter, however, is neither warm nor cheap. Temperatures easily drop to 20 or 30 degrees below zero. For most travelers, these conditions are daunting. Fortunately, Northern Lights tourism packages exist. Unfortunately, these services come at a premium.
Here are a couple of options:
Chena Hot Springs Resort—Aurora Odyssey Package: This package includes roundtrip transportation from the airport to the resort, three night accommodations in Moose Lodge, an unlimited pass to the indoor heated pool and hot tub as well as the outdoor rock pool (a natural hot spring with water that averages 106 degrees year round), a sled dog ride, a Geothermal Renewable Energy tour, an Aurora Ice Museum tour, an aurora viewing tour complete with snow coach, and six meals per person. For two people, the package comes in just over $1900. http://www.chenahotsprings.com
Aurora Borealis Lodge—Overnight Accommodations: Closer to the city, the lodge is perched atop Cleary Summit, away from artificial light pollution. Overnight accommodations are offered for $199 per night. The lodge features a full kitchen, two rooms, and two large windows for indoor aurora viewing. Transportation to/from Fairbanks can be arranged at no additional charge. http://www.auroracabin.com
Aurora Borealis Lodge—Evening Tours: It is also possible to stay in the city at any number of hotels or motels and ride a shuttle to the Aurora Borealis Lodge for an evening aurora tour. The tour includes roundtrip transportation from the hotel to the lodge and hot beverages at the lodge. The tour runs from 10:00 PM until 2:30 AM and costs $75 per person (two person minimum).
Original post with links to other states’ posts: 50 States Bucket List
Faust, C. G. (2013, February 02). Aurora Borealis sets beacon for Alaska visitors. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/destinations/2013/01/31/aurora-borealis-northern-lights-alaska/1880129/
Photo Credit: Benjamin Schultz: http://politesocietymagazine.com/blog/2012/10/day-16-aurora-borealis/