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December 1999

Northern Lights: The Sky Will Dance

Like shimmering rainbows in the night, the northern lights electrify the sky with color.

Camping Room Only

At these Places, there are no long lines or expensive tickets required for the nightly show.


Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

This is the land of the midnight sun. Dark skies don’t return to the southern part of the refuge until late August, then only for a few hours. But by September, the days are shortening fast, leaving plenty of night sky for northern light viewing until the lengthening days of early May.

Auroral viewing odds: About 90 percent on a dark, clear night.

Trails of light: There is not a single maintained trail in the entire 19.6 million-acre refuge. But with so much open tundra, this is a sky watcher’s paradise. Dark nights return first to the southern part of the refuge. There’s good hiking and paddling along the valleys of rivers like the Sheenjek.

Skywitness report: “It was late August. We were kayaking on the Sheenjek about 60 miles above the Arctic Circle. Someone got up in the middle of the night, during those rare hours of real darkness, and yelled, ‘Get up! Northern lights!’ There were giant curtains of soft green light dancing up and down, doing a full-on hula with the light shimmering like grass skirts across the sky. We watched in silence until it faded away.” (John Harlin, Backpacker Northwest Editor)

Contact: Box 10, 101 12th Ave., Fairbanks, AK 99701; (907) 456-0250.


Denali National Park

By late August, the skies are dark enough. Snow can fall any month of the year, but winter comes in earnest in late September or early October.

Auroral viewing odds: Between 60 and 75 percent on clear, dark nights.

Trails of light: Denali is a virtually trail-less wilderness. Open tundra offers huge chunks of Alaskan sky to view. If you’re looking for a specific trail, consider the 37-mile Kesugi Ridge Trail in adjacent and often overlooked Denali State Park.

Skywitness report: “Just above the darkened foothills of the Alaska Range, a pale green band arched gently across the sky like a flattened rainbow. After a time, the aurora exploded to fill the entire western sky. Bright green curtains of northern lights tinged pink rippled wildly above the hills. I’ve seen northern lights many times, but I was shocked by the brilliance of these. There were moments when they reminded me of exploding fireworks. An electric arc. Cannon fire.” (Bill Sherwonit, Alaskan photographer and author of Alaska’s Accessible Wilderness)

Contact: P.O. Box 9, Denali National Park, AK 99755; (907) 683-2294.


Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Dark skies can be found here even in midsummer if you stay up late enough. The best viewing for hikers will be early in the season (May) and late (August and September).

Auroral viewing odds: Roughly 50-60 percent on dark, clear nights.

Trails of light: Wrangell-St. Elias, the largest national park in the world, boasts the greatest number of North American peaks above14,500 feet, as well as nine of the 16 highest mountains in the United States. That means plenty of high country for viewing the night sky. There are few hiking trails but many good “routes” like the Goodlata Peak Route, a 14-day hike with views of the park’s tallest peaks as backdrops for the northern lights. You’ll also find many open views from smaller peaks, as well as over lakes and from high alpine valleys.

Skywitness report: “We snuggled in our bags beneath a starry sky and watched angels and curtains, ghosts, and even a chrysalis expand and then implode into the shadows. The northern lights were shimmering ribbons of white, green, rose, blue, and orange that streaked and teased, flooded then ebbed away, as if the entire sky folded in upon itself and turned inside out in a brush stroke, a burst of smoke and mirrors.” (Annie Getchell, cohost of Anyplace Wild)

Contact: P.O. Box 439, Copper Center, AK 99573; (907) 822-5234.


Baxter State Park

Nights are dark year-round. There’s snow at higher elevations by October.

Auroral viewing odds: About 40 percent on clear nights.

Trails of light: Many of the park’s 175 miles of trail are heavily wooded, but 46 mountain peaks and ridges (18 reach 3,000 feet or higher) offer good viewing spots of the northern skies. Ironically, two of the best places might be in the low country: Nesowadnehuk Field, where you can camp or begin the 6.4-mile hike to Center Mountain Lean-to, and the open field at Troutbrook Farm, which is also a campground and trailhead.

Skywitness report: “I was with a pair of photographers who both came running up to me saying, ‘That can’t be the northern lights, can it? It doesn’t look real.’ But it was real. There were too many trees around to get a clear view, so we moved to where we could see at least part of the sky. It was like a huge green curtain, shimmering and surreal.” (Michele J. Morris, Backpacker Senior Editor)

Contact: 64 Balsam Dr., Millinocket, ME 04462; (207) 723-5140.

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