A simple photo ignited a mission to see the Northern Lights, turning into the most spectacular trip I've ever been on. Come with me on this spectacular Alaskan journey relived through photo and story. A bit off topic from my typical WordPress content, but oh well. Enjoy!
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Alaska is a place that feels elusive, almost too far and too foreign to conceive of going at all, even less so alone. It’s a place that’s on everyone's bucket list, even if it’s not near the top of their dream travel itineraries. Every person I told that I was headed to Alaska all had the same reaction and it was nothing short of “Wow! That’s incredible!” Even trips to places like Colorado don’t evoke the same kind of interest and awe that Alaska does.
As I sat locked down in my little box all year long just like everyone else, I stumbled across a photo of the Northern Lights on the internet and thought to myself “man, I would love to see that one day.” And that phrase echoed in my mind: “one day… why not now?”
My mind immediately jumped to Scandinavia and then I quickly realized there was no way I was getting there anytime soon with the state of affairs across the world in October 2020. The following google search started this journey in earnest before I even realized what was happening: “where can you see the northern lights?”
There it was: Alaska. Wait, really? Alaska? Within the next few minutes I had twenty tabs open while furiously scribbling notes about Aurora season, how to get to Fairbanks, how to survive -20 degree nights, what can you do in Alaska, what else is there to see?
Both my notes and my brain were overflowing with information and excitement. I just decided I had to commit to this trip and it was going to happen now. I couldn’t wait for someone to have time or interest to come with me.
This became my solo mission: see the Northern Lights and see it now.
I started my search late in October and had pretty much decided I would fly into Anchorage and out of Fairbanks to maximize the time and sights across the state. I had exactly 7 days and based on the temperatures and the state of the world, lots of the typical sights and attractions were limited or closed. I knew I had to focus on outdoor activities and things that could be enjoyed mostly independently.
That didn’t deter me from piecing together what would become the most stunningly gorgeous and awe inspiring trip I’ve ever had the pleasure to partake in.
If your goal is solely to see the Aurora, focus on Fairbanks as your hub and don’t bother with much else. If you want to have your mind absolutely blown by gorgeous scenery and nature as well, consider including some of these other stops along the way.
My notes consisted of a rough schedule as I booked the adventures and then found accommodations and transport later to complete the puzzle.
I live in the panhandle of Florida, so I had 3,500 miles as the crow flies to get to Anchorage. More than once, I loaded up Google Earth and was just blown away by how far I was going from home and how far north on the globe Fairbanks is. It’s crazy!
My flight path was VPS > CLT > SEA > ANC which made for about 12 hours of “clock time” but more like 14 hours of actual time when you factor in the time zones. As with any trip, the outbound flight time didn’t bother me with the excitement and adventure that awaited me.
I flew into Anchorage, rented a car for the week, and departed for home from Fairbanks. You pay more for the one way rental car and also two one way airfares, but I wouldn’t change anything about this schedule and would highly recommend you do the same if budget isn’t the primary concern.
Flights are probably the least daunting part of planning this experience, but I only mention it to share with you what I felt like was a fantastic omen for the rest of the trip: the most gorgeous sunset I’ve ever seen, that lasted what felt like hours on the flight from Seattle to Anchorage. I was sat on the left side of the plane, so I was looking out over the pacific ocean and because we were at our cruising altitude, the sunset was simply marvelous. It basked the entire interior of the plane in a fantastic amber orange color and I just couldn’t get enough.
I smiled at my seat mate from under my mask trying to get him to echo my sentiment for this sunset, but he was too busy headbanging in his chair to what I can only assume based on tempo was something like Rancid. Not mad at that, my dude.
The drive down to Seward from Anchorage is quite simply the second most beautiful drive I’ve ever done, second only to the drive to Fairbanks. Every single corner you round reveals another stunning display of mother nature in action, with mountain peaks frosted in snow and jutting up out of the water to incredibly impressive heights.
I woke up this first morning at 5:30am because of the time difference from central time (back 3 hours) knowing the sun wasn’t coming up for at least 3 hours. Getting dressed and leaving in the dark while it’s still 7:30am is an odd feeling I’m not quite used to, but it was so worth it.
I had to pull over to take some photos within minutes of leaving Anchorage because this was the first bit of light I had outside since arriving the previous night.
As the sun rose from the south behind the mountains, a gorgeous golden glow appeared in the sky and created colors from a sunrise I’ve only ever seen in Alaska.
The scenery truly felt like there was a green screen off in the distance and the imagery was computer generated.
I had to take the obligatory selfie every now and again so my Mom wouldn’t be upset 🙂
Speaking of obligatory pictures, my chariot for the week was an AWD Ford Fusion, a car I know well from an escapade north of Montreal with my boi Tyler. We’ll leave that there.
Getting into Seward felt like my own hometown, quaint and right on the water. Except my hometown would come to a screeching halt if it was overcast and 20 degrees outside and yet Seward (and all of Alaska) just carries on in 20 degrees like nothing is out of the ordinary.
Boarding the boat (Missing Lynx - Seward Ocean Excursions)
Leaving Seward harbor, we were greeted by the amazing presence of the Harbor Guard (as our tour guide Calley called him) aka the massive Bald Eagle posted up on the mouth of harbor.
This felt like another good omen for our trip and it was indeed.
Resurrection Bay is very deep (700ft+ in some places!) so it services as a deep water port and repair facility for massive ships from all around the world. I have to imagine because it’s surrounded by glaciers the water gets the stunning aqua blue green color reminiscent of beaches in places like Destin, FL and the Bahamas.
As we sail further south towards the Gulf of Alaska, the sights are almost too much to comprehend. Mountains that emerge from the water up to 4,000ft and even some as high as 7,000ft seem almost unreal. I mentioned earlier the feeling of green screen visuals and that still held true here.
Calley took us into lots of huge alcoves and turn-offs along the way, each with their own amazing sights to look at. Some had frozen waterfalls, some had mountain fjords with fresh snow, and one even had 3 small glaciers frozen into the side of the mountain.
Wildlife is abundant here with tiny little white specs that we learn are mountain goats frollicking along the edges of sheer mountain faces, and sealions resting in huge packs on a rock like you’d see in San Francisco.
As we weave in and out of enormous fjords, we eventually get word that we’re headed towards an island where we can actually de-board and walk around on what is called Fox Island.
This little island had huge, flat stones as “sand” which were perfect for attempting to skip across the water, as well as enormous jellyfish that had washed up on the shore. I wandered around the island for around 30 minutes just trying to absorb the massive scale and beauty that surrounded me in every direction.
We proceeded in what I remember as an easterly directions towards our ultimate goal which was a massive glacier visible from the water called Bear Glacier. This sight was spectacular, but also a bit alarming because without even broaching the subject, you could tell that all of our thoughts drift to global warming and how these glaciers are receding at an alarming rate.
Nonetheless, its beautiful blue color and it’s mammoth scale, even from 10 miles away, still draw a “wow!” from everyone onboard.
I also never envisioned there being any noise at a place like this, but the ice as it melts in the water lets out very loud cracking sounds, which Calley told us was the sounds of air from eons ago finally being released from the ice back into the atmosphere. How cool!
One of the people on the tour lived in Seward and managed to catch a huge chunk of ice to take home for some authentic glacier ice cocktails. Man, I wish we could all hang out like normal. Probably would’ve made for an incredible night.
As we head back up Resurrection Bay towards Seward, it starts raining and the clouds settle in. Calley said we were very lucky with the weather all day long, both in terms of cloud cover and rain, as well as the calmness of the water, which was relative considering we did get some decent airtime on the waves as we rode from Fox Island to Bear Glacier.
In the final moments of the tour, we come across multiple otters just chilling on their backs in the freezing cold water with no care that it’s raining right on top of them. They look right back at us with a sense of boredom and uninterest as we all stare back at them with hearts in our eyes.
All in all, the boat tour lasted around three and a half hours and every single moment was spectacular. Not only was the tour great, but the drive down was special as well, all adding up to a truly special first day.
Not only was the Bald Eagle from this morning a good omen, but the quality of this first excursion and the wonderful people I met onboard added up to another great omen.
The next morning I finally managed to “sleep in” a bit (6:45am crew, let’s go!) and was scouring for a breakfast spot. Those of you that know me won’t be surprised when I say that the qualifying menu item for any good breakfast place is French Toast of more than one variety. Sure enough, I found exactly what I was after and walked from my AirBNB spot in downtown Anchorage. Shortly after warming back up, I step out into the 28 degree morning and find a statue of Captain James Cook at a little overlook park near the restaurant. This viewpoint looked almost directly north towards the Denali range, although I didn’t quite get a glimpse since it’s about 130 miles as the crow flies from this point.
Anchorage also has a sweet planet walk starting with the Sun and all the planets spaced out through the town to give you a sense for the scale of the planets. I started at the Sun and walked towards Mercury two blocks away, only to find it completely buried in snow at a park so I didn’t continue the solar trek.
I then ventured up to Flat Top Mountain (thankful for that AWD right about now!) and was hoping to hike the trail to get a view over Anchorage, but as a winter storm rolled in with whipping wind and snowfall, I decided I’d better not risk being that Florida tourist that ends up on the news for overstepping his abilities.
Nonetheless, the view from the parking lot alone was amazing, albeit cold and windy, but gorgeous indeed. Anchorage seems large when you look at it on a map and at 300,000 inhabitants it is Alaska’s largest city, but from atop this vista you start to get a real sense for the scale of Alaska. The city is completely dwarfed in the landscape. The buildings that towered above me as I walked to breakfast suddenly aren’t even perceptible as more than a dot on the horizon.
Instead of freezing to death, I found the Anchorage Museum which turned out to be a fantastic journey through the history of Alaska and its importance through the ages as the home of numerous Native peoples, as well as the past few hundreds years as a major fur trading destination for Russia, before being sold off to the United States with seemingly no value due the Russians hunting those fur providing animals to near extinction. This was before the discovery of Gold and Oil, which to this day is the leading economic driver in the State.
The history of Alaska is incredibly deep and varied. I would highly recommend you read as much as you can before you go to feel more connected to the places you’re in and what took place there.
I closed out this day with a venture to a city walking path that led to the tip of the Anchorage airport’s departure runway where I was graced with heavy freighter aircraft taking off on their way to various destinations all around the world like Seoul, Tokyo, Memphis, and more.
The next morning, I began packing to head north about 2 hours to the city of Talkeetna with the goal of taking a flight tour of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. I was amped up on the drive, only to find as I was pulling into town that the clouds were too dense to do the tour and we’d have to try again the next day.
This town is absolutely tiny, with only around 900 residents and with the combination of winter and covid restrictions, there was one general store, one coffee shop, and one restaurant open. Thankfully I had a cabin booked already, which turned out to be fantastic.
Instead of just retreating to my room, I simply stood by the river waiting and waiting for Denali to “come out” as the locals say. Sure enough, it graced me by clearing the clouds and I was looking at the most spectacularly grandiose mountain vista I’ve ever witnessed. I stood in the exact same spot with knee high snow so as not to get my clothes wet watching and staring in amazement. I still see the image in my head as clear as the photo below. Denali is 70 miles from this vantage point and it’s still amazingly colossal.
I had lunch at the Denali Brewpub which turned out to be fantastic and then headed back to the airbnb, where I enjoyed a wonderful balcony sunset viewing session of Denali as it was suddenly shrouded in darkness.
It dawned on me after the sunset as I noticed how incredibly dark, still, and cold it was outside on my balcony that I could possibly see the Aurora from here. I didn’t realize at the time that it has to be especially vibrant for it to be visible in Talkeetna, but it does happen. Even sometimes in Anchorage, but those are more rare occasions. I woke up numerous times during the night and stood outside for a bit, but to no avail. Alas, Fairbanks was only a day away and I was confident I’d get another shot.
I woke up excited in Talkeetna at the possibility of the reschedule Denali flight tour, only to find poor weather forecast and the tour officially cancelled. This was extremely disheartening and I was bummed for a good bit, until I got on the road and made some progress.
I mentioned the drive to Seward was second only to this drive, the one to Fairbanks. I left Talkeetna around 11am with what was projected to be a 4.5 hour drive to Fairbanks at around 270 miles. I wanted to do the entire drive during daylight and boy am I glad I did.
What I was graced with is the most unbelievable vistas on the journey so far and this 4.5 hour drive turned into over 6 hours because I stopped so many times to just try to soak in the views and enjoy where I was.
The roads are 2 lanes almost the entire way with the occasional passing lane and pull off spots for sightseers like myself, but of course there weren’t many of us sightseers this cold, November day. I was happy to be left alone in this scenic wonderland. Even still, it’s hard to put into words how beautiful this bit of the drive is.
While still pretty far from Fairbanks, you come to the entrance to Denali National Park which is rather bittersweet because the park is only a very short time throughout the year. If you want to get in and hike, it’s probably not going to be on the same trip you go Aurora Chasing because of how the seasons run.
I did manage to get up to the sign, so at least in some ways I made it to the national park. It won’t take much to get me to go back, so it didn’t feel like a loss.
While the sun continued it’s unbroken descent as the drive continued, I still managed to find another stunning site. A river crossing with a snow covered pedestrian walking bridge with ice blue water flowing swiftly beneath me, with a bone chilling 11 degree air temperature as your ambient experience.
I sent a video to my family asking what I’d have to pay to get them to jump in. One said he’d want $100,000 and a medical crew standing by to make sure he didn’t die. Another said they’d do it for $99,999 and one of those tinfoil looking blankets.
I’m guessing they’d have a rethink if they were standing there with me 🙂
My first day in Fairbanks was spent just exploring whatever sights were available. The Alaska Pipeline is visible up the road from Fairbanks, so I checked that out and gained an even further appreciation for the engineering that went into building this 800 mile mammoth in just 3 years.
I came across what felt like a ghost town inside of a full functioning city called Pioneer Park. Understandably quiet because of the actual climate and the social climate, I walked around seemingly alone exploring this weird touchstone of life put on pause.
Eventually I stumbled upon a train depot where they took me on an impromptu tour of a train engine from 1899 they were rebuilding. I have no idea about anything related to trains, but this was still super cool and a thoroughly interesting experience.
Downtown Fairbanks has a few more sights and sounds I explored, but I didn’t want to wear myself out considering the Aurora tour started that evening at 9pm and would go until 4am so I knew I had a long day ahead.
I booked the tour with Fairbanks Aurora Tours because it was a mobile tour. Aaron picked us up at our hotel in his van and drove to wherever the weather looked most favorable. The ride out was around an hour and a bit to a spot where the city lights played less of an impact. On the ride, he shared with us all kinds of cool space weather information to help us understand what he was looking at when deciding the location we were headed and also whether we’d see Aurora or not. It’s certainly not an exact science, but he has the knowledge to get your best chance of an Aurora sighting.
Aaron was able to watch the solar weather forecast and tell us what he thought would happen in the next hour and we all waited patiently.
We waited. Some more waiting. We took some photos that revealed there was very minor aurora, but it really wasn’t much more than a faint glow to the north. An amazing view of the Milky Way made up for the lack of Auroa.
During the time spent waiting, we had to get in and out of the van because it was so cold you really couldn’t spend much time outside without needing to warm back up. I ended up making friends with the others on the tour and hope to reconnect with them one day. Thanya and Moy, I’ll visit you guys one day!
Aaron considered this a night that the Aurora wasn't visible, so we'd have to try again.
As the clock drew nearer to 3am, Aaron said it was time to pack up camp and head back down to Fairbanks. Defeated, those of us on the tour climbed into the van and tried to get a bit of shut eye.
Aaron’s policy is that if you miss the Aurora on your scheduled tour date, you can come back the next night for free. I slept that day until almost 1pm (I never do this) so I felt completely disoriented and unmotivated to spend another night out until 4am.
My flight the following day wasn’t until 3pm, so I knew I didn’t have much to worry about from that perspective but I was so beat down that I just thought “Do I really wanna end the trip on no sleep?”
I waited until pretty much the last possible moment before I emailed Aaron and asked “what is the possibility of seeing the aurora this evening?” to which he responded that he couldn’t know for sure, but the possibility of staying inside the hotel meant it was exactly 0%.
That’s all I needed. I told him pick me up again and let’s do this.
I was so excited when I jumped in the van to find my friends from the previous night and a new set of soon-to-be-friends already fired up and ready to go.
We had to drive even further this night up a different road for what felt like 2 hours to get up above the cloud cover and snowfall.
Once we broke through the clouds, we emerged on a hilltop and parked up at a spot with no light pollution and no cell phone coverage for anyone, just 6 degree ambient air temperature and an unbelievably stunning view of the Milky Way, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, even better than the previous night.
As we patiently waited, we were finally graced with the stunning brilliance of the aurora swelling off in the distance. It was the most absolutely breathtaking sight I’ve ever witnessed and after learning from our tour guide a bit of the science behind it, I was even more in awe than I can even describe.
Once again, as it was past 2am by this point, Aaron had us all packed in the van ready to head out, all of us feeling like we’d won the Aurora lottery.
Suddenly Aaron exclaimed “Everyone out of the van, it’s about to go off!” and we were showered with Aurora orders of magnitude more vibrant and spectacular than before.
The show started with what we all felt like was a miraculous display of Aurora, whereas Aaron described it as “below average.” We all were now desperate to see more.
We watched as the lights wax and wane, reappearing in different ways. Different shapes, intensities, locations. It was marvelous and indescribable all the same.
We watched in what was probably negative -5 or even lower temperatures with the aurora dancing across the sky. In the photos it looks blended and smooth, but in reality it’s very solid columns of light moving gracefully across the sky. It has definition and you can see with your own eye how the solar winds can cause what remarkable sight you’re staring at.
As my fingers and toes began to properly freeze, I was lucky enough to get one more photo that captured the essence of what I was experiencing. Aurora dancing behind me with a big smile on my face.
All the omens coalesced together to bring this moment to fruition. My mission had been accomplished. How did I even consider for a moment not to come back out?
My vocabulary isn’t robust enough to put the sight of Aurora Borealis into words. It truly is the most spectacular thing I’ve ever witnessed and every single thing I saw in Alaska was more unforgettable than the last.
If you take nothing from this post other than to decide whether or not to go to see the Aurora, just please do it. You won’t regret it for a second. You might be cold, but that suddenly doesn’t matter when you see Aurora before you own eyes. You’ll remember the magnificent sight and feel like a badass that you did it.
Aurora Season And Actually Seeing It
The season is quite long and runs from around September to April, so your schedule should fit in somewhere in there to allow for ideal viewing.
In terms of ideal times to see it, you really want to be there in the super cold depths of winter, like November to January for the most spectacular sites. My tour guide said he thinks the best time to see it is in March when it’s not quite as cold, but still very visible.
You also need to be out all night long and until the wee hours of the morning like 2 or 3am to give yourself the best chance of seeing it. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Consider taking a mobile tour like the one I did (Fairbanks Aurora Tours, Aaron) because if you’re in a hotel or hot springs, if you have any cloud cover at all you won’t be able to see the Aurora. In a mobile van tour, you can effectively “aurora chase” as I was calling it. Drive out of poor weather to a spot higher up to get above clouds or just get away from inclement viewing conditions.
Alaska’s travel board says if you spend 5 nights looking for the Aurora, you have about a 90% chance of seeing it. In my case, I spent 2 nights out until 4am and saw it on the second night. My tour guide Aaron said he’s never had someone come out on a tour 2 nights in a row and not seen it, so take that as you will.
The other thing I stumbled across in my research is the amount of daylight you have during the winter months gets less and less by the day by a significant amount. My trip took place in early November and I had just shy of 8 hours of daylight with sunrise around 9:00am and setting by 4:00pm. That doesn’t sound bad, but it’s short and combined with the fact that the sunlight comes from the South can be way worse. Especially for me as a Florida boy where I’m used to 14 hours of daylight and complain heavily when the time change happens.
Be sure to check when you want to go because you have just a few hours of proper daylight each day, so be prepared.
I’ve been to cold places, but nowhere like this. Anchorage and Seward really weren’t that bad, but Fairbanks didn’t get over 20 the entire time I was there and it’s not uncommon for it to be -20 or ever worse.
What you really need is the proper gear (I needed improvements). Here’s what I would take if I was going again:
Probably more, but that will do the trick. I don’t like check bags on airplanes, but next time I probably will so I have extra space to bring more warm gear.
With the right gear, you will be fine. It’s a lot scarier to think about what it will be like and hear other people’s opinions on what that cold is like than it is once you’re actually there.
Solo Travel is Worth Doing
Not only were people surprised to hear I was going to Alaska, but they were even more surprised to find out that I’d be going to a place as exotic as Alaska alone. With that said, I can’t recommend taking a solo trip highly enough. Not to say that I think it’s better than traveling with your spouse or best friend, but as a thing you do every so now and again it’s pretty dope. Not consulting anyone on dinner plans, schedules, etc is very freeing.
Don’t get me wrong. There was more than once on the trip I thought how I’d wish to spend this time with someone special, but I also had to remember the trip probably wouldn't have happened at all if I waited for schedules to mesh so we could go together.
Driving in Winter
I couldn’t find a lot of information on what driving would be like from Anchorage to Fairbanks and it was completely fine. I’m very happy I had an AWD card, so I’d definitely recommend you get that as an upgrade. I only rented a basic car, but the lady at enterprise found out I was going to Fairbanks and bumped me up. Thanks, enterprise lady!
In terms of driving, just keep it slow and let the people who want to fly past you do their thing. I had a few instances where you get wheel spin or the brakes lock up, but if you’re going slow it’s perfectly manageable.
Driving to Fairbanks is a bit hairy as the darkness sets in and in my case it was snowing, but it was fine since I dedicated the entire day to the drive and was focused and alert.
Without a doubt, yes. If you want to see the Aurora, you just have to go. Pick a week, book the tickets and just figure it out. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
It was absolutely the trip of a lifetime and I would go back in a heartbeat.