Northern Lights: A Northwest Viewer’s Guide

From Alaska to Oregon, these stellar spots will show you the wonders of the night sky

By Gemma Wilson

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January 28, 2020

This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Seattle Magazine.

This article appears in print in the January 2020 issue. Click here to subscribe.

Man-made marvels are all well and good, but there’s something eternally, breathtakingly special about gazing up at a wide-open field of stars—and seeing the night sky streak with the shifting colors of the aurora borealis adds a mystical layer to an already magical experience. Some of these remote spots require advance planning to access, but it’s well worth the trip out of the city to drink in these views.

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Missouri River, Montana
If you’re a city dweller, chances are you’ve forgotten what true, natural darkness looks like. Montana’s Missouri River Country, in the state’s northeast corner, boasts some of the darkest skies in the nation; according to population data, the three remotest spots in the U.S. are located here. Get past the scary name, and Hell Creek State Park, on Fort Peck Lake, is open year-round and has both a campground and the darkest night sky rating possible, making for a comfortable stargazing experience.

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Eastern Oregon
High in the Blue Mountains, Dixie Butte is accessible by car from July to September, and by snowshoe at colder times of year. Farther south in the Alvord Desert, a dry lakebed studded with geothermal hot spots, Alvord Hot Springs (alvordhotsprings.com) offers both prime stargazing and overnight lodging options (campsites and a bunkhouse) for a relaxing, inspiring visit. Serious stargazers can join fellow celestial aficionados at Indian Trail Spring in Ochoco National Forest, smack in the middle of the state, for the annual Oregon Star Party, July 21–26.

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Fairbanks, Alaska
Seeing the northern lights seems to be on many a bucket list, and with good reason—the otherworldly display must be seen in situ to be believed. Up in Fairbanks, aurora season runs from late August until late April (not that the aurora is guaranteed; that range is just the window of possibility). For ultimate aurora-watching luxury, Chena Hot Springs Resort (chenahotsprings.com) offers tours to the top of Charlie Dome, a prime peak for viewing. The tour comes complete with hot drinks and warming yurts, and of course, the hot springs to soak in back at the ranch. Tours combining dogsledding and aurora viewing are a popular and plentiful option for the hardy among us looking to have two once-in-a-lifetime experiences in one incredible night.

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