The Northern Lights
One of the Earth’s natural wonders, the Northern Lights, cast radiant, multi-colored lights over the northern landscape. They most commonly appear between 60-75 degree longitude, making the North Shore a hot spot for seeing a display.
What Are the Northern Lights?
Also known as Aurora Borealis (meaning “dawn of the north”), these colorful lights form when charged particles from the sun enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with the earth’s gaseous particles. Typically, the lights are green. However, on rare occasions, viewers will get to see red, yellow, blue, and violet lights. The colors are determined by the height in which the particles collide. Green lights, for instance, appear when the colliding particles are about 60 miles above the earth. Rare reddish lights appear when the colliding particles are higher. Usually, about 200 miles above the earth.
Seeing the Northern Lights
If you want to see the auroras, you’ll want to check the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center website. This site provides daily Aurora forecast to determine the likelihood of the Northern Lights being visible. Skies will also need to be clear to see the Auroras. So, be sure to check the local forecast, as well. Doing these things will increase your odds of spotting the gorgeous lights. It is also important to know that displays are most vibrant between 11:00 pm and 3:00 am.
To increase your chances of seeing brighter lights, it helps to get out of town. Many cities, and even small towns, experience light pollution. This can hide your view of the atmosphere lights.
Luckily, there are a number of places on the North Shore we recommend visiting when the chances of spotting Northern Lights are the greatest. These areas are not affected by light pollution and are located further north. Read below for more tips and tricks to seeing the Auroras, as well as a list of our favorite viewing areas.
Where to See The Northern Lights
A Few Tips for Spotting the Northern Lights
Download an Aurora App: Apps like Aurora Alerts, My Aurora Forecast (available on Android and iOS), and Aurora Forecast (only available on iOS) are a great way to see what the likelihood is of seeing the Northern Lights at any given time. Plus, they have a forecast available to help you know what Aurora activity you may see in the week ahead.
Understand the KP Index: The KP index is basically how likely you are to see the lights. If your Aurora app is saying the KP Index is 0-3, you will have little to no chance to see the lights. With KP 3 you may be able to pick up activity on a camera but may not see them with the naked eye. Starting at KP 4 you will start to see them more clearly with the naked eye. However, you may not see the bright, vibrant colors of the lights with the naked eye. By KP 5-6 things get a lot clearer and easier to see. KP 7-9 is rare in Northern Minnesota, but if that happens you will likely be able to see the Auroras anywhere you go, with the naked eye, when the index is this high.
Watch the Weather Forecast, Find Clear Skies: Aurora apps generally can tell you if there will be enough clear skies to see the lights. However, you will want to cross-reference your destination with a more specific weather forecast. You will need clear skies to see the Northern Lights. We like to include multiple towns and some inland areas on our weather forecast search for the purpose of seeing the Northern Lights. It might be cloudy in Grand Marais, but just ten miles up the Gunflint Trail the skies may be clear, for instance. If it’s overcast over the whole region, even if the KP index is high, you won’t have a great view of the lights.
Get Away From Light Pollution: Go to an area with as little noise pollution as possible. Even small towns like Grand Marais produce enough light pollution that you may not be able to see the lights in town. Go North, head up above towns and cities. Get away from light however you can.
Be Prepared: Most people accidentally see the lights. They just appear and you pull over your car and stare at them in awe, not realizing you were about to stumble upon an experience that is once-in-a-lifetime for many. But if you’re hunting the Auroras, you’ll want to be prepared. App can only predict the likelihood of an Aurora Storm, they cannot tell you exactly where and when you will see them. So, plan ahead. Bring warm clothing as it can get cold in the middle of the night, even in the summer Up North. Have your camera gear ready if you plan to take photographs. Remember to bring a tripod for nice, stable photos. Learn the best settings for your camera to capture the Auroras ahead of time. If you are lucky enough to find them, the storm may not last long. Bring snacks and just head north until you find your favorite spot, and wait.
And now, here are some of our favorite spots to try to see the Northern Lights.