Alaska, the 49th State of the United States…the frozen tundra as referred to by many. The name is in fact accurate…parts of Alaska have a subsurface layer called permafrost. That means that the ground remains frozen throughout the year. Even with temperatures swinging widely between a hot 98 F (37 C) in the Summer and freezing -80 F (-62 C) in the winter this subsurface layer remains frozen.
Alaska is also home to the tallest mountain peak in the United States, Mt Denali standing tall at 20,310 ft (6190 m) in the middle of Denali National Park. The park encompasses 6 million acres of Alaska’s interior wilderness and is home to animals such as wolves, grizzle bears, moose, caribou, etc. Surrounding the majestic mountains at Denali National Park are wild tundras, endless spruce forests, crystal clear lakes and breathtaking glaciers. Hiking, one of the most popular activities at Denali National Park is a superb experience no matter the season. The stunning views of the surrounding mountains are unbeatable.
The majority of the year the park is covered with snow and thus difficult or impossible to enter by car. At the end of April the snow starts to melt and by May the tourist season begins lasting until about the end of September before it is covered my snow again. Due to accessibility issues during the winter the park is patrolled by the park rangers and their associates, the amazing sled dogs. If you have a chance to visit them, please do! One of our favorite experiences was hearing the sled dogs howl as a group…Incredible! Here is a link to our Facebook page to hear the symphony!
The truth is Alaska is wild, the weather can be unpredictable and you may encounter a moose or a bear while exploring, but Alaska is also magnificent and captivating.
Alaska is also home to some of the most amazing places in the world to see the breathtaking and often elusive Aurora Borealis also known as the Northern Lights. People from around the world have made it a profession to chase and try to capture the beauty and elegance of the dancing night sky lights. What is the Aurora Borealis? In simple terms, it is a natural phenomenon generated when electrically charged particles emitted from the Sun’s atmosphere causing a solar wind collide with the Earth’s atmosphere. Depending on the type of atmospheric gases present at the collision time the colors of the Aurora can vary dramatically. The most commonly seen colors are the yellow-green streaks of light caused by oxygen molecules in the Earth’s atmospherics layer. The range of colors can progress to reg, pink, blue or purple.
It is hard to explain the beauty and splendor of the dancing lights in the night sky. The Aurora Borealis is unpredictable so there is no guarantee at any point that you will see it but it is worth trying. And when you do see them…they do in fact take your breath away. We witness many of mother nature’s magnificent works of art such as sunrises, sunsets, rainbows, stormy skies, majestic mountains and cascading waterfalls, but for the most part you are guaranteed to see anyone of those at one point in your life… The Northern Lights require that you do some research and planning…and with a little bit of luck you may just see them.
The Aurora Borealis is visible from mid September until about the second half of April. The truth is the Aurora happens throughout the year, day and night, however it is only visible in the dark. The reason September-April is Aurora viewing season is because of the availability and length of dark nights. So plan your trip during those months. And here is my best piece of advice (speaking from experience) don’t be discouraged by unfavorable weather conditions. The weather changes quite rapidly in the higher latitudes, so stay positive and optimistic about seeing the Northern Lights. Here is what happened to us…the day of our tour the weather was terrible! The sky was overcast with dense clouds and we even got some snow and later rain. All of the people from our original tour canceled the night excursion because their expectation to see the Northern Lights was low. We decided to go anyway, we didn’t want to sit around the hotel. The tour company told us that the weather may change at anytime and we really only need about 15 min of clearing to see them. So at 8:45 pm we were picked up and driven about 90 min outside of Fairbanks to a cozy log cabin in the woods (known as Joy, Alaska). We checked and double checked the night-sky time and time again and finally at 1:30 am we saw this…
Later that same night we came across these…
Lesson learned, if you are already there, take every chance you have to see them. It may be a wasted night if you didn’t see them, but it is far batter than a missed opportunity to witness this unbelievable and unpredictable light show!
Seeing the Aurora Borealis is one thing, capturing a photo of it is a completely different thing. Before we went I read online that we may be able to capture them with our phone camera…I was not able to do so, but maybe you can figure it out. Your best bet is to use a DSLR or a GoPro in night time-lapse mode. For both a tripod is a must given that the average exposure length is around 30 sec (meaning you should not move the camera for that long). So be prepared!
Here are the settings that we used with out Go Pro Hero 5:
Set camera to Night Lapse mode and then adjust the following settings
- Protune – ON
- Shutter – 30 sec
- White Balance – 3000 K
- ISO Limit – 800
- Sharpness – High
- Interval – Continuous
Feel free to test and experiment with the settings.
Besides Alaska the Aurora Borealis can be witnessed in parts of the higher, northern latitudes of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and occasionally Scotland and Denmark.
While in Alaska chasing the Northern Lights in the winter or admiring it’s national parks in the Summer, take a day to visit the Arctic Circle. Alaska is the only state in the United States that reaches all the way to the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle is an imaginary line defined in numerous ways one being the latitude above which the sun does not set on the Summer Solstice and does not rise on the Winter Solstice. Many companies offer flying or driving day tours. On the day that we were supposed to fly to the Arctic Circle the weather was very bad and we could not fly into Coldfoot, Alaska. Instead our tour company took us to the picturesque little village of Battles, Alaska.
Initially not sure what to expect we were pleasantly surprised by the peace and beauty of this small town. During the winter it is only accessible by plane or snowmobile. With a population of only 63 people it made for a perfect backdrop for some amazing pictures. White, untouched, fluffy snow covered the entire town including the airport runway.
Bucket list visit to the Arctic Circle…check!
Alaska is also home to the famous Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It runs an astounding 800 miles (1287 km) from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields in Northern Alaska to Valdez, Alaska in the South. The 48 inch (122 cm) in diameter pipeline can transport over 2 million barrels of crude oil per day. The pipeline is visible along some of Alaska’s major highways and easily accessible to view. Even if you are not interested in oil and pipes, it is still a fascinating site to see.
Another great activity close to Fairbanks, Alaska are the Chena Hot Springs. Just about one hour drive from the city is located the Chena Hot Springs Resort. You do not need to be a guest at the resort to visit the hot springs. Bring your bathing suit and plunge into the steaming pool of natural hot water. The feeling is wonderful especially if it is cold outside!
While at Chena Hot Springs take the opportunity to visit the ice museum onsite and savor on a glass of apple martini served in a glass made of ice. Cheers!
Chena Hot Springs is also a prime location to see the Aurora Borealis. It’s remote location away from city lights is ideal for viewing the lights. Here is what we experienced while visiting…
So put on your thermals, warm boots and adventure hat and experience Alaska for what it is…wild beauty and unspoiled nature!
And in true Alaska fashion once on the plane leaving Fairbanks we were sent off on our way with a magnificent view of Denali National Park.