Northern Lights: A Northwest Viewer’s Guide

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

Stars
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.

Stars
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.

Aurora
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.

Stars
Sun Valley, Idaho
In 2017, the International Dark Sky Association designated the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve as the first dark sky reserve in the country, and one of only 15 in the world as of press time. Much of the reserve’s 1,416 square miles are in the Sawtooth National Forest Recreation Area, which offers any number of spaces and places to take in a star show. If you’re looking for an illuminating dining experience in the Sun Valley and Ketchum area, the Limelight Hotel (limelighthotels.com/ketchum) now offers an uber-luxurious Dark Sky Dinner, prepared by professional chefs in a backcountry yurt—a hike-in spot in summer, and ski or snowshoe accessible in winter. Don’t worry if you forget to pack those night-vision goggles, a professional guide is also part of the package.

Stars
Artist Point, Washington
At the very end of the Mount Baker Highway, perched 5,000 feet above sea level between Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker, this incredible viewpoint is accessible by car from July through first snowfall, which is generally in September or October. The views are always stunning when skies are clear, but during the Perseids meteor shower, which this year will peak overnight between August 11 and 12, you won’t even want to blink, lest you miss a moment of that incredible light show.

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