HILLS NEWSPAPERS:September 6, 2019
One winter evening, in a town near the Arctic Circle, I was scouring the sky for the Northern Lights. Suddenly, I saw a splinter of light and felt a surge of energy that connected me surreally to the stars. What a letdown it was to discover, soon after, that it was a strobe light beckoning shoppers to a newly opened store in the village.
They say timing is everything. But choosing your destination is also important, which is why Alaska draws so many visitors in September and early October. Fairbanks, Alaska, and nearby Denali National Park are under what’s called the Aurora Oval, with some of the world’s best viewing of the Northern Lights. And if you’re a betting man (or woman), your odds of seeing this sky show spike to 90 percent when you spend three evenings in the Fairbanks region during aurora season (Aug. 21 through April 21).
Folks in Fairbanks take auroras so seriously that the tourism bureau — Explore Fairbanks — has an aurora borealis tracker that gives real-time and three-day aurora forecasts. The data is provided by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (the world’s leading aurora borealis research institute). You say you can’t stay up all night searching the skies? I had the same thought, until I discovered the aurora wake-up call at Denali National Park’s two premier lodges — the Grande Denali Lodge and Denali Bluffs Hotel.
“If you ask us, we call and wake you up when we see the aurora,” says hotel sales manager Shalley Villamarin.
Both lodges are perched on a bluff with sweeping views of the park. Pulsating light isn’t the only attraction. September sees an artist’s palette of color in Denali, Fairbanks and all of Alaska’s interior and arctic regions. Birch leaves are ablaze while the tundra floor turns gold under cloud wisps of salmon and plum. Taking the Alaska Railroad between Fairbanks and Denali doubles down on the visuals with glass-dome cars that frame streams and meadows where brown bear and moose roam — ever-ready to bound toward the woods for cover.
And then there’s the wondrous Mount Denali — a peak so often shrouded in clouds that it’s seen by just 20 to 30 percent of all visitors to the area. The good news is the chances for viewing are greatly increased as you enter the national park. Some lucky visitors have even seen Denali under the aurora — as a massive white peak electrified by rivers of green, yellow, magenta and red.
In every season, Fairbanks, Denali, the Arctic and interior Alaska are a fascinating destination. From flights to the Arctic Circle from which you drive back down the Dalton Highway (following the Alaska Pipeline which, coincidentally, was built by the same man who built BART) to overnighting at Chena Hot Springs (where you can soak in 120-degree water one minute and belly up to an ice bar the next) Northern Lights have never been so accessible.
If you go:
For tourism tips and the aurora borealis tracker, see explorefairbanks.com. For shoulder season prices and closure dates for the Grande Denali Lodge and Denali Bluffs Hotel, see denalialaska.com. For resort stays in Fairbanks, see fountainheadhotels.com.