Think you have to travel to Finland or Norway to see the northern lights? Think again. The upper Midwest, from northern Minnesota to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and beyond, offers glimpses of the ethereal scene. In northern Minnesota’s Rainy Lake area—gateway to Voyageurs National Park—as many as 200 aurora episodes are visible each year, weather permitting.
First, an explainer: Earth’s magnetic field is weaker above and around the poles, across a stretch known as the auroral oval. Along the curved edges, charged particles released from the sun’s solar flares enter Earth’s atmosphere and collide with oxygen and nitrogen, sparking a breathtaking view. Even though the magic happens far to the north, on some occasions the auroral oval can be seen as far south as Cleveland and Chicago.
“It’s harder to see them farther south, but when you have your spot and the conditions are right, why not try?” says Jim Thomas, who first witnessed the light show in Wisconsin some two decades ago; he later became a leading Midwest northern lights expert and editor of aurora-hunting website Soft Serve News.
Due to the Midwest’s exceptionally long northern lights season, summer-night darkness means you can start chasing the spectacle in August (and often earlier). Aurora hunters have already reported summer 2020 aurora successes, including a late-June sighting at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and multiple July sightings in the area as well.
Improve your odds
Increasing your aurora luck starts with understanding peak conditions. Thomas recommends waiting for a clear night; clouds muddy the sky and can obscure the auroras. Darkness is also key. Nights around the new moon are better than bright full-moon nights.
But dark, cloudless skies don’t guarantee a sighting. One of the most important factors is aurora strength, measured via Kp-index (an indicator of geomagnetic activity). The Kp range is zero to nine, with zero being weak and nine being a full-on geomagnetic storm—the number aurora hunters fantasize about. Thomas recommends keeping an eye on not just the Kp number, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ovation map; this tool helps you determine whether or not the storm will be visible from your area.
Storm tracking is particularly important for those hunting the lights in 2020. The sun follows an 11-year cycle of activity and is currently in solar minimum, the lowest activity level.
“It’s a numbers and luck game,” Thomas says. “It’s not something like the Grand Canyon that’s always going to be there. The aurora may or may not show up. You have to keep up with the forecasts, grind it out, and go through some disappointments before you see them.”
Where to go in the Midwest
Whether it’s Lapland or the Great Lakes, successful aurora hunting requires a dark sky with limited light pollution. Maps such as Dark Site Finder come in handy when scouting ideal spots, or you can rely on certifiably dark destinations like Headlands International Dark Sky Park, located on the Straits of Mackinac, which separate Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. This International Dark Sky Park, a designation earned through rigorous light-pollution testing, is granted to public or private lands with an exceptional starry sky and nocturnal environments.
The U.S.’s Voyageurs National Park, on the border with Canada, puts on quite a show, with lights reflecting across the park’s 30 lakes. Farther east, beneath remote skies with low light pollution in Cook County, Minnesota, aurora-view backpacking trails and road-trip routes abound.
Wisconsin’s prime attraction, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, is the state’s northernmost point—which makes this cluster of 20 forested islands perfect for spotting the northern lights. And Michigan’s wild and rugged Upper Peninsula, including Copper Harbor, Marquette, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, is ideal with its near-total darkness.
But northern lights opportunities in the lower 48 states don’t stop there. If conditions are right, auroras can dance above most states along the northern U.S. border. Some of the best spots include Acadia National Park in Maine, Glacier National Park in Montana, and Mount Washington Valley in New Hampshire. Of course, the higher the latitude, the better the aurora chances—that’s why avid northern lights hunters frequent spots like Fairbanks, Alaska, a popular aurora destination just 200 miles from the Arctic Circle.
Looking for additional insight on how to chase nature’s light show? The Great Lakes Aurora Hunters, a 56,000-member Facebook community with a focus on Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, shares everything from viewing locations and night-sky camera settings to aurora alerts and hunting encouragement.