BEMIDJI, Minn. — There’s nothing quite so magical as seeing the northern lights. A curtain of multicolored hues fluttering across the sky, it’s a special, breathtaking sight to behold.
Also known as the aurora borealis, the natural phenomenon occurs when charged particles from the sun enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with our planet’s gaseous particles.
Many venture to Scandinavia, Alaska and even Canada, to glimpse the lights, as they tend to be more visible the farther north one goes.
Surprisingly, however, they can be seen from the Lower 48, and Minnesota’s northern location, vast skies and abundance of lakes make it a perfect location to see the spectacular sight.
In the northernmost part of the state, light pollution isn’t much of an issue, making it a prime destination for aurora chasers.
Typically, the northern lights tend to be most active around the first days of spring and fall, but in Minnesota, they can be seen year-round with the right conditions — and a little bit (or a lot) of dedication.
Tips for viewing the northern lights
Northern light shows usually last only minutes, and they’re notoriously fickle. Sometimes, despite all conditions lining up, they may choose to stay silent. Other times, they may appear out of the blue.
Nevertheless, here are some tips to increase your chances of seeing the lights:
Skies should be clear with little to no moonlight and minimal cloud cover. Be sure to check the local weather forecast of your viewing area.
The best time to see the lights are from early sunset into the early morning hours. The displays are said to be most vibrant between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.
It’s best to get out of town to avoid light pollution, which can affect the brilliancy of the lights. Travel to a rural area, an unpopulated lake area, or one of the destinations noted in this article.
Solar radiation should be high to see the lights. Online space weather trackers help to determine this, as they monitor the solar wind stream and solar flares of the sun.
Don't give up! Sure, you'll probably be disappointed a few times when the elusive lights don't show themselves but stay committed to viewing them, and it'll pay off.
The following are considered to be some of the best places in northern Minnesota for viewing the northern lights:
Voyageurs National Park: A certified International Dark Sky Park, the national park, located near the Canadian border, offers unpolluted skies and a myriad of waterways perfect for aurora viewing.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: Accessible mainly by canoe, this spot is one of only 14 certified International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world, making it a northern lights gazing rarity.
The Gunflint Trail in the Superior National Forest: A drive along the Gunflint Trail provides visitors with their choice of lakes to survey the lights over, and some have public boat launches for better viewing.
Artistʼs Point, Grand Marais: These jagged rock formations of Lake Superior are stunning at night when paired with a glimpse of the lights. Visitors are able to drive to the nearby beach and park by the Coast Guard Station for easy viewing.
White Sky Rock, Lutsen: Located on Caribou Lake, this location gives spectators a full 360-degree view for light gazing at an altitude of 1,400 feet. However, it does require a bit of a hike to get there.
There are many online northern light trackers, social media pages and phone apps to help monitor viewing conditions. They include:
NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center at www.swpc.noaa.gov
University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute's aurora forecast at www.gi.alaska.edu/monitors/aurora-forecast
Astro Bob blog by former Duluth News Tribune photo editor and Minnesota astronomy expert Bob King at www.duluthnewstribune.com/astro-bob.
On Facebook, the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters and the Northern Lights Lake Superior Region pages have followers who share their northern lights photography and discuss forecasts and upcoming viewing conditions.
The My Aurora Forecast & Alerts phone app provides real-time northern light notifications for users.