Auroras, also known as the Northern Lights, have enthralled humans for thousands of years. This natural light display, caused by the Earth’s interaction with the sun, is a common sight in the northernmost parts of the world. Many tourists will journey to Alaska, Norway, and other Arctic locales for a chance to see an aurora, and if you’re planning an aurora trip, you likely want to know where the best place to see one is.
While auroras are a common sight in the city of Fairbanks, you need to travel to a more isolated location in order to enjoy the Northern Lights with minimal distractions. Cleary Summit, located a short drive outside of Fairbanks, is one of the best places in Alaska to view auroras. Here is a short guide to aurora viewing at Cleary Summit.
Aurora Viewing at Cleary Summit
Auroras are generally only visible in the Arctic Circle due to the way that the Earth’s magnetic field works. Auroras are caused by solar wind, particles from the sun, colliding with the Earth’s magnetosphere, which protects the planet from harmful solar radiation. Most of the magnetosphere is located outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, but because the magnetosphere is generated by the Earth’s poles, it intersects with the atmosphere at the North and South Pole. Because of this, auroras can generally only be seen within and near the Arctic and Antarctic regions outside of periods of exceptional solar activity.
Auroras can also generally only be seen during the winter. This is because auroras only occur at night due to the absence of the sun, whose overpowering rays prevent auroras from forming. Due to the Earth’s axial tilt, the Arctic Circle experiences near-constant daylight during the summer months and near-constant darkness during the winter. Long winter nights greatly increase your chances of seeing an aurora.
When choosing an aurora viewing location, you’ll want to find one that is secluded and away from civilization. This is because cars, streetlights, buildings, and other manmade objects give off light pollution, which rises into the sky and can impact aurora viewing. Ideal aurora viewing locations are out in the country and have a minimum of artificial light. Fortunately, Cleary Summit is such a place and is popular among aurora viewers for this reason.
Cleary Summit stands over 2,200 feet above sea level and is popular among tourists for the views it offers of the White Mountains, Denali, and Tanana Valley during clear days. Its isolated, high location also makes it a popular aurora viewing destination, with many tour operations offering trips to Cleary Summit as well as lodges where people can view auroras while relaxing with a warm beverage.
Cleary Summit is located roughly 20 miles northeast of Fairbanks and can be accessed via the Steese Highway, which runs from Fairbanks to the gold mining town of Circle. To drive to Cleary Summit, head north onto Alaska Route 2, which is the Steese Highway’s designation for its first 11 miles. After arriving in the town of Fox, transition to Alaska Route 6, which heads to Cleary Summit; from Fox, Alaska Route 2 continues onto the Elliot Highway.
If you want to stop and take pictures on the way to Cleary Summit, there are a number of pullouts where you can park safely. Parking outside of the pullouts should be avoided due to the narrow road and lack of light at night. On the way to Cleary Summit, you can also visit the Felix Pedro Monument Area, which commemorates Pedro’s discovery of gold in the Fairbanks area in 1902.
Cleary Summit has a public aurora viewing area that you can pull into to watch the Northern Lights. This area is popular with tourists and tour operators, so when you arrive there, you should turn off your headlights as soon as it is safe to do so; this is considered good etiquette, since artificial light from your car can harm the overall viewing experience. In addition to the public viewing area, Cleary Summit has a number of lodges and ski resorts where visitors can easily witness auroras, a good option if you don’t want to stand outside in the cold.
Despite its close distance to Fairbanks, you should exercise caution when driving to Cleary Summit due to the unpredictability of Alaskan weather, the isolated nature of Alaskan roads, and inclement driving conditions in the winter. Obey traffic laws, dress in warm, multi-layered clothing, and bring a survival kit in your car. Also be alert for moose and other wildlife that like to roam in the vicinity of the road.
Seeing an aurora is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it’s one that is best seen in a rural setting, away from the light pollution and noise of cities. If you are in the Fairbanks area, Cleary Summit is one of the best places to go for aurora viewing. Its close distance to Fairbanks and high elevation means you can journey to it to see an aurora and be back home on the same day. Your aurora viewing experience at Cleary Summit will be one of the most memorable trips of your life provided you travel safely.