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Northern Lights Shine on Winter Adventure in Fairbanks

A Guide to Fairbanks, Alaska

    An Interior Alaska winter is a parade of wonders. Artists from across the globe gather here to carve majestic sculptures out of some of the clearest ice in the world, and hardy animal lovers race dog sleds thousands of miles through the wilderness in subzero temperatures. On particularly cold days, one can even toss boiling water into the air and watch it come down in frozen particles. The grand marshal of this winter parade is the aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. These brilliant curtains of red, blue, green and white lights have captured people's imagination for years, and today they are making Fairbanks a premiere destination for winter travelers from around the world.

    Over the centuries, people have explained the northern lights in a myriad of ways. One Eskimo legend states that the lights are spirits carrying torches to guide nomadic travelers to the afterlife. Gold rush era prospectors professed that the lights were reflections of light shining on the mother lode of gold.

    While these stories make for great campfire chats, scientists explain them differently. The northern lights are produced by electrons and protons that originate in solar storms. Much like electricity in a neon sign, they give off energy when they strike gas particles in the earth's upper atmosphere. Although it often appears to be almost close enough to touch, the light is actually generated between 68 and 200 miles above the earth.

    The color of the northern lights ranges from red and purple to green and white. The brightest and most common colors are yellow and green. Visible from the end of August until early April, the phenomenon takes place year-round. However, the midnight sun keeps the skies too bright to see the aurora in the summer months.

    Fairbanks location makes it one of the best places on earth to see the northern lights. In fact, auroral research is a specialty of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Scientists at the university issue a weekly aurora forecast, predicting where and when auroral displays will be most intense.

    These celestial pyrotechnic displays have triggered an influx of winter visitors to Interior Alaska. Aurora viewing in Alaska is particularly popular among the Japanese, who place a special value on witnessing the aurora at least once in a lifetime.

    Certain spots in the Fairbanks area are well-known to aurora watchers. Resting high on a hilltop twenty miles north of the city, Mount Aurora/Skiland offers horizon-to-horizon aurora viewing by night, in addition to downhill skiing by day. The lodge's large picture windows allow viewers to stay warm while looking for the lights.

    The Resort at Chena Hot Springs, 57 miles east of Fairbanks, provides a wide variety of services to the northern lights viewer in addition to a number of winter sports and hot, spring-fed pools and tubs in a glass-walled bathhouse. The resort also features a heated, glass-enclosed viewing area where guests can see the northern lights without braving the elements. The resort becomes crowded during the viewing season, so early reservations are advised.

    Circle Hot Springs Resort, 134 miles from Fairbanks on the Steese Highway, is another popular destination for northern lights viewers. Like Chena Hot Springs, the resort also features winter sports such as cross country skiing and dog sledding. The aurora can be seen from most hotel rooms, but the most exciting way to view them is from the warmth of the resort's hot spring-fed outdoor pool. Even though the temperature of the surrounding air can sink as far as -30 F, bathers hardly notice, since the pool temperature remains a comfortable 100 F.

    Chatanika Gold Camp, 26.5 miles north of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway, is another prime location from which to view the northern lights. The open valley and distance from the city lights offers a spectacular view of the night sky.

    Visitors can choose lodging with aurora viewing in mind. A Taste of Alaska Lodge is one accommodation catering to northern lights viewers. Visitors can stay in a deluxe cabin complete with dining room and hot tub, or stay in one of the private rooms inside of the lodge. Each room has a view of the Alaska Range and surrounding countryside. A Cloudberry Lookout Bed and Breakfast features a spiral staircase made from a spruce tree that takes guests up to a glass tower specially designed for aurora watching. In downtown Fairbanks, the Northern Lights Hotel offers guests a rooftop aurora-viewing deck.

    The northern lights are beautiful and mysterious. While you can see pictures of them in books and on video, nothing matches the experience of seeing them in person. Pay a visit to Fairbanks in winter, and you'll soon see why.

    For more information, visit the FCVB web site at www.explorefairbanks.com.

Copyright Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. Used here with permission.