Maximize Your Chances to See the Northern Lights

You don’t have to travel to the Arctic Circle to see the aurora borealis – Michigan offers great views of this cosmic phenomenon!

Northern lights over Lake Superior
Northern Lights over Lake Superior in Ontonagon | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

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While the moon controls Earth’s tides, the sun is responsible for the celestial kaleidoscope we call the northern lights. As the sun progresses through its 11-year cycle (give or take a few years), we see the effects here on Earth through the intensity of the aurora borealis, aka the northern lights. The sun is set to hit its peak, or maximum, in 2025, which is expected to be more active than in previous cycles, making the northern lights easier to see from farther south – so we’re in for an amazing show over the next three to four years!

If catching a glimpse of these dancing lights is on your bucket list, here are some tips to set you up for success.

Tip #1: Head (and Look!) North

This may seem obvious, but there are some nuances that can make the difference between catching the aurora and missing it. While your chances of seeing the northern lights increase the closer you get to the Earth’s poles, positioning yourself on a coastline to view them over the water gives you unfettered visibility and lower light pollution. With 917 miles of north-facing coastline on the Upper Peninsula along Lake Superior – and additional miles of mainland coasts along lakes Michigan and Huron – there are plenty of perfect places to catch this cosmic spectacle in Michigan.

Tip #2: Plan a Trip Around an Equinox

While it’s not quite understood why, the chances of seeing the northern lights around an equinox almost double. Equinoxes occur in late March and September when the sun is directly above the equator, making night and day equal for both hemispheres. And if you can’t plan your trip around the date of the equinox – don’t panic! Taking a trip in the month leading up to and following an equinox will also provide more opportunities to observe the aurora. Just be sure to avoid a full moon, which can make the sky too bright to get a good glimpse.

Tip #3: Make the Aurora the Focus of Your Trip

If you only give yourself one chance to catch the northern lights, you could very well end up disappointed. Even if you find the perfect place and are set up at the ideal time, the weather (and the aurora) might not cooperate – so set aside several nights just for witnessing this phenomenon so that you can go home triumphant.

Tip #4: Be Patient and Dress Warmly

The lights appear at the darkest and coldest part of the night, usually between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., and occur in short bursts lasting around 15 to 30 minutes. Make sure you’re prepared to be outside for several hours and stay warm and comfortable – and protect your eyes from bright light to improve your chances of seeing this natural wonder. (Red flashlights are great for providing visibility while preserving your night vision.)

Tip #5: Keep an Eye on the Forecast

And we’re not just talking about the weather – there are several ways to track the northern lights with aurora forecasts. The NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center offers 30-minute forecasts that can help you know when to pay particular attention to the sky, and several apps offer push notifications to alert you when the northern lights are predicted to appear.

Places like Copper Harbor, Marquette and Munising provide great bases of operations for your northern lights excursions in Michigan. For those wanting to capture the moment on camera, you can book a photography tour with a knowledgeable guide. With careful planning and a bit of luck, you’re sure to find yourself with a front-row seat to this ethereal experience.