There’s a perfectly scientific explanation for the aurora borealis phenomenon, but when you see it in person — weaving, flickering and pulsing across the night sky with its impossible river of greens, purples and reds — it just feels like magic. Like the universe is reaching out to you personally and waving hello.
One slightly less obvious reason why Minnesota is an incredible place to view the northern lights? Our abundance of inland lakes. Prolific northern lights photographer Travis Novitsky explains: “My favorite spot is on the south shore of any inland lake in northeast Minnesota. Being on the south shore means you get a great view of the lights looking north over the lake.” (As their name implies, northern lights are often most visible in the northern part of the sky.)
Unlike other states that might have one or two ideal spots to view the northern lights, Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes offer borealis chasers a practically unlimited supply of unique spots to view and frame them.
Where to See the Northern Lights
Undisturbed by the light pollution of Minnesota’s urban areas, natural darkness reigns as you venture into the northernmost reaches of the state. Here are a few of the best spots for catching the aurora borealis:
The Boundary Waters is a unique, certified International Dark Sky Sanctuary that's accessible primarily by canoe. Spanning 150 miles along the U.S.-Canada border and encompassing over 1,100 lakes, expect epic night skies after days filled with paddling and portaging.
Voyageurs National Park is a newly certified International Dark Sky Park offering expansive views of unpolluted skies from its waterways, where visitors can see impressive meteor showers and northern lights shows. More than a third of this remote 218,000 acre national park is covered in water and presents primetime night sky viewing.
Lake of the Woods, where there is a panoramic view of the waters and forests by day and, sometimes, the Milky Way and northern lights by night.
Separated from the rest of Minnesota by Lake of the Woods, the Northwest Angle is the northernmost point in the continental U.S. Prime dark skies territory, in other words.
Outside of northern Minnesota, other destinations across the state, remote and urban alike, provide ideal stargazing conditions:
In the central and southern parts of the state — including Park Rapids, St. Cloud, Stillwater, Lake City, Mankato and Rochester — locals can see constellations on any clear night, and these cities have been known to host an occasional northern lights display.
Just miles from downtown Minneapolis, Silverwood Park hosts after-dark events for visitors to explore and learn about the fascinating things that occur outside after the sun sets.
The early sunsets and long, star-filled nights of fall and winter make those seasons popular for northern lights trips, but despite what you may have heard, no one season is especially likely to result in a showing.
That doesn’t mean weather has no effect on light activity. In fact, northern lights can be predicted quite accurately by following weather conditions — just not the weather conditions here on Earth. What you want to follow is space weather, primarily the solar wind stream and solar flares of the sun.
Novitsky uses spaceweather.com as his primary resource for tracking northern lights activity. “If there’s a chance of activity, [the site] will tell you about it — sometimes as many as three or four days in advance. I check that website almost every day.”
How to Photograph the Northern Lights
Capturing an incredible photo of the northern lights is possible with most types of modern cameras. Just make sure your camera allows for manual shutter speed control, because capturing a truly stunning shot requires an exposure of 10 to 30 seconds. Other than manual shutter speed, you’ll also need a sturdy tripod to keep your camera steady during those long, night sky exposures.
Or you could simply use your smartphone. According to longtime dark skies photographer Bob King, "If you use the night photography mode on a newer phone, you can take lovely pictures of the northern lights.... The one key is to have some way to mount the phone so it's still during the exposure. It might be as simple as just rigging something up with Velcro. As long as you can see and compose the picture, then you're good."
Of course, you won't catch the northern lights every time you go out shooting. It really depends on whether the skies are clear and the celestial forecast is leaning in your favor. Either way, you'll find plenty of other, more common night sky photo ops in the North Star State. Rural Minnesota's deep, dark skies are rich with celestial displays such as meteor showers, shooting stars, and the Milky Way.
The best thing to do is to manage your expectations and maintain some perspective. After all, the northern lights aren't controlled by a switch any more than the wild animals at a safari are. But, for many northern lights photographers, that's part of the fun. Because when the solar wind blows just right, and the sky is clear, you’ll come face-to-face with a phenomenon that humans have been yearning to capture and understand ever since we first looked toward the stars. There's nothing quite like it, and no matter how much time you spend chasing the northern lights, it's always worth it.
Brian Fanelli is a writer and editor for Explore Minnesota. When he isn't writing about life in The North, you'll find him browsing the sci-fi shelves in a local bookstore, biking one of Minnesota's spectacular trails or walking his Chihuahua around Minneapolis.
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