Alaska

How to See (and Photograph) the Northern Lights on a Weekend Trip to Fairbanks, Alaska

Note... this is a guide on how to give yourself the best possibility to see and photograph the Northern Lights. We can't guarantee you will. The phenomenon that is the Aurora Borealis is fickle, and it does what it wants. We had the privilege to visit Fairbanks, Alaska in March, one of the best months for Aurora viewing. During our trip we saw just enough of the Northern Lights to feel extremely lucky... but we definitely came away craving more! The following is a guide to prepare you for your upcoming trip to Alaska, and how to make the most out of chasing the Aurora Borealis. 

 

For how to get there, get around, and where to sleep, check out this more comprehensive blog on our trip... Here we're specifically talking Aurora Borealis. 

 

Seeing the Northern Lights - For the Non-Photographer

Okay if you are just there to view, then you should probably go on a tour or get a guide. We'll recommend two: Fairbanks Snow Sleighers and SkyFire In Focus Tours. Snow Sleighers may be the better choice, because you can do a snowmobile tour in search of the northern lights. On our next trip you will ABSOLUTELY find us here! SkyFire in Focus Tours is a great option too, because they will pick you up at your hotel, provide camera equipment if you'd like, and hot drinks to keep you warm while you're viewing. 

 

Seeing the Northern Lights - For the Photographer

We encourage you to stay in one of the epic spots above and still go on a tour (because locals will take you to the best spots), but here is some information on what you need to take photos once you're lucky enough to see the northern lights.

Basics

  • Make sure you have the right cold-weather gear. Standing out in sub-zero temperatures while waiting for your shot can be miserable if you aren't prepared. 
  • A high quality-camera and lens (renting is okay if you know how to use it) is a must. More specifically, you want a camera that can provide good image quality at high ISOs. Full-frame DSLRs or mirrorless cameras (Sony and Fuji) are solid. 
  • When it comes to lenses, you want a fast lens with an aperture >f 4.0. A lower aperture will allow for your images to have less noise and better quality. 
  • Invest in a tripod. You need something strong and sturdy that will stand up (hehe) to all types of weather. Make sure it has a solid ball-head so it can quickly maneuver to wherever the aurora may be. 
  • Don't plan on getting a good picture with your iPhone. 

Before you go out

  • Charge your batteries and bring extras. Extreme cold can drain your batteries quick, so keep them somewhere insulated (inner coat pocket). 
  • Check that your memory card has plenty of space on it, and bring a back-up.
  • Pack your extra lenses, your tripod, a shutter release, a headlamp, flashlight, snacks, water, extra layers, and anything else you might need. 

Getting the epic shot

  • Be patient. 
  • Shoot in RAW so you can have more flexibility when editing the photos later. 
  • Prepare to shoot in manual mode.
  • Set your aperture to the widest setting possible setting, or one stop down - around f 2.0. 
  • If you are going to do manual focus, then get any objects in the foreground really sharp and in focus. 
  • In terms of ISO, try not to shoot above 3200. We prefer to be in between ISO 800 and ISO 1600. 
  • For shutter speed, we used between 5-30 seconds. Check out your image, and adjust accordingly. 

These are some things that worked for us. Adjust based on your experience and let us know what you think!

Lastly - Pray, cross your fingers, clinch your lucky penny, or do whatever superstitious thing you think will help you... we hope that you get a spectacular show while you are there! Good luck!

We’re not in California Anymore… Our trip to “The Last Frontier”, AKA Alaska!

Exploring Alaska has always been high on our bucket list. The Northern Lights, dog mushing, snowmobiling, ice parks… it all just sounds so COOL. Literally. Being the So-Cal kids we are, we’re fascinated by snowy weather activities… and basically snowy weather in general. We’re also big fans of Alaska Airlines, so it just made sense that we head to this epic and untouched state. Here’s a re-cap of our trip, and why we think Alaska should be on EVERYONE’S bucket list!

 

Getting There

We flew LAX (Los Angeles) > SEA (Seattle) > FAI (Fairbanks), and it was easy and oh-so enjoyable. We stopped in at our favorite Alaska lounge at LAX, had a drink and some snacks, and boarded our comfy plane to Seattle. A couple hours later, we found ourselves at another Alaska lounge in Seattle (shocker, right? We love lounges!), and then before we knew it we were landing in snowy Fairbanks, Alaska. Nothing makes us happier than seamless travel days, and this one was a winner!

 

Pike’s Waterfront Lodge

Our first night was spent at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge, a cozy lodge right on the Chena river, and five minutes from the airport! On the shuttle ride over, we saw a small hint of blue waving through the sky. We both turned to each other and said “That can’t be the Northern Lights, right? Is it? Is it!?” Within five minutes we were checked into the hotel, bundled up, and stationed out on our balcony… watching none other than the NORTHERN LIGHTS!!! In case you didn’t know, the Northern Lights are really hard to see. March is a great month to see them (we were in Alaska March 15-19), but even then, there’s only about 8 nights of the month that the skies are clear. So we walked into our trip with pretty low expectations. Little did we know we’d get to see them our first night there!! SO THANKFUL.

We stayed at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge only for one night, but it’s a great spot that’s picturesque and close to town. It’s also super affordable, so definitely look into it when planning your trip. We’d love to return when the weather is warm, and truly utilize that waterfront location!

 

Mush or Bust

The next morning we stopped at The Cookie Jar for breakfast (highly recommend! Make sure you get the cinnamon roll!) and then headed to The Last Frontier Mushing Co-Op! Friends, this may have been the highlight of our entire trip. Not only did we get to play with Alaskan puppies and learn how to harness them, but we got to go on an hour sled ride along the frozen Chena River! It was a dream come true for us, and The Last Frontier team was absolutely incredible. The way they care and love on their dogs, their attention to detail, and their knowledge of all things dog mushing blew us away (most of them are professional dog mushers training for big races!). The experience of flying through the snow with the pups leading the way was something we will NEVER forget!

 

Borealis Basecamp aka ALIEN CAMP???

From The Last Frontier Mushing Co-Op we headed to the Borealis Basecamp, our home for the night. Now, we’ll be honest… This place was a splurge. We almost didn’t stay there, simply because of the cost, and also because they were sold out! But Borealis Basecamp happened to have a cancellation, and we couldn’t resist the thrill, so we made the spontaneous decision to YOLO it… and we’re SO glad we did! 

Borealis Basecamp is situated in one of the best spots for Northern Lights viewing, and every one of their 9 igloos has a crystal-clear ceiling above the bed. Not only were we stoked on the idea of sleeping in an igloo, but what better way to watch the Northern Lights than from your bed?!

We spent the rest of our afternoon exploring the property, having dinner in their yurt (which we had all to ourselves!), and watching the snow gently fall around us. Unfortunately the snowfall meant that the sky was cloudy, and hence… no Northern Lights. But we loved every minute of our time at the Borealis Basecamp. We didn’t want to leave!!

 

Ice, Ice Baby

The next morning we headed to the George Horner Ice Park in Fairbanks. We weren’t entirely sure what an Ice Park entailed (Slushies? Ice cream? Ice skating?) but we were excited. This place was so much cooler (literally - it was cold) than we could have dreamed! Basically, think of an amusement park made of ice. There were tons of slides, sculptures, and life-size interactive displays - all made of ice! We spent hours walking around, sliding around, and marveling at the craftsmanship of every sculpture. They definitely don’t have these kinds of parks in Southern California!

 

Dog Mushing Championships

We timed our trip just right, where we were able to catch the tail-end (Get it? Tail?) of the GCI Dog Mushing Championships. Being very new dog mushers ourselves, seeing the “professionals” race against each other was really exciting. We had chili and cornbread with the locals and cheered on the racers. 

 

Chena Hot Springs

From there we drove to the world-famous Chena Hot Springs. Known for their picturesque hot springs and eco-friendly resort, it’s also a prime spot to see the Northern Lights. We stayed in the cutest little rental cabin, the Ferree Cabin, and it truly became our home away from home. The owners had it stocked with snacks, water, movies, and all of the amenities one could want.

That night we set out on a Northern Lights adventure, where we rode a snow coach (think snow plow meets school bus... kind of) up to the top of a mountain far away from the city lights. There they had a heated yurt with hot cocoa, hot tea, and Cup O’ Noodles when you need a warm pick-me-up. This was MUCH needed, as we were there from 10pm-2am! The late night and cold mountain air was worth it though, we saw the Northern Lights for a second time (wahoo!!)… and even made some friends!

 

Snowmobiling

Prior to this trip, we had never been snowmobiling. It’s something we’ve always wanted to try, but honestly, we’ve always been scared to do! But what better place to face our fears and snowmobile than Alaska?! 

The Chena Hot Springs team taught us all we needed to know, and took us out on a ride we’ll never forget. We rode down tree-lined snowy paths complete with jumps and sharp turns, and  Bobby only got launched off once! Haha! 

 

Ice Museum

No trip to Chena Hot Springs is complete without a visit to the famous Chena Ice Museum. Everything inside is made out of ice, including an ice bar where you can sip on a Apple-tini in an ice glass! (You can keep the glass, but good luck bringing it home.) ;) You can get married in the ice chapel, and even rent out one of their four guest rooms, completely made out of ice! 

 

Now, this blog barely breaks the ice (hehe) of all that there is to do in Alaska. Heck, we only made it to Fairbanks! If there’s one thing we learned on this trip, is that there is A LOT to do and see in this magnificent state, and we hardly scratched the surface.