The Best Times & Places to Catch the Northern Lights in Michigan
It's a phenomenon that many people talk about wanting to experience...the Northern Lights.
Otherwise known as the aurora borealis, this light show of sorts is often described as a "dancing wave of lights" and is sought after by sky-watchers of all ages. But, what is it?
According to space.com, the aurora borealis is created when energized particles from the Sun collide with Earth's upper atmosphere. Thankfully, the Earth's magnetic fields protect us. The description goes on to say that,
As Earth's magnetic field redirects the particles toward the North Pole, the dramatic process transforms into a cinematic atmospheric phenomenon that dazzles and fascinates scientists and skywatchers alike.
To give you a better visual, here's a quick time-lapse of a gorgeous display of the northern lights over the Mackinac Bridge:
But, where can you catch the northern lights in Michigan? And, when is the best time to do so?
It was a question posed in Michigan's Reddit thread when u/zah_vee asked,
Where/when is the best time to see northern lights up in northern Michigan? My family is going up to Michigan for Christmas this year, and seeing the northern lights has always been a dream of mine.
Unfortunately, the northern lights aren't a regular event so, predicting when and where they might show up can be tricky. However, here's what some of the locals had to say:
1. Keweenaw in the Winter
This suggestion came from u/TheBimpo who said, in part,
Winter in the Keweenaw. The Aurora is not a phenomenon that occurs every night, every other night, or on any kind of regular basis. It is extremely unpredictable on a long-term forecasting basis. You also need a cloudless sky, preferably away from the city.
Finding dark skies free from light pollution may seem obvious, but it's the number one suggestion. And the Keweenaw Peninsula certainly fits the bill. Keweenaw county is also home to Isle Royal National Park which boasts solitude along with a breathtaking natural surrounding. Read more here.
2. Headlands International Dark Skies Park
If there’s a solar storm and it’s forecast...just west of Mackinac city is a park that has a Telescope observatory the entire area is considered a night sky zone so none of the housing for miles can have night lights
The park the user is referring to is Headlands International Dark Skies Park. A Dark Sky Park, by definition, is a piece of land that has a distinguished quality of starry nights and is protected for educational and scientific purposes, among others. See the full list of Dark Sky Parks throughout the country here. As far as observing the northern lights, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park would provide the perfect environment.
3. Gaylord in the Summer
While most comments suggested wintertime as the most ideal time to see the northern lights, u/Fantastic_Tart5593 said,
I’m from northern Michigan/ UP, and have only seen them once in Gaylord during a solar storm in the middle of the summer. I think that it mostly comes down to luck!
Gaylord sits in the "heart of northern Michigan" and offers plenty of forest trails, lakes, and opportunities for adventure. With the plentiful natural areas, finding an area free from light pollution shouldn't be a problem.
As a fellow sky watcher who has a strong desire to see the northern lights, hearing that it all comes down to luck feels slightly disappointing. However, there are a couple of websites, provided by those commenting, that may help narrow down a time where you might be able to see the elusive northern lights:
- NOAA provides short-term forecasts for the aurora and where it'll be the most intense - https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/aurora-30-minute-forecast
- The University of Alaska also has a forecast model for aurora activity as well as a 27-day prediction of when activity will be the most visible - https://www.gi.alaska.edu/monitors/aurora-forecast
Fingers crossed, if you match your trip with the forecasts above, you'll be able to see some northern lights!
Now, if you're in southwest Michigan, there's little to no chance that you'll see the northern lights in our area. However, there are plenty of places for normal stargazing. Check out the list below:
Living in a state where there's a possibility of seeing a natural phenomenon is pretty great. But, that's not the only reason living in Michigan is the best. Do you agree with everything listed below?