The Northern Lights

One of the Earth’s natural wonders, the Northern Lights, cast radiant, multi-colored lights over the northern landscape. They most commonly appear between 60-75 degree longitude, making the North Shore a hot spot for seeing a display.

What Are the Northern Lights?

Also known as Aurora Borealis (meaning “dawn of the north”), these colorful lights form when charged particles from the sun enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with the earth’s gaseous particles. Typically, the lights are green. However, on rare occasions, viewers will get to see red, yellow, blue, and violet lights. The colors are determined by the height in which the particles collide. Green lights, for instance, appear when the colliding particles are about 60 miles above the earth. Rare reddish lights appear when the colliding particles are higher. Usually, about 200 miles above the earth.

Seeing the Northern Lights

If you want to see the auroras, you’ll want to check the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center website. This site provides daily Aurora forecast to determine the likelihood of the Northern Lights being visible. Skies will also need to be clear to see the Auroras. So, be sure to check the local forecast, as well. Doing these things will increase your odds of spotting the gorgeous lights. It is also important to know that displays are most vibrant between 11:00 pm and 3:00 am.

To increase your chances of seeing brighter lights, it helps to get out of town. Many cities, and even small towns, experience light pollution. This can hide your view of the atmosphere lights.

Luckily, there are a number of places on the North Shore we recommend visiting when the chances of spotting Northern Lights are the greatest. These areas are not affected by light pollution and are located further north. Read below for more tips and tricks to seeing the Auroras, as well as a list of our favorite viewing areas.

Northern Lights form when charged particles from the sun enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with the earth’s gaseous particles.

Where to See The Northern Lights

There are a few places that are known and loved for providing incredible Northern Lights views. We will list those below. But, depending on the conditions, you can see the Northern Lights from pretty much anywhere you can look north.
 
A Few Tips for Spotting the Northern Lights

Download an Aurora App: Apps like Aurora Alerts, My Aurora Forecast (available on Android and iOS), and Aurora Forecast (only available on iOS) are a great way to see what the likelihood is of seeing the Northern Lights at any given time. Plus, they have a forecast available to help you know what Aurora activity you may see in the week ahead.

Understand the KP Index: The KP index is basically how likely you are to see the lights. If your Aurora app is saying the KP Index is 0-3, you will have little to no chance to see the lights. With KP 3 you may be able to pick up activity on a camera but may not see them with the naked eye. Starting at KP 4 you will start to see them more clearly with the naked eye. However, you may not see the bright, vibrant colors of the lights with the naked eye. By KP 5-6 things get a lot clearer and easier to see. KP 7-9 is rare in Northern Minnesota, but if that happens you will likely be able to see the Auroras anywhere you go, with the naked eye, when the index is this high.

Watch the Weather Forecast, Find Clear Skies: Aurora apps generally can tell you if there will be enough clear skies to see the lights. However, you will want to cross-reference your destination with a more specific weather forecast. You will need clear skies to see the Northern Lights. We like to include multiple towns and some inland areas on our weather forecast search for the purpose of seeing the Northern Lights. It might be cloudy in Grand Marais, but just ten miles up the Gunflint Trail the skies may be clear, for instance. If it’s overcast over the whole region, even if the KP index is high, you won’t have a great view of the lights.

Get Away From Light Pollution: Go to an area with as little noise pollution as possible. Even small towns like Grand Marais produce enough light pollution that you may not be able to see the lights in town. Go North, head up above towns and cities. Get away from light however you can.

Be Prepared: Most people accidentally see the lights. They just appear and you pull over your car and stare at them in awe, not realizing you were about to stumble upon an experience that is once-in-a-lifetime for many. But if you’re hunting the Auroras, you’ll want to be prepared. App can only predict the likelihood of an Aurora Storm, they cannot tell you exactly where and when you will see them. So, plan ahead. Bring warm clothing as it can get cold in the middle of the night, even in the summer Up North. Have your camera gear ready if you plan to take photographs. Remember to bring a tripod for nice, stable photos. Learn the best settings for your camera to capture the Auroras ahead of time. If you are lucky enough to find them, the storm may not last long. Bring snacks and just head north until you find your favorite spot, and wait.

And now, here are some of our favorite spots to try to see the Northern Lights.

Hawk Ridge, Duluth
Known as a spot to view migrating birds, this ridge offers magnificent views over the entirety of Duluth and is a great spot to see the Northern Lights. Hawk Ridge is located on East Skyline Parkway on the northeastern side of Duluth and features an overlook where viewers can park to see the lights from their car.
 
George Crosby Manitou State Park
Located near the town of Finland, this lesser-known State Park is great for Northern Lights viewing. You are far away from any city or town and fewer people are lingering about, especially in the winter. Note that the road to George Crosby Manitou State Park is not maintained in the winter. You may need to ski or snowshoe in to enjoy the Northern Lights.
  
White Sky Rock, Lutsen
White Sky Rock offers 360-degree views over Caribou Lake. At 1,400 feet above sea level, it almost feels as if you are a part of the lights. To get there, park at the Caribou Lake public boat launch located on Caribou Trail. Cross the highway and start hiking up the hiking trail, staying to the right when the trail splits. Getting to the rock overlook will require a .15 mile hike which gains about 230 feet of elevation. 
 
Artist’s Point, Grand Marais
This point in Grand Marais offers tremendous lake views during the day and is a great spot to view the Northern Lights at night. Though it won’t be the darkest spot along the North Shore to view the lights, it’s easy to access, especially for those who are in the Grand Marais area. The east side of the point shields viewers from most of the “polluted” lights from downtown Grand Marais and provides a great spot to view the lights to the north over the abyss of Lake Superior. For easy viewing, visitors are able to drive right up to the beach and park near the Coast Guard Station.
 
Pincushion Mountain
Get there by heading just a couple of miles up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais. The overlook is a visitor and photographer favorite because of its sweeping views of the Grand Marais Harbor. If the KP index is high enough, you may be able to see the lights over the lake looking toward the harbor. However, you’re more likely to see them if you shift your gaze northward over Lake Superior instead. Basically, look left if you’re facing Lake Superior att the overlook. 
 
Anywhere on the Gunflint Trail
Take a drive up the Gunflint Trail, and pick a lake. There are many to choose from! You’ll want to pick a lake that has a great view looking North. The Northern Light Lake Overlook Trailhead is not just a clever name, it leads you north to the Brule River overlooking Northern Light Lake. Further up, Honeymoon Bluff overlooks Hungry Jack Lake.  There is an overlook right off the Gunflint Trail that looks north over Birch Lake. Easy access from the road and no hiking required – better in the winter due to tree coverage! Go to any north-facing public boat landing like the one on Loon Lake. Or, head all the way to Trails End and look north over Gull Lake. 
 
As always, if hiking, use caution, bring a flashlight or headlamp, and go with a friend!
 
Grand Portage State Park
You really cannot get much further north along Lake Superior than Grand Portage State Park. Without venturing into Canada, anyway. The Pigeon River in Grand Portage State Park is the border between the US and Canada. Many Aurora Hunters and photographers have found the Pigeon River High Falls to be the perfect backdrop for watch an Aurora Storm.
 
Visit Cook County has also put together a wonderful list of driving routes for people in the Tofte, Lutsen, Grand Marais, Hovland and Grand Portage area who wish to view the lights. We highly recommend checking it out here.
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