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Where should I go to see the northern lights?

Welcome to another Q&A post, part of a series where I answer the most common questions folks ask me about the night sky in New England.

Outside, of course! While that may be the first step to finding a viewing location, there are a few other factors to consider when choosing a viewing site for a northern lights display. Here in New England, we have some unique challenges such as cloudy weather and light pollution, but with a bit of research you can find yourself the perfect spot for the next lights show.

Here are some things to consider for a good viewing site:

  1. Find someplace dark. Auroras are tricky and can often hide in the bright lights of New England's cities and towns, so it's best to get away from these developed areas. Artificial light of any kind will make the lights harder to see, especially with the faint displays we often get here at mid-latitudes. Use a light pollution map to find an area with less light pollution, and pay special attention to what's directly north of your prospective viewing site: if a major city is directly north of you, it has the potential to drown out the lights.

  2. Find a clear view to the north. Most of the time, the northern lights will show up in the north! Make sure your viewing site has unobstructed views to the north with a wide field of view. Good auroral displays will take up the entire northern horizon, and you don't want trees or buildings obstructing a large chunk of that sky. I've had good luck with lake shores, public boat launches, and public roadsides bordering open fields.

  3. Get some elevation. Except in some extraordinary circumstances, the northern lights will appear on the horizon and not directly overhead. By gaining some elevation, you can see more directly to the horizon allowing you to capture more of the aurora. Mountaintops are great places to see the aurora, just be sure it's not the type of mountain that attracts cloudy weather, like many of the high peaks of Maine and New Hampshire.

  4. Have a backup plan. Especially when trying a new observing site, it's always a good idea to have a reliable backup. Sometimes, clouds can drive you out of your first choice site, or maybe you show up only to find an annoying street light has recently been installed. In any case, be ready to move, or scope out your site in advance to be sure it's to your liking.

  5. Take care of yourself. Wherever you go, make sure you have ready access to safety and comfort, so you can keep yourself in good shape for the long night ahead. An aurora chase can take many hours in the dark and cold, and New England's remote places are not always forgiving. In the wilderness, be sure you have the skills and equipment to last the night, or otherwise choose a place where you can stay close to your car. Be sure to bring ample food, water, coffee, and layers so that you are your happiest self when those lights finally appear!

Some of my favorite places:

Cape Ann, MA

Cape Ann features some of the best sky in the Boston area, with clear views over the ocean to the north. Halibut Point, and the surrounding public lands is beautiful and secluded, but it technically closes at sunset. Nearby Lanes Cove is frequented at all hours of the night, by folks engaged in stargazing or other revelry.

An aurora display at halibut point
Shooting the aurora over the quarries at Halibut Point

Moosehead Lake and the North Maine Woods

The skies of the North Maine Woods are so beautiful it's designated as an International Dark Sky Park (oh, hey that's my photo they're using), and Moosehead Lake is a treasure all its own. I've had good luck shooting from AMC's Little Lyford Lodge, and lots of other sites can be found in this remote and undeveloped area. Just be careful how deep into the woods you go, these woods are vast and extremely hard to traverse.

A faint aurora in the woods
A faint aurora in the North Maine Woods

Waterbury Reservoir, Vermont

Waterbury Reservoir is one of my favorite spots for canoe camping, and I've done a good amount of stargazing here as well. The lawns at Waterbury Center State Park offer a great northern view, as do many of the remote boat-in campsites along the shoreline.

Wherever you decide to go, the most important step is going outside at all. To see an ever-expanding map of possible viewing sites, you can also check out the places page here at NELI. Do you have a favorite viewing site? Message me on Instagram at @northeast.lights!

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