Top 10 Places To See The Northern Lights In Washington | Van Life Wanderer (2023)

The Northern Lights are a phenomenon that date back as far as time itself. Technically an interference in the magnetosphere caused by solar wind, we view them with awe and grandeur.

Over the centuries, people have mistaken the aurora borealis as a sign from the gods, a nuclear fallout, Judgement Day … anything supernatural. The truth is that our planet (as well as a few others in the system) is capable of beautiful – and harmless – things.

Many destinations sell their tourist industry based on the Northern Lights. Iceland and other nordic countries are popular destinations for aurora cruises or overnight camping vacations. You don’t have to go that far afield, though.

Can you see the northern lights in Washington?

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It is not only possible to see the Northern Lights in Washington state, it is proven! There have been recorded instances – by word-of-mouth and through photographic evidence – of the aurora painting the Pacific skyline. You can certainly see the Northern Lights from Washington.

When was the last time the northern lights was visible in Washington?

The last time the aurora was seen was very recently, just in February 2022. At around 1:00-2:00 in the morning, several night owls from central Washington captured photos of a seemingly phosphorescent sky colored with swathes of green and pink.

Just before that, a slightly grander sighting was recorded in October 2021. The aurora was so strong that a time-lapse video taken of the skyline over Seattle shows the colors dancing despite the city’s light pollution.

In September 2021, a photo taken by an amateur aurora chaser documented the Lights off Neah Bay, the most northwestern tip of Washington.

Based on the most recent sightings, it’s safe to say that the Northern Lights are a common occurrence in Washington state.

It’s hardly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for residents, and the odds are higher for vacationers visiting Washington than if they wanted to view the lights from, say, Wyoming.

What is the KP-Index and how does that relate to seeing the northern lights in Washington?

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It’s possible to forecast the Northern Lights’ appearance thanks to the Kp-index. It is a scale from 0 to 9 that rates the likelihood of the aurora, with 0 meaning extremely unlikely visibility and 9 denoting an extreme geomagnetic storm.

The Kp-index is measured by recording the geomagnetic activity at certain places across the globe over a three hour period.

Meteorologists then use an algorithm adjusted to the latitude at which the recording was measured to determine the odds of seeing the Northern Lights in that location.

Anything below a 4 and you are unlikely to see the Lights, regardless of your position on Earth.

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Middle latitudes need more of a 7 to be able to see them, while lower latitudes (closer to the equator) need an 8 or 9. Washington is well situated.

According to the Kp-index, a mere 4 is needed for guaranteed visibility from Vancouver (just north of the state) or Billings, Montana (in line with the bottom of the state); however, since the Earth is a globe, the line that runs through these places curve on a map just like latitude, meaning that

Seattle is actually in the Kp-index 5 zone. For the state of Washington, you need to rely on a 5 to see the aurora – maybe a 4, depending on where you are in the state.

Here are the best places to see the Northern Lights in Washington state:

Steamboat Rock State Park

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Steamboat Rock State Park is another protected area that’s known for its views. The area spans over 600 acres and rises 800 feet.

By day you can swim, paddle, and boat on Banks Lake. But if you’re in it for the nighttime views, there are 13 miles worth of trails, including the hike up the butte that rises 650 ft.

The views from up top allow for completely uninterrupted skyline. The park closes at dusk to daytrippers, so if you do want to try to see the Northern Lights you will have to camp overnight.

Rattlesnake Ledge

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(photo by vhines200)

Just east of Seattle is the Snoqualmie Region, Rattlesnake Ledge looks out over Rattlesnake Lake. The trip to the top is four miles roundtrip and steadily rises through a series of switchbacks, gaining 1,160 ft overall.

Only 1.9 miles up the path is a junction that leads you to Rattlesnake Ledge: a large, exposed cliff face, or you can continue further to Middle or Upper Ledge with even loftier views.

It’s free to park and access the trail at any time of day and, while it’s a popular trail during the day, should be quite empty at night.

The panoramic views of the nearby mountains should make for an ideal backdrop to any Northern Lights activity.

Okanogan National Forest

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There are nine National Forests within the state of Washington alone. Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is the largest and sits centrally, separated from Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest by the Cascades.

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It covers 3.8 million acres of land that stretch along the eastern slopes of the mountain range. There are over 1,200 miles worth of trails that sprawl throughout the forest, but it’s important you are familiar with the area or do your research before going – some will have you deep within the woods, without much of a view.

You will need a National Forest Day Pass that you can buy online and print at home to display in your car.

Cascade Pass at North Cascades

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(photo: NPS)

On the opposite side of the Cascades from Artist Point Snowshoe is the Cascade Pass. From the trailhead, you have three options, going 3.7 up to 9 miles one way.

The most strenuous is the mid-distance destination: Sahale Glacier, 5.9 miles away from the trailhead.

Whichever destination you choose, each will afford breathtaking views on their own, but make for an even more incredible background if viewing the aurora borealis.

Be aware that the Cascades are a place of extreme wilderness, meaning that many other creatures call this place home and don’t always adhere to bedtime.

Keep an eye out for deer, marmots, and potentially bears, depending on the season.

Mowich Lake

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(photo: NPS)

If you really want to get away from it all, consider planning your night sky viewing with an overnight camp at Mowich Lake.

The smallest campsite in the Mt Rainier region, it’s accessible only by foot (though a short walk at that, from the parking).

You carry in all your supplies and would only share the space with 9 other campsites. Be warned, it is first-come, first-serve. Since it’s open July through October, the space can get quite busy.

If you manage to snag a spot, though, there are plenty of nearby hikes with lookouts.

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You don’t have to stray far from basecamp, though, as Mowich provide stunning vistas across the lake, which would mirror the aurora as it paints itself across the night sky.

The best part is that fires are prohibited at Mowich Lake, so there’s unlikely to be much light pollution marring your view.

Hurricane Ridge

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On the northern edge of Olympic National Park is the most easily-accessed mountainscape of the park. Hurricane Ridge’s name sounds more intense than the hiking trails actually are.

There is a Visitor’s Center before the end of the road and parking lots, but it’s only open weeklong in the summer, Saturday/Sundays in the off-season.

However, the whole area is “weather-permitting” through winter, as heavy snow and ice can close the unpaved mountain roads.

The nearest campground is 12 miles away, so it’s likely you’d pick these trails to catch the Northern Lights only if you’re comfortable driving there and back in the dark.

Illahee State Park

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Illahee is a low-altitude option for those wary of the peaks. It’s also conveniently located facing Bainbridge Island, just across the bay from Seattle.

The State Park is covered in dense forest over 86 acres, but opens up with waterfront views stretching over 1,700 ft across Port Orchard.

It has easy access to amply parking (though you need a pass), though the park closes at dusk. If you want to take advantage of any night sky viewing, you’ll need to camp.

You can reserve one of 23 sites year-round and head for a nighttime stroll along the beach on nights the Northern Lights forecast looks promising.

Samish Overlook

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The small town of Samish lies on Samish Bay. If you park at the Oyster Dome Trailhead and make your way up the switchbacks, rather than carrying on left (or north) towards Oyster Dome, turn south to reach the Samish Overlook.

Okay, fine, there’s also an easier way: you can drive up from Blanchard Mountain Trail and park right next to the Overlook, but surely that’s cheating, even if it is quicker.

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Whichever way you choose to get there, the Samish Overlook provides a beautiful view over the Bay with the San Juan and Vancouver Islands cropping out of the water on the horizon. It’s a quick and easy trip for a night’s viewing if you live nearby.

Advanced Places To See The Northern Lights In Washington

Artist Point Snowshoe

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In northern Washington on the border with Canada is the North Cascades National Park, a natural mountainscape replete with conifers, glaciers, and lakes.

Artist Point is a four mile roundtrip trail between Mounts Baker and Shuksan. It is a snowshoe trail that rises 1,000 ft in elevation, but it is perfectly manageable for snowshoe beginners.

From November through June the pass is almost guaranteed to be covered in snow and even holds the world record for most snowfall in a single season. It’s important to check the forecast before going, as conditions are risky in fog or snow and the trail is in an avalanche risk area.

While arguably one of the best views in the state, if you want to go at night for the aurora, we’d recommend the adventure to experienced outdoorsmen and snowshoers.

Mount Rainier

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(photo: mountrainiernps)

Mount Rainier is well known for being the most topographically prominent mountain and largest volcano in the lower 48 states.

It is also known for its breathtaking views. The National Parks have a whole page dedicated to sunrise on Mount Rainier.

While the aurora is something to view at night, many of their tips still apply, including those of which hikes are best for picturesque views.

It is important to check which hikes are affected by snow in the winter. You can check the status of the trails throughout the park here.

Tips for seeing the Northern Lights:

  1. Look up! You don’t need to worry about owning fancy equipment. Professionals say you can of course use a telescope but the aurora is best seen with the naked eye or with binoculars. Get too up close and you’ll miss the broad canvas of color.

  2. Check the forecast. The regular weather one, as well as the Kp-index. If the index predicts a 4 or 5 in Washington state, you’re likely to be able to see the lights! If it’s a cloudy night, though, they could still be occurring, but be masked to your eyes by the clouds.

  3. Have a nap. The Lights can happen any time after dark, but are typically best and most likely between 10pm and 3am. People have seen them easily enough around dinner time, but it could be that you’re up all night waiting.

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  4. Leave civilization. Or just go far enough away from large metropolitan centers that there isn’t any light pollution. The closer you are to a town, the more likely light pollution is to interrupt your views. Some natural areas might be conveniently located, but the horizon can still be marred by nearby city lights.

  5. Go prepared. You could be in for a long vigil. Bring camp chairs to get comfortable in and snacks, but don’t light a campfire or it’ll ruin your view. If you’re keeping an eye out in winter, make sure you bring blankets and maybe a thermos of warm drink.

  6. Join a group. There are many night sky enthusiasts who troll through forecasts for potential aurora sightings. It’s the best way to stay up to date thanks to others’ research.

FAQs

Where can you see the Northern Lights near Washington? ›

While Seattle sightings aren't impossible, out-of-town vantage points have a higher chance of visible lights. Some possible viewing spots: Snoqualmie Point Park just off I-90 in the town of Snoqualmie has decent sight lines and easy access from Seattle.

Can you see aurora borealis in Washington? ›

The aurora was so bright that photographers could capture the colorful show even in the heart of Seattle, where what few aurora displays come each year are typically muted by the city's light pollution. The Northern Lights become visible over Seattle as seen from West Seattle on July 19, 2022.

Can you see Northern Lights in Valdez? ›

It's possible to spot the Northern Lights from Valdez during most of the year, from late summer or early fall through spring, though the darker winter months are best.

What time is best to see Northern Lights? ›

The Northern Lights can show at any time of the day as long as there are darkness, clear skies, and solar activity, as we mentioned before. Statistically, midnight and the hours around midnight from 10:00 to 2:00 are the best time of day to see the Northern Lights and when most Aurora sightings concentrate.

Where is the aurora borealis visible? ›

Where is the best place to see the northern lights? The northern lights most commonly occur within the geographic area beneath the auroral oval. It encompasses latitudes between 60 and 75 degrees and takes in Iceland, northern parts of Sweden, Finland, Norway, Russia, Canada and Alaska as well as southern Greenland.

Do the Northern Lights happen every night? ›

Auroras happen in every month but because they're impossible to see against the super-light late night summer skies far up north, our trips to see them tend to take place when the night skies are properly dark.

What time will the Northern Lights be visible tonight near Spokane WA? ›

Northern lights are best visible before moonrise, which is 10:39pm in Spokane.

Can you see the Northern Lights in Tacoma? ›

One good spot is the Tiger Mountain North trailhead (just off Interstate 90 at exit 20). The gate to the trail closes at 7 p.m., but you can still park on the road below that. Face northeast, with the mountain behind you to block the lights from Tacoma, making the sky to the north very dark.

How can I track the northern lights? ›

The KP index is the most common way to forecast the Northern Lights, and you can use it both for short-term and long-term Aurora prediction. This Aurora forecast indicator (known as “planetary K-index”), is simply a scale to measure the geomagnetic activity that is directly related to Northern Lights visibility.

When can you see the northern lights in Washington state 2021? ›

The aurora borealis last made an appearance in the region in early February, after a minor geomagnetic storm made it visible across Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and other parts of the northern United States. Prior to that, it showed up in October of 2021 thanks to a solar flare that emanated off the sun.

Are the northern lights visible in Alaska right now? ›

Alaska's northern lights season is between late August and late April, peaking in March, though it's a season defined more by its long, dark nights than by solar activity.

Is 2022 a good year for Northern Lights? ›

"There will continue to be aurora viewing opportunities in 2022," Steenburgh said. "The solar cycle is indeed ramping up and as solar activity increases, so do the chances for Earth-directed blobs of plasma, the coronal mass ejections, which drive the geomagnetic storms and aurora."

Where is the best place to see the Northern Lights in 2022? ›

The best places to see the Northern Lights in 2022 are scattered on the most extreme latitudes of our planet: Iceland, Canada, Alaska, Norway, Finland

How long do the Northern Lights last? ›

How long do the northern lights last? Anywhere from 10 minutes to all night long, depending on the magnitude of the incoming solar wind.

Can you see Northern Lights with naked eyes? ›

Auroras appear to the naked eye as a very faint, white glow in the night sky to the magnetic north. Many auroras are totally invisible to the naked eye or can only be seen by looking at them indirectly, i.e. out of the corner of your eye. It is extremely rare to see them in colour with the naked eye.

How far south can the Northern Lights be seen? ›

To observers at far-northern latitudes, the Lights are a frequent occurrence, but many who live in more temperate climates have never seen them, even though they are occasionally seen as far south as 35 degrees North latitude.

Can you see Northern Lights through clouds? ›

To see the Northern lights, the sky needs to be dark and clear of any clouds. Some people claim the aurora comes out when temperatures are colder. This isn't the case – it's just that when the skies are cloudless, temperatures tend to drop.

How far north do you have to travel to see the Northern Lights? ›

In times of high solar activity (more on that later), the Lights may be seen in North America at latitudes as low as 35 degrees north, the time to see the lights is 6pm to 1am meaning that all but the southernmost parts of the United States may get a display.

Do the Northern Lights make noise? ›

What is clear is that the aurora does, on rare occasions, make sounds audible to the human ear. The eerie reports of crackling, whizzing and buzzing noises accompanying the lights describe an objective audible experience – not something illusory or imagined.

What do the Northern Lights look like in real life? ›

When you see them in real life, the Northern Lights aren't actually very colorful at all. They often appear milky white in color, "almost like a cloud," as one seasoned traveler puts it.

Can the Northern Lights be seen in Portland Oregon? ›

David Bishop, National Weather Service meteorologist in the Portland office, says G3 level storms don't normally reach far enough south to actually allow people to see the aurora in the Portland area.

What is KP aurora? ›

The Kp-index describes the disturbance of the Earth's magnetic field caused by the solar wind. The faster the solar wind blows, the greater the turbulence. The index ranges from 0, for low activity, to 9, which means that an intense geomagnetic storm is under way.

What planets are visible tonight in Spokane Washington? ›

Night Sky Bright Planets for Spokane, WA
BodyRisesSets
Mercury7:36 A.M. E9:01 P.M. W
Venus3:51 A.M. NE7:19 P.M. NW
Mars11:40 P.M. NE2:26 P.M. NW
Jupiter9:56 P.M. E10:23 A.M. W
4 more rows

Are there auroras in Washington state? ›

In North America, aurora sightings were reported in Michigan, Washington state, North Dakota, British Columbia, Ontario and Saskatchewan.

Can you see the Northern Lights in Moses Lake Washington? ›

MOSES LAKE, Wash. — The northern lights danced in the sky along the horizon in northern Washington and parts of Idaho. The aurora borealis illuminated Moses Lake overnight, and one aurora chaser got the perfect view of this beautiful natural occurrence.

Is there a Northern Lights app? ›

Hello Aurora is a northern light application created especially to help you to spot the aurora easily and in the safest way possible.

Can you capture Northern Lights with phone? ›

It is possible to take a good Northern Lights photo with your Android or iPhone, using nothing more than the camera setting on your smartphone.

Is there an app to track Northern Lights? ›

Aurora Alerts is an app designed to monitor real-time auroral activity and push alert to let you know if there may be aurora borealis (northern lights) visible tonight.

Can you see Northern Lights in North Cascades National Park? ›

North Cascades National Park, Washington. Can you see the Northern Lights in Washington? In short: yes.

Can you see the Northern Lights in Idaho? ›

Northern Idaho naturally boasts the most frequent and vibrant exposures of the polar lights. On the expanses of the Panhandle National Forest, you'll find several prominent spots to check out.

How do I find my Kp index? ›

Look at the color of the most recent bars on the index.

The Kp index is color-coded, which allows you to see at a glance the level of geomagnetic activity measured. Generally, the lower the index, the less activity there is during the period measured.

What month is best to see northern lights in Alaska? ›

BEST TIME TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN ALASKA

The northern lights occur all four seasons of the year, although they are harder to see under the Midnight Sun. The best time to see the northern lights in Alaska is between August and April, when less daylight leads to darker night skies.

How often do the Northern Lights happen? ›

Fortunately, they occur frequently. "The northern lights are happening 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," said photographer Chad Blakely, owner of the northern lights tour company Lights Over Lapland (opens in new tab).

How often are the northern lights visible in Alaska? ›

Fairbanks' Aurora Season is from August 21 to April 21 and the aurora will be visible in Fairbanks an average of four out of five nights when the sky is clear and dark enough. Scientifically speaking, the aurora is dancing above year-round, but we can only see it during the Aurora Season when we have dark enough skies.

Do the northern lights happen every day? ›

The Northern Lights are unpredictable.

In order to see the Northern Lights, you need a dark, clear night. They are visible from late August to early April anytime during dark hours, which in places like Abisko or Tromsø can be nearly 24 hours a day in winter.

How far in advance can you predict northern lights? ›

As a naturally occurring phenomenon, the appearance of the Northern Lights is notoriously difficult to predict any further in advance than about two hours before it happens.

Is 2025 a good year to see northern lights? ›

During the winter of 2020, the Northern Lights viewing was typical for a solar minimum year. But from 2020 onwards, there will be a slow ramp-up in solar activity, and auroras should increase in frequency, peaking in 2024/2025 with the Solar Maximum.

When can you see the northern lights in Washington state 2021? ›

The aurora borealis last made an appearance in the region in early February, after a minor geomagnetic storm made it visible across Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and other parts of the northern United States. Prior to that, it showed up in October of 2021 thanks to a solar flare that emanated off the sun.

Can you see the northern lights in Tacoma? ›

One good spot is the Tiger Mountain North trailhead (just off Interstate 90 at exit 20). The gate to the trail closes at 7 p.m., but you can still park on the road below that. Face northeast, with the mountain behind you to block the lights from Tacoma, making the sky to the north very dark.

Can you see northern lights in North Cascades National Park? ›

North Cascades National Park, Washington. Can you see the Northern Lights in Washington? In short: yes.

How do you track aurora borealis? ›

The KP index is the most common way to forecast the Northern Lights, and you can use it both for short-term and long-term Aurora prediction. This Aurora forecast indicator (known as “planetary K-index”), is simply a scale to measure the geomagnetic activity that is directly related to Northern Lights visibility.

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