From Mendenhall Glacier to Denali National Park, Alaska is a land of natural wonders. It’s a remote and wild place that will wow you with panoramic views of the landscape and glimpses of the people and animals who call the 49th state home. It is also the best spot in the United States to see the northern lights, a show you don’t want to miss on your next Alaska cruise.
What Are the Northern Lights?
The northern lights, whose scientific name is aurora borealis, are a colorful light show that fills the sky with swirls and shades of color. This natural phenomenon takes place when charged particles from the sun enter the atmosphere and show up as shades of green, red, violet and white dancing in the night sky. The exact color depends on the type of gas the charged particles collide with in the atmosphere.
Best Time to See the Show
If you want to see the northern lights, you have to be in the right place at the right time. Although the light show has been visible as far south as Hawaii, getting closer to the Arctic Circle gives you the best odds of catching it. This is where the earth’s magnetic pole is consistently weak enough for the sun’s charged particles to enter the atmosphere.
These charged particles are present throughout the year, but they tend to be easiest to see in the winter months, when there’s enough darkness at night. This makes April through September the best time to cruise to Alaska to see the northern lights, especially near the autumnal and vernal equinoxes, when activity peaks.
The Perfect Plan for Seeing the Northern Lights
Now that you know when and where to go to see the northern lights, you can start preparing to enjoy the incredible experience. Dress warmly and choose clothing you can wear in layers. Your best chance to see the lights is in the middle of the night, and you may wait for hours before catching a glimpse of the display. Bring a tripod or monopod if you want to take pictures of the event, and pack a few extra batteries, because cold weather can drain them quickly.
There’s no guarantee you’ll see the light show no matter how carefully you plan your trip. A cloudy sky may block the view. A full moon can steal the show. A weak solar cycle can make the aurora appear less dramatic. Even if this happens, you can enjoy the rest of your cruise vacation and look for other opportunities to experience the wonders of the Alaskan wilderness.
Maximize Your Alaska Adventure
When you trade the palm trees of the Caribbean for the glaciers lining Alaska’s Inner Passage, you discover a completely different and fun cruise experience. Here are a few planning tips.
- Book your Alaska cruise as early as possible. Unlike that of the Caribbean, which has pleasant weather throughout the year, the Alaska cruise season is relatively short. Cruises and shore excursions sell out quickly, so you get a greater variety of options when you book sooner rather than later.
- Pack for the weather. Packing for a cruise to Alaska involves layers. Opt for layers you can remove when the temperatures rise in the afternoon and add when they dip at night. You’ll also need rain gear. Ketchikan receives an average of 150 inches of rain each year, so bring along a few ponchos or raincoats to don on your adventures.
- Bring your swimsuit. You won’t lounge on sun-drenched beaches along Alaska’s coast, but that doesn’t mean you should leave your swimsuit at home. The pools and hot tubs on the ship are still open, and there’s always a chance of a warm afternoon that makes a dip in the pool inviting.
- Consider a balcony. The views outside the ship are one of the main draws of an Alaska cruise. Glaciers and fjords provide constantly changing scenery, and there’s always a chance of a wildlife sighting in the water. When you have your own balcony, you get to enjoy the stunning views without mingling with the crowd for a spot on the railing.
- Get off the ship. Summer days last up to 18 hours in Alaska, so there’s plenty of time to check out the sights and sounds of the mainland. Grab your camera and an extra set of batteries to snap pictures. Your camera phone is convenient, but it may not do justice to the impressive scenery.
Find Your Wild Side on These Top Alaska Shore Excursions
One of the best ways to experience Alaska is on a shore excursion. Everyone can find something fun and enjoyable to do, from learning about the history and culture of the people who live there to watching the wildlife in its natural habitat. There are also plenty of opportunities to get your adrenaline pumping on an adventure experience. Some of your choices of shore excursions include the following:
- Travel the Yukon Railway in a deluxe motor coach to see Canada’s Yukon Territory.
- Fly across the treetops at Klondike Zipline Adventure Park.
- Tour the fjords of the Inner Passage on a catamaran.
- Join a mush ride and learn about the history of this iconic cultural experience.
- Get a bird’s-eye view of glaciers from a floating plane.
- Watch fishermen at work on a commercial fishing boat.
If your dream cruise vacation includes spectacular sunsets, serene natural settings and plenty of heart-pumping fun, check out our Alaska sailings. It’s the start of a memorable vacation the whole family will talk about for years to come.
Note: Onboard activities, shore excursions, and dining options may vary by ship and destination.