Visit Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula on Lake Superior for an excellent chance of spotting the auroras.
Seeing the northern lights in the Keweenaw over Lake Superior should be at the top of your bucket list if it’s not already. The aurora borealis, commonly referred to as the northern lights or simply the auroras, is the spectacular result of interactions between the Sun and Earth’s outer atmosphere. The northern latitudes, like here on the tip of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, see some of the greatest occurrences of the aurora in the contiguous 48 United States.
Dark skies, unobstructed Lake Superior shorelines, and our location just south of Canada are what make our neck of the woods an aurora-viewing destination for Michigan locals and visitors alike. Fresh Coast Cabins sits at 48 degrees latitude, just one degree south of the Northernmost latitudinal point in the continental U.S. That makes this little cabin-loving spot on the northern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the Keweenaw Peninsula about as good as the northern lights get in the US!
For our cabin guests who often have traveled long and far to reach our part of the world, peeping the aurora can be a lifetime highlight. However, there’s a bit of confusing information out there. Seeing the northern lights doesn’t need to be so complicated but it does take patience.
Here are some of the most common questions we field about seeing the northern lights in the Keweenaw.
There is no real northern lights “season”
One of the most commonly asked questions we get is, “What season is best for seeing the Northern Lights?” This is a common misconception, so let’s clarify.
The northern lights might be seen anytime the sky is dark and clear! Aurora displays usually increase during times of the solar maximum. They also usually show a greater frequency during the winter months, where the nights are longer and the skies are generally void of haze.
March and September—the months of the spring and fall equinoxes—tend to get stronger activity because the tilt of Earth during this time lets more solar energy into Earth’s atmosphere. Plus, it’s just darker during these months which makes seeing the lights easier.
According to expert sources in Michigan, you are more likely to see the northern lights in the Upper Peninsula between August and April, with the peak months being April, October, and November.
In Michigan, we need the Sun to be active for the aurora borealis to be visible. That can happen anytime, but it’s important to note that the Sun’s activity varies over 11-year cycles. This means that the years leading up to and following the Sun’s solar maximum tend to be the best for aurora viewing.
The Sun’s next cycle peak will be in late 2024(ish), so from 2021-2027, your chances of peeping the northern lights are better than average.
No expensive, fancy equipment required to see the northern lights
We see a lot of folks gazing up at the sky with their telescopes and huge camera lenses—and don’t get us wrong, they are probably seeing some great stuff. The truth is that it’s very possible to see the northern lights with the naked eye! Cameras are more sensitive than our own eyes so the aurora won’t look nearly as bright to you as the photos you’ve seen. It’s the motion and pillars of light that are especially surprising to see by eye.
Something you do need, however, is a sky (mostly) free of light pollution.
The more nighttime glow of artificial lights that are in your viewing region, the harder it will be to see the aurora. It’s important to give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness and be sure to dim your cell phone. The Keweenaw’s dark skies are part of what makes it a great viewing spot, but if you can head even farther north to Isle Royale, your chances are better still!
You don’t need to be an astronomy expert
The study of astronomy and the aurora borealis are inextricably linked, but they’re not mutually exclusive. If you’re curious about the northern lights, then chances are you’ve already dipped your toes in the plethora of resources available to us online and in bookstores. While researching all the things northern lights before you go is super fun and interesting, don’t let your lack of scientific knowledge be a blocker to jumping in.
Aurora “predictions” usually come only a few days in advance of their occurrence and are not considered that reliable. And they are elusive, which means they can also occur without any warning! Real-time updates from sources like NOAA’s Aurora 30-Minute Forecast are the best way to go. Community forums like the Michigan Aurora Chasers Facebook group are another great resource for up-to-date information. There are several phone apps to choose from that will send you push notifications.
A trip to the Arctic Circle is not necessary to see the auroras
If our smattering of photos from our beloved Keweenaw didn’t make it obvious already, you don’t have to go THAT far north. Ok, it’s kind of far, but comparatively…
The North Pole is considered one of the primo northern lights viewing spots and we agree that the aurora is a beautiful nighttime phenomenon that is worth traveling to arctic regions just to observe. But you don’t need to jump on a plane and head north just yet.
Michigan—and especially the Upper Peninsula—are well-known for our dark skies that make seeing the aurora very accessible.
Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor, both spitting distance from Fresh Coast Cabins, are very popular spots to catch the northern lights in the Keweenaw! Six Michigan state parks are home to protected Dark Sky Preserves, and we’re home to Headlands International Dark Sky Park and Dr. T.K. Lawless Park, two internationally designated preserves.
What’s better than seeing the northern lights?
Seeing the lights dance from the comfort of your very own cabin. The Log Cabin porch that overlooks Lake Superior is the prime perch to snuggle up with some hot chocolate, ALL of the blankets, and a friend to watch the lights and the beautiful, starry Keweenaw night skies.
Do you have a question we didn’t answer about viewing the northern lights in Michigan? Thinking about planning a trip to the Keweenaw and don’t know where to start? Reach out to us—we’d love to talk!
Special thanks to article contributor Dr. Elizabeth MacDonald, our NASA scientist friend whose actual job is to study and report on the northern lights. Fun! Tell her what you see and check out her citizen science project Aurorasaurus.