Planning your Winter Minnesota Northern Lights Trip

While most folks dream of a trip to Iceland or Norway to view the Northern Lights, here in northern Minnesota we are able to frequently view the Aurora Borealis. This fact is not due to luck, but rather due to our closer proximity to the magnetic north pole than any other location in the United States. Thus, the question arises how is a person able to maximize their probability of seeing the Aurora in Minnesota? This post gives detailed instructions; however please understand that Lady Aurora is a fickle woman and even when predicted she may not dance across the sky. Thankfully here in northern Minnesota with our gorgeous wilderness including thousands of crystal clear lakes and huge forests, we are a dream location for the person who enjoys the outdoors.  Duluth was recently voted top outdoor city in America by Outside Magazine.

Why Northern Minnesota?

Simply put, because you can see the Northern Lights. Take a look at the two charts given immediately below. The Aurora is caused by the earth’s magnetic field, which is centered around the magnetic north pole which is located in Hudson’s Bay. Based upon past Auroras, scientists measure the intensity of the Northern Lights using a term called “Kp”. You are likely to see the Aurora Borealis in northern Minnesota near the Canadian border if the Kp is 4 or greater.

Aurora Borealis Viewing Oval

North America Kp Viewing Chart

Predicting When the Aurora will Dance

Aurora Borealis forecasts make weather forecasts appear “extremely reliable”. How many times have you been outside on what was forecast to be a sunny day only to get rained upon. Northern Lights forecasts are based upon the Solunar cycle and trying to measure the effect of sunspot activity directed towards earth. If the direction a sunspot shoots its power changes just a fraction of a degree differently than expected, the effect misses earth. It’s a big universe, and we don’t have anyone of the surface of the sun measuring sunspot outputs and direction.

  • Use the date sensitive tools on my main Northern Lights Viewing web page to plan ahead for your trip … from 28 days in advance to the current conditions.

My Two Favorite Winter Viewing Locations

Viewing the Aurora is fun, but temperatures in northern Minnesota often plunge to dangerously low levels. These two locations are within an hour’s drive of the northern edge of Duluth, and have very dark skies where you may watch the Northern Lights from inside your heated car. (in the Summer … mosquito free!).

DO NOT USE GPS or GOOGLE MAPS DIRECTIONS!!! If you follow my directions, you will safely reach each location via good roads. Google may put you on unpassable winter roads where you will get stuck miles from civilization. Your cell phone will not work. You will be off the grid.

Greenwood Lake Public Boat Access: Drive north from Two Harbors on Lake County #2. Shortly after you see a highway sign for Greenwood Creek (about 1/3 mile), the public boat access will be on your right. It is normally plowed out in the winter allowing you to park your car right against the shoreline pointed North / Northeast.

A photograph of the author, and also taken by the author (10 second shutter delay) at Greenwood Lake in August 2016 during a rare sunrise Aurora.

Little Stone Lake: Drive from the Duluth area using Pequaywan Lake Road to Rt. #611 (Hopper Road); Left onto Stone Lake Bridge Road; Left onto Drummond Rd (North Little Stone Lake Road). DO NOT TAKE Drummond Rd in the other direction. When you reach Little Stone Lake you will find yourself on an earthen dam road with great views to the North / Northeast. Just pull over towards the side of the road in the very unlikely event someone should need drive by you. At the end of the earthen dam their is a small plowed public boat access where you will be able to turn around your car.

A photograph taken by the author at Little Stone Lake during the St. Patrick’s Day 2015 Aurora. The Aurora is reflected in refreeze snow melt lake ice.

2 thoughts on “Planning your Winter Minnesota Northern Lights Trip

  1. As I’ve shared before Richard, I so enjoy following your blog. The information is very well presented and the pictures are just spectacular. I have spoken with my wife, Amanda, and the two of us would love to visit the area sometime soon. Being a birdwatcher like yourself, I see many Life birds for the taking. The snow amounts are much more than we are used to here, but it is the frigid temperatures that concerned me most.

    I believe we would also enjoy cross country skiing. I haven’t done any since being in Italy in the early 90s while enlisted in the Army though. The Aurora Borealis would by far be the highlight capping off what seems like a spectacular area. I have had the opportunity to see very small displays, but nothing to the extent and beauty that you share.

    I look forward to your next adventures and blog posts. Stay warm, stay safe, and enjoy the beauty that is Duluth Minnesota.

    1. Hi John: Good to hear from you again! Just bring warm clothes, but seriously a great time to visit northern Minnesota is mid September. The mosquitoes are dead, and the hawk migration at Hawk Ridge can be fantastic … one of the best hawk migration viewing spots in North America. Raptors hate to fly across large bodies of water (read Lake Superior), and when flying south from Canada they work their way down the shore to our end of the lake (hundreds of miles). Duluth is built on a large hill against Lake Superior which generates great thermals which the raptors love.

      With respect to the Northern Lights, the Spring and Fall equinoxes tend to be active peripds for the Aurora. Finally, the kids have gone back to school which means our northern lakes, while never crowded are deserted. There are lots of neat resorts where one may rent a cabin.

      Come visit!

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