Minnesota Northern Lights Viewing and Photography

Overview

Use these resources to learn when an aurora display is forecast! Northern Minnesota is one of the best areas to view the Aurora in the continental United States due to its proximity to magnetic north (northern Hudson Bay). This web page lists resources that will help you predict whether the Northern Lights will dance across the skies from 20 minutes to 28 days out from the current time. A map to one of my favorite Northern Lights viewing locations which is a bit north of Duluth may be found at the very bottom of this post.

You may wish to view some of my Northern Lights photographs. My images are available for purchase. Personal off-line use is provided w/o charge.  Media sites and Non-Profits are often granted free use of images. Contact me.

  • Current Aurora watches from NOAA:  None.

Northern Lights post / images from the night of …

Northern Lights Apps

  • Android:  Aurora Alert from Eagles’s Orbit costs only a few dollars and keeps one informed about the Northern Lights including the sending of alerts. Aurora Alert will sound an alarm on your smart phone based upon your GPS position when the Aurora may be viewed where you are currently located.
  • Apple IOS: My Aurora Forecast Pro

Forecasting the Northern Lights!

  • Long Term Forecast (4 to 28 days from today)
    • The Northern Lights tend to follow the 28 day solunar cycle. Generally times of the solunar cycle that normally have more sunspot activity (causes the Aurora), will also have more Northern Lights viewing opportunities. Long term Aurora forecasts are NOT very reliable, but if you are planning a trip and hoping to optimize your viewing chances, this resource from the University of Alaska is worth utilizing. Ultimately you want to see a rating (Kp) of “5” or higher for viewing in Northern Minnesota.
  • Short Term Forecast (1 to 3 days from today)
    • NOAA (The National Weather Service) maintains a graph which tracks Aurora watches and warnings. The page is a bit difficult to understand, but just remember these key points: Watches & Warning are good. Kp of “5” or higher is good.
    • SpaceWeather Live maintains a forecast for Aurora conditions expected over the next 72 hours. Times are in UTC, which must be converted to your local time zone. For the Central Time Zone UTC varies from local time by 5 or 6 hours (daylight or standard time). Once again, for Northern Minnesota you want a Kp of “5” or higher.
  • Immediate Forecast (current to 24 hours)
    • Ovation Aurora forecasts the likelihood of viewing the Aurora within the next 20 minutes. Upon linking to the site, you will see a image of the northern hemisphere. Please note the “red” viewing line. In northern Minnesota I like power numbers greater than 45 GW (see upper right hand corner of map). If you see lots of bright colors (reds and oranges), and power readings way above 50 GW, get outside and look north!  Pay attention to trends (i.e. increasing or decreasing power numbers noted over a few hours)

Viewing the Aurora Borealis

In order to see the Northern Lights you need dark, cloud free skies with open views to the North and Northeast. Nights with lots of moonlight will tend to “wash out” the aurora.

  • Dark Skies Map: Open the link and zoom into the desired area. The linked site will help you find truly dark locations, and avoid light pollution. Remember, even in the darkest location, a bright moon makes viewing the Aurora difficult. Check the moon phase!
  • Google Maps: Public boat launches and lakeshores with open views tend to be great viewing locations. Use Satellite mode, zoom in an really inspect your hoped for viewing location. Better yet, check out areas during the day for open views to the North and Northeast.
  • Northern Lights Viewing Locations in the Lake Superior Region: This link opens a Google Map which has been annotated to show known locations with open views to the North and Northeast. Click upon a marker and read about a given location. Some markers will have extensive notes. You should also view my map to Boulder Lake (just north of Duluth) which is at the bottom of this web page.
  • Weather: Cloud Forecasts

Connect With Aurora Enthusiasts (Amateur to Pro)

Photographing the Northern Lights

Northern Minnesota has the best Aurora watching opportunities in the lower forty-eight states. In addition, our region has extensive wilderness where one may escape light pollution found in urban areas which wash out displays. With a little advance planning, it is possible to photograph the Aurora.

  • Camera Settings: Use these settings as a starting point and then adjust based upon results. Adjust your exposure and ISO settings up and down to affect how much light your camera’s sensor captures. Remember, higher ISO settings yield more noise in your photographs. Finally, remember the earth is rotating at thousands of miles per hour underneath you. Exposure settings much longer than 25 seconds will tend to smudge your stars and give you star trails.
    .
  • Aperture: 2.0
  • Exposure: 20 seconds
  • Focus: infinite
  • ISO: 1,600
  • White Balance: tungsten or auto
  • Use of a tripod is a “must”
  • Use a 2 second shutter release delay

Here are a few of my own Northern Lights photos

Memorial Day Aurora (May 2017)

Kayaking Under the Aurora (September 2016)

Sunrise Aurora (August 2016)

St. Patrick’s Day Aurora (March 2015)

St-Patricks-Day-Aurora-05-Selfie Northern-Lights-Little-Stone-Lake-3 St-Patricks-Day-Aurora-01-Matt
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Map to Boulder Lake (Boulder Lake is about a 35 minute drive north of Duluth)Boulder-Lake-Map

18 thoughts on “Minnesota Northern Lights Viewing and Photography

  1. I am planning a trip to the Duluth area this weekend October 14th and 15th the ratings for the Northern Lights is at a 5 can you tell me where a good spot is to view them and if I’m in the correct area I’ve been reading your post in your blogs it appears like there is a place called Boulder Lake if I’m correct that you went to can you tell me if that is still a good spot also can you tell me is there anything that you can see that shows whether or not the lights may or may not be visible or have any good tips for me this is the first time experience but have always wanted to view them

    1. Boulder Lake is your best viewing spot near Duluth. In terms of this weekend, or any day where the advance forecast for an Aurora is favorable, do NOT head out unless Ovation Aurora is 45 GW or higher. This tool is linked from this page. In addition, pay attention to trends. If Ovation is at 45 GW but trending down, you may wish to stay home. If it is trending upwards, then heading out is a good idea. Remember that Ovation Aurora is an immediate term forecast and is updated every 20 minutes. Thus, check around sunset, and recheck a few times over the next hour. True darkness does not arrive till about 2 hours after sundown.

      1. Thanks for the reply I’m a little confused as to where you check the GW 45 rating at also I am planning on going to lutsen mn. , can you tell me am I headed in the wrong direction I’ve had so many different hotels tell me to go north the further north the better I had others tell him to go to Wisconsin I’ve had some tummy stated Duluth I really don’t know which direction I’m supposed to go now but hotels were filling up fast so I jumped on one in that town I have until tomorrow morning to go to cancel that place if I need to please help me if you can thank you very much

        1. You are always increasing your odds by travelling increasingly further north. Lutsen is further north than anywhere in Wisconsin. Viewing the Northern Lights will be not be likely from your actual motel due to limited view to the actual northern skies and the lights from the Lutsen area. If I were travelling to Lutsen, I might personally go the few extra miles to Grand Marais. Be prepared to head out a bit after sunset to known viewing spots IF the Ovation numbers are good. This page has a link to viewing spots towards the bottom which utilizes Google maps. In answer to your specific question, the power number (Gw) is found near the upper right of the Ovation Aurora web page.

  2. We are planning a trip to Lake Vermilion – Ludlow’s Resort for 2 days – Sep 29th and Sep 30th. Aurora forecast is at High. Any suggestions regarding points where we can drive and observe this mesmerizing phenomenon. How we can figure out the timings of visibility?

    Big thanks for your help in advance!!

    1. A Northern Lights display can happen anytime during a 24 hour period. True darkness occurs about 2 hours after sunset through 2 hours before sunrise. During the daylights hours when you first get to Ludlow’s Resort ask their staff if there are any good spots on the lake with views to the north w/o any bright lights near by. Visit the suggested spots in the daytime such that you are not stumbling around in the dark in an unfamiliar spot. If Ludlows does not know of a spot, try looking on Google Maps (satellite mode) for public boat launches on lakes in the region which face north. Once again, check out the locations in the daytime, and also only pick locations where there are no bright lights, or cities to the north (within 10 miles). Finally, Aurora Forecasts are very unreliable, but when the sun goes down repeatedly check Ovation Aurora from your guest room (site linked via my blog). If the power readings rise about 45gw, get outside. Check Ovation frequently through the night as Ovation is updated about every 15 minutes.

  3. We will be in Grand Portage/Isle Royale in September. Any chance of seeing the northern lights and any suggestions of best sites

    1. Should be a great time and location. Isle Royale is super dark, and if the Aurora dances, assuming you have views to the north from your particular location, one may easily view the Northern Lights. With respect to Grand Portage, get out of town to get away from the town’ lights. Not to far from Grand Portage is the Arrowhead Trail (goes inland from Hovland, Minnesota). Towards the end of the trail is a BWCA entry point and bridge (within 200 yards of each other). Both are fantastic viewing locations. Here some Auroras I saw from that location.

      With respect to whether the Northern Lights will shine … way to early to predict. Use the forecast tools linked via this blog as the day approaches.

    1. Joshua: It is possible to view the Aurora Borealis in the middle of the Summer in northern Minnesota, but the viewing window each night is short. For instance, on the longest day of the year, June 21st in terms of light, the sun does not set till well after 9 pm, and rises shortly around 5 am. When the fact that true darkness only occurs 2 hours after sunset, and 2 hours before sunrise, the viewing window on June 21st would only be from approximately 11 pm to 3 am. Thus possible, but not likely on the equinox. Come August days are shorter and the viewing window would be greater.

  4. I am planning a trip to northern Minnesota (International Falls, Grand Marais, Grand Portage and Duluth in July. Will the Northern Lights be visible in the summer months?

    1. It will always vary based upon conditions, but at least two hours after sunset and two hours before sunrise. The sky is not truly dark except during that period of the night.

  5. This blog is wonderful! Thank you for all the great information, tips and resources! We are planning a trip this fall to hopefully see the northern lights for the first time!

    1. If you can plan your trip for a time of the month without much moonlight, you will greatly enhance your chances of seeing the Aurora. In addition, the closer you get to the Canadian border in Minnesota, the better your chances. Finally, even if you are in a small town like Ely or Grand Marais, get out if town to lessen the effect of light pollution. Good viewing spots tend to be lake boat access ramps which face north. Using Google Maps in satellite mode can help you find potential viewing spots wherever you will be visiting. Good luck!

  6. This is a great blog! Thank you for the information and resources! You will definitely make our birding trip more enjoyable, and hopefully my first view of northern lights!!
    Kansas City & Oklahoma

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