How to see the northern lights in Minnesota (2024)

If everyone's shimmering aurora borealis photos from early May left you with an incurable case of FOMO … same. So we chatted with some seasoned celestial chasers to learn some of their best tips for catching a glimpse of the northern lights next time they flicker across Minnesota skies.

Plenty of first-timers got lucky with the bright auroras visible to the naked eye on May 10 and 11 — and even, in some cases, within the light-polluted Twin Cities. Solar storms of that strength are incredibly rare, said Matthew Vinge, an aurora enthusiast who has chased the lights dozens of times.

"When these warnings go out you got to be OK with failing a bunch of times," Vinge said. "This is a pretty primitive science."

But signs point to the possibility for more shows in the coming days and weeks. The sun is entering its most active period in two decades, which scientists say is the main driver of the frequency of green and purple sky shows.

The unpredictable nature of the northern lights is what aurora and storm chaser Melanie Metz said she loves about the adventure.

"To have the timing just right and to be in the right place when it hits in the middle of the night, at some point in time … it's really quite a challenge," Metz said.

Here are seven tips to help you plan a successful night hunting for the elusive aurora borealis.

1. Keep an eye on predictions

The Space Weather Prediction Center puts out a daily graphic that makes it easy to see when and where they think the northern lights will be visible, Metz said. Keep an eye on the weather, too — if it's cloudy or rainy, you're not likely to see much of anything.

"If it looks pretty good that night then you want to start thinking ahead and planning for a place to get away from the city lights," Metz said.

2. Use dark sky maps for planning

Light pollution maps are handy ways to search potential locations. Big cities and even small towns are best avoided.

"Even though people did see them in the metro the show was exponentially better the farther north you got," Vinge said.

3. Be ready to drive

To get away from the light-polluted Twin Cities, be prepared to drive at least an hour away. It's possible to get good views within 60 to 90 minutes. The most serious aurora sleuths go all the way to northern Minnesota, which boasts the state's darkest spots including the internationally certified dark sky areas of Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

"I have to get out of Anoka County going north and I see a pretty significant change in the darkness," Vinge said. "But the really, really good stuff is on the border of Canada and above. The farther north that you can get the more vibrant it is and the more it pays off."

Two popular spots a little closer to the cities are areas near Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Sherburne County (the refuge itself is not open to the public for nighttime access) and Baylor Regional Park in Carver County. Both spots are often good but can be crowded, Vinge said.

4. Look north

A good northern view is key. A northern expanse over a body of water like a lake makes for easy viewing.

"If you do find a lake you want to be on the south shore of that lake so that you can shoot to the north facing the northern horizon," Metz said.

Plus, it makes for gorgeous photos of the aurora reflecting on the lake.

5. Turn off ambient lights

Once you get out of the car, cut the headlights and cell lights to let your eyes adjust to the darkness. You may begin to see some colors and stripes dancing across the sky.

6. Pack right

Warm clothing, good socks and hand warmers are helpful for long nights chasing the aurora. Snacks, too. If you plan to bring your camera, a tripod is crucial.

7. Capture the moment

If using your phone camera, set to a long exposure between three and 10 seconds, to reveal even more colors.

"Smartphones have such good cameras these days that they can turn out really well. It's good if you have a little phone tripod so you can put your phone on that tripod and keep it still," Metz said. "That's gonna get you a sharper image for sure."

8. Be patient

Auroras tend to ebb and flow throughout the night, revealing different peaks and valleys. There are going to be times when they are inactive and times when they will be going crazy, Vinge said.

"If you're going to go out, plan on going out for at least a couple hours," he said.

How to see the northern lights in Minnesota (2024)


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