When and Where to See the Northern Lights in the Midwest

Want to watch the northern lights dance over a shimmering lake from an old-growth forest? These Midwest dark sky locations have you covered. Here are a few of the best places to observe this otherworldly phenomenon.

Northern Lights at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Photo: Courtesy of NPS/Jeff Zylland

The northern lights transform the sky into a stage for ribbons of green and purple to dance. This celestial marvel only happens close to the earth's poles, which means northern states have a special, front-row seat to the spectacle. In the Midwest, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin invite starry-eyed visitors to stay up late and find a dark piece of sky for a chance to view the aurora borealis.

This natural light display doesn't dance on command, so it's important to understand peak conditions to up your chances of seeing it. Head to one of these destinations on a night with cloudless skies and low moonlight between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. local time. You can also keep tabs on when and where the northern lights will appear via this short-term aurora forecast. Dress warm and be willing to wait!

Voyageurs National Park Northern Lights in Minnesota
Courtesy of NPS/Dimse

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Minnesota's Voyageurs National Park on the Canadian border is about as remote as it gets — a national park of 200,000 acres on a cluster of islands. The main section of the park is only reachable by watercraft, so man-made lights are minimal. Camp out on one of the campgrounds and watch the colors dance across the sky (and the park's 30 lakes). As many as 200 aurora episodes are visible each year, weather permitting. For the best views, head to the Rainy Lake and Ash River Visitor Centers, Voyageurs Forest Overlook Parking Lot, Woodenfrog Beach and almost any lakeside campsite or houseboat site.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore lies at the zenith of Wisconsin's north shore, a cluster of 21 forested islands and 12 miles of mainland coast. On a clear, dark night, auroras are visible over Lake Superior's vast waters. Camping is available on 19 of the lakeshore's 21 islands and at one campsite on the mainland for those who'd like to sprawl under the stars.

Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan
Kevin J. Miyazaki

Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan

Headlands International Dark Sky Park was literally built to ensure a stunning, glittering night sky experience for visitors, and that includes auroras. Located on the Straits of Mackinac in northern Michigan, Headlands is a rustic paradise with 600 acres of old-growth forest and relatively no light pollution. Not only can you view the northern lights, but you can also learn about them. Free visitor programs and events are available at the waterfront center and in the observatory. Plus, the park is open 24 hours a day with no access fees.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness boasts over a million acres of protected land and sky, making it the largest International Dark Sky Association sanctuary in the world. Located in Minnesota's famously picturesque Cook County, the park represents one of the lower 48's most active aurora zones. Perch on the north-facing side of one of the 1,100 lakes and watch the sky work its magic.

Aurora Borealis Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Courtesy of NPS/Jeff Zylland

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

With its wide-open spaces, sweeping vistas and rolling badlands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park puts the West in Midwest. The park is located more than 30 miles from the nearest city, so it's a dark and quiet setting with prime nighttime views. It also boasts exceptional air quality, which allows for a clearer view. Head to the top of a plateau for a gorgeous view of the northern lights.

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