During my last night in Fairbanks, I had one of the most surreal experiences of my life while trying to see the northern lights. But before I get into the details, let me go through the two previous nights, the first of which was a disappointment, and the second of which was somewhat more successful.
I got into Fairbanks around 5:40 pm on the first day, and after getting settled in at the hostel and grabbing a quick dinner, I set out on the Steese Highway. My thought was to get out of the city limits so light pollution would be at a minimum. The Steese Highway extends 161 miles from Fairbanks to the town of Circle on the Yukon River, roughly 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle. After the 81-mile marker, much of the road becomes unpaved, but even in the paved sections, it can be a rather treacherous journey during the winter.
The highway traverses several passes, including Cleary Summit, approximately half an hour outside of Fairbanks, and Twelvemile Summit, at around the 86-mile marker. After doing a bit of research online, I decided to try and see the northern lights at both summits, although I was a bit hesitant on making the nearly two-hour drive out to Twelvemile with the road still covered in snow.
Map of the Steese Highway (slightly out of date)
As I mentioned in my previous post, the weather wasn't cooperating on the first night I arrived. Overcast skies gave way to light snow as I ventured out onto the Steese Highway. I have to admit, I was somewhat scared to be driving alone on the winding, ice-covered road in complete darkness with a rental car. Going at a maximum of maybe 40 mph, I slowly made my way up, hoping I wouldn't slide off the road at any moment.
I had heard Cleary Summit was a popular tourist spot to see the lights, but when I arrived, there were no other cars there. At around 10:30 pm, a small bus pulled up to the turnout and turned off its engines. I saw a number of people sitting inside, and I felt at least a bit more certain that I was in the right spot. No other cars showed up that night.
Unfortunately, the snow started coming down harder, and as I much as I peered into the dark sky, I couldn't make out even a tiny trace of the green glow. After another hour and half of waiting in the freezing car, I decided that was enough, and I turned the car around and headed back down the summit. I suppose the smarter tourists had all seen the weather reports that night and stayed indoors! Stubbornly, I thought I would try my luck anyways and came up empty.
On the second night, I once again drove up to Cleary Summit along with some hostel-mates. The weather had been beautiful all afternoon, with barely a cloud in the sky, so I had high hopes of finally seeing the lights. When we arrived, I was surprised to see a virtual parking lot full of cars and tourists. I guess this was indeed a very popular spot!
The temperature was even colder than the night before, but at least there was no snow coming down. At around 11:00 pm, people began to notice a very faint glow in the eastern sky. This glow slowly intensified, and I smiled, relieved and excited that my goal of seeing the northern lights was actually happening right before my eyes. The glow gradually became a curtain of light that would undulate and sweep across the horizon. Sections would quietly fade, but new regions would suddenly light up, connect and disconnect, and fade again. It was simply breathtaking.