Did you know you can see the northern lights in North Dakota? It’s probably one of my favorite things about living in this frozen state. Well, that and how clear the night sky is during the winter months and a few other things.
With the next solar cycle in full swing and the next solar maximum predicted for July 2025 now is the perfect time to be planning your northern lights vacation to North Dakota. And if you happen to be fortunate enough to live here, now is the time to start honing your northern lights hunting and photography skills.
The best time of year to see the Northern Lights
Fall and Spring, but winter the winter months of January and February can also provide a decent show too!
The reason why fall and spring are better seasons to see the light show has to do with the tilt of the Earth in relation to where the sun is.
I think the winter is my favorite time for the lights to be out. Typically in the colder months, the air is as clear as it will ever be. Any humidity that might be lingering quickly condenses and keeps visibility at an all-time high. North Dakota also typically has a good amount of snow cover in the winter which gives the northern lights something to reflect off of making your photos that much more interesting.
In the summer you can see the northern lights, but it’s a bit trickier. The biggest deterrent for me is the fact that the sun doesn’t set until way late in the summer. On June 21 (the summer solstice and the longest day of the year) there is still a teensy bit of light from the sun on the horizon at 11:30 pm. I personally value my sleep and don’t feel inclined to go out after midnight, not that the show would be that spectacular after midnight anyway. Another huge deterrent is the mosquitos in the summer. While they are definitely smaller than skeeters in other states, they still leave those nasty, itchy, red welts all the same.
The best time of night to see the aurora in North Dakota
Finding the best time of the night to see the northern lights can be a little bit tricky. Especially if you go out at 9:40 pm, get a couple of shots, and think they are incredible. I can promise you nine times out of ten, it will get better as the night goes on.
I was fortunate that my work shift ended at 11:00 pm for a few years. By the time I got to the exit I get off of I94 on to go home, it was usually around 11:25pm. Fortunately, my exit has always had a clear view of the northern sky and that is where I have taken many of my night photos as well as a few aurora photos.
From my experience, you have about a 30-minute window from maybe 11:10 – 11:40 pm to see the best part of the show and get those killer shots. After 11:40 pm, the show starts to die down as the charged portion of the atmosphere keeps moving to the west.
Light pollution in North Dakota
Light pollution is a super sucky thing. Especially when you are trying to photograph the northern lights or even the night sky.
One of my favorite things about North Dakota – okay, okay, I have a lot of favorite things about North Dakota – is the distinct lack of people compared to other parts of the country. North Dakota is like the wild west in many ways (especially in Medora!). And that lack of people means fewer cities, fewer lights, and less light pollution.
The lack of light pollution means I can walk outside on any given clear night and look up towards to sky and see the stars with my naked eyes. Even better I can see the arm of the Milky Way, something my aunt (she lives in southeast Michigan not too far from Chicago) cannot even begin to imagine is possible.
This is a light pollution map. One of them shows North Dakota (I take all my nighttime photos in the purple region between Jamestown and Valley City.
Did you know that the moon is also a source of light pollution when photographing the night sky?
Some nights, when the moon is full and bright, it just isn’t worth the time or the effort to haul everything out because the moon will wash out all your photos.
But if you have a telephoto, you can make the most of the night and get some awesome shots of the moon too!
How to Forecast for the Northern Lights —
Forecasting for the northern lights is a little bit tricky sometimes. But if you are able to find the right app that consolidates all the information in an easy-to-read place (and pushes out notifications when the chances of seeing them are high) you’re set. Good thing for you that I have gone through most of the aurora apps and have settled on a couple of them that I really really like.
The main app that I use is called “My Aurora Forecast.” It does an excellent job of accurately telling you when the Aurora will be out based on the Kp. It also shows various maps of where the aurora is currently visible. If you are looking to get into watching when it will be out, this is hands down the best app you can have on your phone.
What is the KP number when forecasting
The abbreviation Kp comes from the German “Planetarische Kennziffer.” In English, it translates to ‘Planetary Index.’ When looking at aurora forecasts the number refers to the strength of the aurora. The numbers go from 0 – 9. Zero being nonexistent and 9 being an incredibly strong geomagnetic storm. When you are looking at the aurora forecast, obviously, the higher the number the better your chance of seeing the northern light.
In North Dakota, the Kp can be relatively low for us to see them. I think the lowest it has been when I went out shooting was around a 3. I could barely make out the glow with my naked eye, but as soon as the camera processed the image, there they were on the northern horizon. Ideally, the number should be around a 4 or 4.5 to get some really great shots, but beggars can’t be choosers. As with anywhere else, the higher the number the better your chances of seeing them.
One of my favorite photos was taken when the Kp was a 6.4 and we were able to watch the charged particles dance in the atmosphere without the aid of cameras.
Photographing the Northern Lights in North Dakota
This is the fun part and where my science/photography nerdiness really shines.
The first and most important thing when photographing the northern lights is knowing how to shoot in manual mode. If you have no idea how to shoot in manual mode, you can’t just wander outside and hope it will work. Because it won’t and you will fail miserably. Take it from someone that has failed miserably at astrophotography in the past. You don’t want to be that person.
Camera Settings for Photographing the Northern Lights
I will be writing a more in-depth guide on how to photograph the northern lights and will link that as soon as it’s up. But for now, I’m going to give you a few basic tips on how to shoot the aurora.
As a general rule, you don’t want your exposure time to exceed 20 seconds. If you exceed 20 seconds, you might end up with fuzzy stars instead of the desired pinprick. This happens because the stars and planets are constantly in motion and it is visible after 20 seconds of exposure.
I try to keep my ISO around 800-1600. Remember, the higher the number, the darker your subject can be. But also the higher your ISO number goes, the fuzzier your photos will look.
And I keep my f-stop as low as it will go. If the photos don’t look right, I do adjust it a little higher. But as low as the number will go is a great starting point!
Patience is a virtue and key for Northern Lights Hunting
I’m not the most patient person. When I want something, I want it yesterday. Waiting for the northern lights to show themselves is not one of my strong suits, especially when I know the show will be incredible.
But I just have to wait it out.
The best way to kill time while waiting for the northern light show to amp up is to take photos of space. You’ll never know what you are going to capture.
You never know what you are going to capture. Like the photo above for example. It is not on any other shots, it’s not a scratch or a plane, and you cannot tell me that meteors entered the atmosphere so perfectly to be parallel like this. There are in the center of the lower half of the image.
I think it’s aliens and no one will ever convince me otherwise.
What can I see if the Northern Lights aren’t out
Even if the northern lights aren’t out when you decide to brave the night, it won’t be a total loss.
The stars in this part of the country are unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere in the world. Even in Death Valley National Park where it is supposed to be delightfully dark, there is still a bright glow coming from Las Vegas 150 miles away.
My aunt a few weeks ago didn’t believe Mom when she told her we could see the arm of the Milky Way with the naked eye. I sent my aunt this photo as proof.
Sure, the camera can see more than our eyes, especially on long exposures. But it got the point across.
You can also very easily pick out some of the more well-known constellations, like Orion, the Big Dipper, the Pleiades star cluster (also known as the Seven Sisters), and a few others.
Cloud Cover and the Northern Lights
I swear cloud cover is the bane of my existence as an astrophotographer.
There are nights when everything is perfect and the forecast says the lights will be out. But it’s cloudy. Those are the nights you cry and scroll through Instagram looking at everyone else’s killer aurora photos.
Have you seen the Northern Lights in North Dakota? Have you seen them elsewhere?
Share in the comments below!
And don’t forget to Pin this to your travel board or photography board!