Aurora Adventure in the Alaskan Interior

March 10, 2021

When it comes to photographing the aurora borealis in Alaska, I think the two best areas to do it are in the vicinity of Anchorage in the Southcentral region, and up in the Brooks Range, our northern-most mountain range. The landscapes are stunning and provide a great accent to the beauty of the northern lights. While Fairbanks may offer more frequently-visible aurora borealis, I generally prefer a different landscape. The surrounding view there is of rolling hills and trees.

But, one of the things that we typically cannot find for landscape subjects near Anchorage are trees encrusted with thick layers of snow. There is one area about 2.5 hours north of Anchorage that offers some, but not to the degree available in the Interior. So, I decided to take a dedicated road trip to the Alaskan Interior, based out of North Pole, to explore and find some compositions with these trees.

Day One - Anchorage to Glennallen

While it is easy to make the drive to Fairbanks in a day via the Parks Highway, I decided to drive via Glennallen on the Glenn and Richardson Highways. I wanted to take my time in the stretch between Glennallen and Fairbanks to scout some locations. On the way to Glennallen, I stopped to photograph some snow-covered trees near the Eureka Roadhouse. The light was flat, allowing me to try some high contrast black and white compositions.

Day Two - Glennallen to Fairbanks, first look at Dalton Highway

Normally, this is about a 4.5-hour drive along the Richardson Highway. On this day, however, it took about eight hours. Shortly north of Paxson, I encountered white-out conditions as winds blew sitting and falling snow across the highway. I encountered snow drifts in several areas; in some cases, reducing the highway to one lane. I would later find out that the State of Alaska had closed the highway some time after I started my drive. Despite the conditions, I did make a couple of stops to photograph the monochromatic landscape along the way.

I settled in to my Airbnb in North Pole (which I highly recommend), prepared food for the evening, and headed out. This would be my initial scouting, looking for areas with thick coats of snow that I had envisioned. I had inquired with a friend who lives north of Fairbanks, Frank Stelges of Aurora Bear, about some locations for the trees and he gave me some options. After stopping at the entrance of the Dalton Highway to photograph the aurora as it was already dancing in the sky. After finding several locations with snowy trees between about mile marker 9 and mile marker 22, I started to make my way back toward North Pole. Along the way, the aurora kicked up again and I pulled over near Wickersham Dome to stop and take some more photos.

Day Three - Exploring the Elliott Highway and more Dalton

One of the places Frank recommended was around mile marker 90 on the Elliott Highway. In the past, my experience on the Elliott Highway ended at the start of the Dalton Highway. At that point, you have to turn left to continue on the Elliott. I found the spot Frank was referring to - it is at a high point on the highway, with expansive views of the mountains distant to the east and west. There is a large plowed pullout, providing a safe place to get off this essentially one-lane highway to park and wait for the northern lights. I arrived just before sunset, allowing me to put my DJI Mavic 2 Pro up in the air for some aerial photos. After the sun went down, I captured some additional images with my primary camera, the Nikon D850.

Not long after the sun went down, the aurora borealis started to become visible - at around 7:30 p.m. I spent some more time exploring the stretch of road at this high point on the Elliott Highway, even finding a spot where I could get a weak cellular signal. It was quite windy in some areas, which made some stretches of the road difficult to photograph. I found that the area in the vicinity of where I originally stopped the best location.

After a while, I headed back toward the Dalton Highway to wait for a 1:30 a.m. meetup with my friend Nick Selway, who along with Joe Garza, would be arriving with a photo workshop group. I was going to be helping them with location suggestions based on my experience on the road and my scouting the night before. I parked at the large pullout with the Dalton Highway sign and took a nap while waiting. At around midnight, the sky lit up with a very active display, with lots of movement and a mixture of greens and pinks.

I later learned from Nick and Joe that they enjoyed this show from the parking lot at the Fairbanks airport. They eventually caught up with me at around 2:30 a.m., and we headed out to some spots I had scouted the night before. The aurora maintained a visible presence throughout the night.

Day Four - Back to the Dalton

Since Nick and Joe arrived so late, and another of their workshop participants arrived, we returned to the Dalton Highway early in the night. With one brief exception of increased activity, it was a relatively mild night of aurora borealis action. But, I enjoy nights like that because they give me a chance to explore compositions more. Then I can pre-visualize and be ready for future visits to the location with hopefully more active displays. Again, the main purpose of this trip was location scouting.

At around 1:30 a.m., Nick and Joe's group decided to head back to Fairbanks. I stuck around for another hour or so before heading back, stopping along the way around mile marker 10 when the northern lights kicked up again. I got tired enough on the way back to pull over and nap, getting into North Pole shortly after sunrise.

Day Five - South to Denali National Park & Preserve

Frequently, the location I will go for photographing the northern lights is dictated by cloud cover. On this night, cloud cover in the vicinity of Fairbanks and to the north drove us south on the Parks Highway to Denali National Park & Preserve. Normally, a trip to Denali to photograph the northern lights for me is 4.5 hours one-way from Anchorage; it was nice to only have to drive two hours this time! We first went past Denali to Broad Pass, as the Windy app and forecast indicated this would be an area with clear skies. By the time I arrived at around 7:30 p.m., the area was cloudy. We moved over to the Denali Highway east of Cantwell and waited there for a while, but the clouds did not clear. I checked the FAA Aviation Weather Cameras site and decided we should move to the park road within Denali National Park. It certainly paid off!

We first started photographing the aurora at around 11:00 p.m. There was a bright arc in the sky for a while that had some shape and movement to it. Then, at around 12:30, the aurora became very active.

The show lasted a good twenty minutes or so, then quieted down. After a while, we decided to leave. I stopped in Healy to refuel, and along the way, saw the aurora getting brighter as I was approaching Nenana. I stopped to photograph the aurora with the highway bridge over the Tanana River. The lights kept getting brighter, so I proceeded into town to photograph the aurora with the train depot and a small church. I also stopped along the river to capture another angle of the lights over the highway bridge. I also stopped along the east end of the town at a snowmachine access point to the Tanana River to photograph the aurora borealis as it hovered over the frozen river to the east.

Day Six - Dalton Highway near the Yukon River

Tonight, the cloud modeling indicated that the skies would be clear around the Yukon River and to the north. This is about a three-hour drive north of Fairbanks, but necessary in order to complete the mission of the trip! I also wanted to check out one more area that Frank suggested might be good for the snowy trees. I found a couple of possible spots to stop on the way to the Yukon River that I would stop and explore on my way back toward Fairbanks.

I have crossed the wooden, down-hill bridge over the Yukon River several times before, but always in daylight. Thus, I could only imagine what it looked like. My vision included a photographic composition looking down the bridge, with the Yukon River and open northern landscape to the north and the aurora borealis dancing overhead. Reality shattered my vision. There are some seriously-bright industrial lights that illuminate the entire length of the bridge. So, not so good for aurora photography.

I was solo tonight, so I kept exploring a little to the north of the river. I could not find an angle or landscape foreground that I liked, and, keeping an eye on my fuel capacity, decided to turn back. I stopped at around mile marker 46 at one of the locations I had scouted earlier. This turned out to be what I thought was the best spot for snowy trees on the stretch of the highway I had explored during the trip. While the aurora display was not particularly active, it provided some nice colors and shapes to match with the trees.

By around 2:30 a.m., the clouds started to roll in from all directions, so I continued south back to North Pole. A little after 3:00 a.m., I found a patch of clear skies and the aurora started to become more active. So, I found a pullout where I could safely stop. The ensuing show was fantastic!

Day Seven through Eight - North Pole

For the next two nights, it was too cloudy to photograph the northern lights. I enjoyed the time to relax, read, and connect with some friends. I also conducted some interviews on video toward a documentary film project about the northern lights. I visited Frank and his wife Miriam at their home where they conduct their aurora tour business, and interviewed Frank for the project. I also interviewed Don Hampton, a scientist studying the aurora borealis with the University of Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, and Amy Stratman, who founded the Aurora Borealis Notifications Group on Facebook.

Day Nine - Back to Anchorage

The other appointments I had scheduled for my last full day canceled due to family reasons, so I decided to head back to Anchorage a day early. It was going to be too cloudy to make staying in the area another night worthwhile. Along the way, I stopped to photograph light, shadow and more of the monochromatic landscape in Broad Pass. I stopped again near Willow to photograph a burn area that presented some great high-contrast opportunities.

This last image was captured north of the Yukon River in another burn area.

Alaska, Interior, landscapes, winter