Originally published in Houstonia
Each year thousands of travelers lace-up fur-trimmed boots, put on layers of merino wool long underwear, zip-up feather down jackets and head out into artic weather to see the atmospheric phenomenon known as the Northern Lights. Emerald green, fuschia, and pink lights are caused when charged particles from solar flares collide with atoms in the earth’s atmosphere. The lights are the brightest in northernmost parts of the world near the Arctic Circle.
Tromso, Norway is repeatedly found on lists of the best places in the world to watch the lights along with Abisko, Sweden and Reykjavik, Iceland. Right here in the good old US of A Fairbanks, Alaska takes the prize as another one of the best places in the world to see them. As the nation’s northernmost city, Fairbanks sits right under the Aurora Circle - an oval shape sphere centered over the northern magnetic field where viewers can see 80 percent of the aurora activity.
Travelers wanting to see the lights can rent a car to explore the Fairbanks area for the perfect pull off points, but the problem with this scenario is the weather. Temperatures can plummet well below 0 degrees limiting the time even the most diehard Northern Lights enthusiast can stand outside with heads up staring at the lights. Some hotels have a designated auroral viewing building far away from the lights of the hotel, but walking to and from said building can be daunting as well. No one wants to die by freezing to death. Or by a random moose attack.
For truly luxurious - and warm - Aurora Borealis viewing, you can not beat the Borealis Basecamp. Basecamp owners took the popular glamping (glamour camping) concept that is sweeping the nation and made it quintessential Alaskan. Ten insulated self-sustaining igloos sit on top of a hill on a 100-acre swath of land an hour’s drive from Fairbanks. The 16-foot curved viewing roof allows guests to lie in bed watching the Aurora Borealis red, green, and purple light show. The viewing roof is made from the same plexiglass used to make helicopters.
The white geodesic domes line up overlooking the White Mountains. The auroral lights are typically most active between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. Because there is no telling what time the light show will start, the basecamp offers middle-of-the-night wake-up calls to alert guests when the aurora lights begin to appear. If Mother Nature cooperates, guests simply have to open their eyes to watch the dazzling light show before them. Adventure travel does not get better than this.
Each white geodesic dome is furnished with a small kitchen, refrigerator, hot water shower, a dry flush toilet, and a surprisingly warm space heater. The domes are powered by either solar or diesel-powered generators and all the water is trucked in. This is off-the-grid style living Alaskans are famous for.
While the accommodations are is designed around Fairbanks’ most iconic winter attraction, day time activities are not second-rate. During the day guests can rent snowshoes and explore the trails in the property’s 100-acre boreal forest. Or they can spend the day in the back of a dog sledding while a local dog musher guides them on an hour-long ride through the backcountry. For a more modern transportations option, some guests rent snow machines to head to the nearby Trans-Alaskan Pipeline for some photo opportunities.
A community yurt sits at the entrance to the basecamp. An award-winning chef prepares meals from scratch. Lunch and dinner options generally include soup, king crab, baby-back ribs, and portobello mushrooms. Windows facing the mountains line the yurt. For those who want to experience the northern lights in the company of others are welcomed to order a glass of wine, sit near the window, and warmly wait for the magic to happen.