Best Places to See the Northern Lights and Milky Way
Guide to the Dark Sky Sanctuary of Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior
Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior is one of the best places to see the northern lights and the Milky Way in the country. Nestled between Lake Superior, the Superior National Forest, and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), the North Shore MN is so remote that there is very little light pollution, resulting in a beautiful abundance of dark skies!
In fact, the area of Northern Minnesota and Canada encompassing the BWCAW, Voyageurs National Park, and Quetico Provincial Park is designated as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) recognizes this region as the largest dark sky sanctuary in the world! The IDA is the recognized authority on light pollution and is the leading organization combating light pollution worldwide.
What is a Dark Sky Sanctuary?
A Dark Sky Sanctuary, as classified by the IDA, is a remote area with little to no light pollution to compromise the darkness. These locations are protected for their exceptional starry nights, increasing awareness of these special, wild places and promoting their conservation.
The IDA designation process is rigorous and is only awarded to “applicants that demonstrate robust community support for dark sky protection” including special regulations around artificial light.
Dark skies are becoming increasingly rare — only 80 percent of Americans are able to see the Milky Way at night, according to National Geographic. As you can see on this Dark Site Finder map, most everything east of the Great Plains is no longer naturally dark.
Dark skies have always been a crucial piece of the human experience. Think about all of the stories and traditions that reference the moon and stars. The night sky has always helped humans find their way — literally through celestial navigation and spirituality in highlighting our connection to the universe.
Beyond our own well-being, dark skies have huge environmental implications. Countless animal species — even trees! — are affected by light pollution. It disrupts circadian rhythms (for people and animals), confuses nocturnal species, and impacts migration, just to name a few. Minimizing light pollution and protecting dark skies is vital for the health of both people and the planet.
There is something truly magical about an undisturbed night sky — the deep darkness and twinkling stars carry a reminder that we are so small, but connected to something so much bigger. The humbling beauty is enough to take your breath away.
Tips for viewing the Northern Lights and the Milky Way on the North Shore MN
If you are new to exploring the night sky, some important things to consider when choosing your night sky adventure include:
- Obviously, choose a dark location, as far away from lights from cities, towns, and buildings, and roads as possible.
- Watch the moon phases. Choose your night sky adventure during the new moon, when there is no moon present.
- Check weather and cloud cover apps to choose a clear night. If there are some low-level puffy clouds, you will still be able to see the night sky as clouds pass by. However, if there are high clouds or overcast conditions, you will not be able to see the sky.
- Bring a red light instead of a flashlight. A red light will not disrupt your night vision after your eyes have acclimated to the darkness.
- Obviously, the wintertime offers lots of opportunities for dark skies. During the winter solstice, sunset is at 4:25 p.m.; sunrise is at 7:50 a.m.
- Note that when seeing these dark sky phenomena, they look different with the naked eye than through a camera lens. When viewing with the naked eye you’ll see mostly white, dancing light. The camera lens is able to pick up a more robust color array. So if you’re used to seeing photos of northern lights, note that it may not look as colorful in person.
Dark skies on the North Shore MN
Here on the North Shore MN, you don’t need to be within the Dark Sky Sanctuary to witness phenomenal views of the Northern Lights, Milky Way, constellations, and meteor showers. That is what makes this area one of the best places to see the northern lights and stargaze!
The dark skies of the North Shore are phenomenal year-round. Certainly, winter offers plenty of opportunity due to the long dark nights, which peak at 15.5 hours on the winter solstice.
Best places to see the northern lights on the North Shore
To find a good place to see the Northern Lights on the North Shore, Hayes Scriven recommends driving inland from Lake Superior. Hayes is a North Shore, MN-based night sky enthusiast and photographer.
Hayes recommends, “Find some public land that faces north – like a lake or boat launch. A lake is a good place because it puts some distance between you and the horizon (without the obstruction of trees) so you can see the entire sky.”
Driving inland puts you in the Superior National Forest, even closer to the designated Dark Sky Sanctuary in northern Minnesota. Therefore, quality dark skies in this area are very reliable.
Finding specific locations is part of the fun of your night sky adventure! Good resources include the Superior National Foreat Map, and these maps of driving routes to northern lights viewing locations in Cook County, MN. Please note that some of the forest roads and back roads may not be plowed in the winter. Check local conditions before venturing out.
In the Lake County area (Two Harbors, Gooseberry, Split Rock, Silver Bay, Finland), traveling to the communities of Isabella, Finland, and Brimson are good places to see the northern lights.
In Cook County (Tofte, Lutsen, Grand Marais, Gunflint Trail, Grand Portage), head up the Gunflint Trail to start your northern lights adventure.
- The view from Honeymoon Bluff looking north over Hungry Jack Lake is a great spot.
- Gunflint Lake, on the border of Canada, is another great Northern Lights viewing spot on the North Shore MN.
- Refer to the Cook County driving routes of Northern Lights map routes.
When do the northern lights come out?
Northern lights are produced by charged particles from solar flairs coming into contact with Earth’s magnetic field. They are hard to predict long term but are easier to forecast within 15 days. For that reason, they are notoriously elusive.
There are a number of predictive tools, such as the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center which can tip you off when there’s solar activity conducive to a light show.
The northern lights tend to come out between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m.
Best places to see the Milky Way on the North Shore
The Milky Way is visible in the Southern sky. Certainly, Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior is one of the best places to view the Milky Way because of its southern exposure. The shoreline runs in an east-west direction, so while you’re standing on Lake Superior’s north shore facing the lake, you’re facing south.
The Milky Way is visible over Lake Superior from March – October. Summertime is the peak Milky Way core season.
Good places to see the Milky Way on the North Shore include the Minnesota State Parks or public lands on the Lake Superior Shore. Those include:
- Gooseberry Falls State Park
- Iona’s Beach Scientific and Natural Area
- Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
- Tettegouche State Park.
- Temperance River State Park
- Cascade River State Park
Make note that Minnesota State Parks’ operating hours are between 8am and 10pm, and a State Park pass is required.
You can even see the Milky Way from the Grand Marais Harbor, as well as the downtown waterfront area of Two Harbors. According to Hayes Scriven, “even though there are streetlights nearby by, there is enough darkness to be able to see the Milky Way.”
You will have greater chances of seeing the Milky Way in these in-town locations by choosing a night with a new moon (no moon), and by waiting until the sun completely sets and no light is rising from the horizon.
Dark Sky Events on the North Shore
Cook County hosts the annual Dark Sky Festival in December. The multi-day event offers a variety of presentations, demonstrations, and events geared to educating and inspiring people about the treasures of the night.