As we approach winter, one natural phenomenon that emerges in northern skies is the aurora borealis, also called the northern lights! When solar winds send charged particles hurtling across the night sky, these particles collide with Earth’s magnetic fields near the poles, erupting in brilliant bursts of green, purple, pink and blue light that dance across the horizon.
The northern lights are often visible in high latitude places like Alaska, Canada and Iceland. However, during periods of increased solar activity, their glow can sometimes reach farther south. The Olympic Peninsula in western Washington State offers excellent viewing opportunities due to its dark, open skies and elevation. Part of the peninsula falls within Olympic National Park, a pristine million-acre wilderness protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
When To See The Northern Lights In The Olympic Peninsula
The best time to see the northern lights in the Olympic Peninsula is during the fall and winter seasons, from September to March, when the nights are longer, darker and the aurora activity is higher. However, there is no guarantee that the lights will show up, as they depend on many factors, such as the weather, the cloud cover, the moon phase and the solar wind speed and direction.
To increase your chances of seeing the northern lights, you need to check the aurora forecast, which is based on the Kp-index, a scale from 0 to 9 that measures the geomagnetic activity and the likelihood of the aurora. The higher the Kp-index, the stronger the aurora and the more southward it can be seen. For the Olympic Peninsula, you need a Kp-index of at least 5 or 6 to have a good chance of seeing the lights, although sometimes they can be seen with a lower Kp-index if the conditions are favorable.
Where To See The Northern Lights In The Olympic Peninsula
The best places to see the aurora borealis are those that have a clear and unobstructed view of the northern horizon, away from light pollution and urban areas. You also need to find a spot that is safe and accessible, especially at night. Here are some of the best locations to see the northern lights in the Olympic Peninsula:
1. Hurricane Ridge: This is one of the most popular and scenic destinations in the Olympic National Park, offering panoramic views of the Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It is also one of the best places to see the northern lights as it is located at an elevation of 5,242 feet and has a wide and open view of the north. However, the road to Hurricane Ridge is closed at night from October to May so you need to plan ahead and check the road conditions before you go.
2. Deer Park: Nestled deep in the quiet forested foothills of Mount Olympus, Deer Park Campground offers a more secluded and rustic viewing spot for the northern lights. At an elevation of 5,400 feet, it offers similarly stunning views of the mountain range along with low light pollution and clear sight lines to the northern horizon. You’ll need to hike or snowshoe in during the winter months when the access road closes after the first snowfall through late spring. Backcountry permits allow overnight camping so you can wait out the long winter nights under the stars and hopefully catch the vibrant colors of the aurora.
3. Rialto Beach: This is one of the most beautiful and rugged beaches on the Pacific coast. You can watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean during the day, and after nightfall it transforms into one of the best aurora viewing grounds, far from any light pollution. Massive rock formations and stacks of driftwood create pockets of darkness for optimal northern lights viewing. During very low tides, you can even walk out on the wet sand and be surrounded by the sparkling night sky.
4. Neah Bay: This is one of the westernmost points in the mainland US, located on the Makah reservation extending into the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Cape Flattery. This high-latitude and clear northwestern view make it a great spot to see the northern lights during solar storms. The landscape is wild and beautiful, with driftwood scattered on the shore. You need to get a recreation permit from the Makah to access the area, but you will also get to learn about their history and culture while you wait for the aurora to appear.
5. Ozette Lake: This is the biggest natural lake on the Olympic Peninsula, and it offers a calm and reflective surface to enhance the aurora borealis. The area around the lake is very dark at night with only a faint outline of the forest visible. Most people visit during the warmer months, but you can camp in the off season and watch for a solar storm.
6. Sequim: This small city located on the Dungeness River, about 17 miles east of Port Angeles, is a good place to see the aurora especially in the winter months. The best time to see the aurora is between 10 P.M. and 2 A.M., when the solar activity is highest. The best places to see the aurora in Sequim are the Dungeness Spit – which is a 5.5-mile long sand spit that extends into the Strait of Juan de Fuca – and the Sequim Bay State Park – a 92-acre park that offers camping, hiking, boating and fishing facilities.
Tips For Catching The Aurora Borealis
Seeing the northern lights in the Olympic Peninsula is not an easy task, but it is definitely worth the effort. Here are some tips and advice on how to see the northern lights in Washington State:
1. Plan Ahead: Confirm entrance passes and permits match your intended route. Before embarking, review applicable regulations and road conditions while also checking weather forecasts for the park's location. Verify you have proper permits for backcountry camping and recreation if required. Book your accommodation in advance and pack your essentials, such as warm clothes, food, water, flashlight, camera and tripod.
For the best Aurora Borealis experience, plan your trip between November and March. This is the prime time to see the mesmerizing lights in the Olympic Peninsula. Aiming for the new moon phase enhances visibility. Stay informed with aurora forecasts from sources like Aurora Forecast and NOAA.
2. Be Flexible: Since auroras are unpredictable, you need to be flexible and patient. Be ready to change your plans on short notice to account for the fickle lights and mercurial weather. Prime viewing spots take exploration; move to find angles that let the colors shine.
3. Be Respectful: The Olympic Peninsula is a beautiful and fragile place, so you need to be respectful and responsible. Follow the leave no trace principles and do not litter, damage or disturb anything. Respect the wildlife and keep a safe distance from them. Respect the local communities and follow their rules and customs. Respect the other visitors and do not interfere with their enjoyment of the park and the lights.
The northern lights are a rare and magical sight to behold if you are lucky and prepared. Nevertheless, the Olympic Peninsula is a wonderful place to visit with or without the aurora. Whether you are looking for adventure, relaxation or inspiration, it has something for everyone.
Planning an aurora borealis adventure in the Olympic Peninsula? Ensure you have a relaxing and cozy place to stay before or after your journey. Choose one of our Washington Inns for your accommodation needs! Experience home away from home complete with hospitable hosts, scrumptious breakfasts and quaint rooms. Browse our listings now to find the perfect spot for your stay.