Just last month, on August 25th, 2016, the National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday. Although the true 100th birthday for Denali National Park in Alaska won’t occur until February 26th, next year, the last few nights the sky above Denali appeared to indulge in a joyous celebration of its own.
From the north, a sheer ribbon unfurled across the star-studded expanse around an hour before midnight. It was a pale green color that appeared to glow from within. As quickly as the eye could take it in, it began fading, as ephemeral and elusive as a ghost. From the east, new shapes emerged, curving and folding inward like leaves on a branch, forming and fading, greens melting into almost-golds, an ever-changing aural spectra dancing across the blackness of the night sky.
Many years ago, in a high school physics class, a respected teacher of mine named Joe Clement recounted a time he had come upon a field of grass covered in dew drops. The way the sunlight hit the drops of water on each blade of grass made the entire expanse of the field appear covered in tiny, spectacular rainbows, every shade of red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. Even the elusive indigo was visible to his eye. A spectrum of color reflected infinitely across his line of vision.
Mr. Clement explained that, as a feeling human, he was struck dumb by the pure, staggering beauty of the scene, but that as a scientist, he found the actual explanation for the appearance of the rainbows to be just as beautiful as the manifestation, if not even more so. The individual drops of water on the grass had created tiny prisms that refracted the light of the sun in every shade of the color spectrum.
I thought of this as I watched the phantasmal apparitions form, fade, and reform across the Denali sky. Its beauty wasn’t only in the obvious color show visible to the human eye, but in the journey the protons and neutrons took from the high energy field around the sun—at millions of degrees—to the Earth’s atmosphere, carried by solar wind.
At points in our atmosphere where the magnetic field is weakest, specifically the North and South poles, these escaped particles from the sun’s atmosphere entered the Earth’s atmosphere and danced with its gaseous particles.
When the energy from the interactions of the charged particles escapes into the upper atmosphere, or exosphere, “the resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emits light of varying color and complexity.” If that isn’t a case of science being pretty damn cool I don’t know what is.
The tourism season here in Denali National Park lasts from approximately the middle of May to around mid-September. Four months where hotels, restaurants, shops, and other tourist-driven businesses have their opportunity to make what they hope is a year’s worth of profit. The height of the high season coincides with the most common time for the majority of the Northern hemisphere’s population to take vacation time, from the middle of July to the beginning of August. This is also when the weather in Denali is typically best, with warm, sunny days that seem never-ending, as the midnight sun shines brightly over this beautiful area of the world.
Last summer was my first summer here, and if you’d asked me in midsummer what the best time of year was to visit Denali, I would have unhesitatingly answered July. Swathes of purple fireweed paint the hillsides vibrant magenta, the weather is typically gorgeous, and the endless sunshine stretching late into the night is a fascinating novelty as well as an energizing force. Don’t want to share a popular trail? Start your hike at midnight.
Wrapping up my second summer in Denali though, my advice to travelers would change. The best time to visit Denali? The last week of August and the first week of September. While the trade-off is the chance of cold weather (last summer we had a couple of days at the end of August that dropped into the 20s (Fahrenheit) and saw snow on the ground), the payoff is hillsides blanketed in blazing yellow aspen and birch set against a backdrop of freshly snow-capped mountains. Accommodation is easier to come by and prices may even begin to drop too. Mosquitos all but disappear bears and moose are active,preparing for a winter of hibernation, and the aurora, oh, the aurora…
Whether you’re like me and fascinated by the science behind the phenomenon or just drawn to the jaw-dropping natural beauty of the Northern Lights display, the chance to witness the spectacular aurora borealis is reason enough to pack a down jacket and a few extra layers for your trip to Alaska.
Book a cozy little cabin in the woods at Tonglen Lake Lodge, seven miles south of the park entrance or McKinley Creekside Cabins at Milepost 224 of the George Parks Highway. Climb to the top of Mt Healy or hike the 9.5-mile Triple Lakes Trail for stunning vistas to take full advantage of the blazing autumn foliage spread across the tundra, framing the awe-inspiring mountain backdrop.
And when the night finally falls, and the Milky Way drapes across the sky like a shimmering blanket, grab a bottle of wine and some warm clothing and head outdoors to watch the sky. On a night where Aurora (the goddess of dawn according to Roman mythology) is showing her colors to full effect, that’s all the Denali nightlife you’ll need.
Julia Reynolds is a travel writer, adventure enthusiast, and serial nomad living (mostly) in the Hawaiian islands. She is currently on a one-year trip around the world, avoiding air travel when possible and traveling slowly over land and sea. Some of her best travel experiences to date have been kayaking the Napali Coast of Kaua'i, diving the isolated atolls of Belize, and rock climbing in the Krabi region of Thailand. Her worst travel experiences have been getting robbed in Guatemala, breaking her back in Thailand, and breaking multiple bones in a mountain bike accident in Alaska. She still loves the places where the worst experiences occurred.