The northern lights are one of the most awe-inspiring sights on the planet. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to travel north of the Arctic Circle to see the lights. With its sparse population and cold winters, northern Michigan offers the perfect conditions for viewing the aurora borealis. This rugged, otherworldly region is situated just an easy drive from Chicago and Minneapolis. From many Michigan vacation rentals, you may be able to view the northern lights from the comfort of home. Check out the best places in Michigan to see the northern lights.

1. Copper Harbor

copper harbor norhern lights
Source: Flickr/Juho Holmi

Tucked on the northernmost tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula on the shores of Lake Superior, Copper Harbor is the best viewing spot in Michigan. This tiny hamlet sits 30 miles from the nearest town, creating a near-complete lack of light pollution that makes it easier to see the lights dance across the sky. While you can occasionally catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis in the summer, winter offers a higher sighting probability. If you’re staying in one of Copper Harbor’s adorable downtown vacation rentals, bring snowshoes and hike out to Hunter’s Point Park to watch for the lights on the shore. Bundle up in your warmest layers; winters in the Upper Peninsula are extremely cold and snowy. From vacation rentals just south of town on Lake Superior, you may even be able to see the display from your living room. During the day, enjoy the local winter wonderland with a snowboarding trip to nearby Mount Bohemia, warm up with drinks at the Brickside Brewery, or enjoy dinner at the Mariner North restaurant.

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2. Marquette

Marquette northern lights
Source: Flickr/NOAA Photo Library

Enjoy Upper Peninsula hospitality with a variety of creature comforts in charming Marquette. This small town, which is home to Northern Michigan University, features a local airport with direct flights from Detroit, Minneapolis, and Chicago. It’s possible to see the northern lights from the downtown harbor, but for the best views, head toward Munising on M-26, and pull over in any of the lakeside turnouts a few miles out of town. The aurora borealis is most visible on cold, clear winter nights; to minimize your exposure, check the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center website for a 30-minute and three-day forecast. Look for vacation rentals near downtown to stay within walking distance of popular local restaurants such as Babycakes and Donckers. When you’re not hunting for the northern lights, hike Sugarloaf Mountain and explore the rocky shores at Presque Isle Park.

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3. Mackinaw City

Mackinaw City northern lights
Source: Flickr/Wall Boat

Watch the northern lights dance over the spectacular Mackinac Bridge in Mackinaw City, a small town located on the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The best viewing spot is the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, which sits two miles west of downtown; this Emmet County Park is free, open year-round, and positioned to avoid light pollution. The aurora borealis is most prevalent during the spring and fall seasons near the Equinox, but you can also spot the lights during the winter. Waterfront vacation rentals west of the city also offer great views. During the day, Mackinaw City offers plenty to do. Take a ferry to Mackinac Island, where you can take a horse-drawn carriage ride, have tea at the Grand Hotel, and sample fantastic fudge on the stunning Main Street. On the mainland, be sure to explore historic Fort Michilimackinac and check out the picturesque Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse.

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4. Munising

Munising northern lights
Source: Flickr/Aarron Foat

Munising provides the perfect combination of spectacular scenery during the day and stunning northern lights after dark. This tiny town has few city lights to get in the way of the aurora borealis, which is at its best in the winter. For the quintessential northern Michigan experience, book a vacation rental on Lake Superior; from there, you can snowshoe along the shore as you wait for the colors to appear. When the sun rises, head straight for the magnificent Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to try ice climbing and cross-country skiing. When it’s sunny, the ice caves along the water shimmer dramatically; pick up a coffee from Pictured Rocks Fudge and Coffee on your way to stay warm. Downtown, eat at Tracey’s at Roam Inn or head to Muldoon’s to try a pasty, an Upper Peninsula favorite.

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5. Port Austin

Port austin norhern lights
Source: Flickr/Mike Lewinski

If you’re short on time, head to Port Austin in the Lower Peninsula. Situated on the tip of Michigan’s “thumb,” this small town is less than three hours from Detroit, so you can fly in and out easily. Look for a vacation rental on Lake Huron near Port Crescent State Park, which is the best local spot to see the northern lights. There are no electric lights for miles around the park’s day use area, giving you a clearer view. The aurora borealis comes out occasionally in the summer, but you have a better chance on a clear winter night with minimal humidity. During the rest of your vacation, explore the Pointe aux Barques lighthouse and walk along the Port Austin break wall. If there’s no snow, rent a kayak from Port Austin Kayak and Bike and paddle along Bird Creek.

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