What It Was Like Watching the Northern Lights Near Las Vegas

The biggest solar storm to hit Earth in some two decades happened the weekend of May 10 and the spectacle was one of the most impressive global photography events in recent memory. While I live in Seattle, which had a mindblowing eruption of northern lights, I was in Las Vegas on a trip with my parents.

Talk about a bummer. Or so I thought.

Usually, the northern lights are what they sound like—lights you can see very far north. I mean, I even traveled to Fairbanks, Alaska, earlier this year to see them. So I was pretty bummed to be in the desert southwest for the most magical weekend of the year.

Still, I told my parents we should still seek them out and see what happens. So, just before nine at night, we hopped into the car and drove north. The goal was to evade Las Vegas’ light pollution and see the aurora borealis!

northern lights seen near vegas
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Finding a Dark Sky Near Vegas

I have a pretty good understanding of where to find dark sky and how far you have to get outside of city limits to achieve it. However, dark skies and good aurora viewing are not the same.

As we were so far south, I knew we wouldn’t have a corona (when the aurora is above you), and it would be mostly lower on the horizon. This meant we couldn’t have mountains or a ridgeline in front of us.

Thankfully, I’d driven this route last year and knew the 93 was generally a North-South Route with dark skies and a low horizon line. Now, all we needed was a place to pull off away from the road and bright headlights.

After looking a bit, we found a place that looked good for the Northern Lights near Vegas! Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge.

It was about 90 minutes from Las Vegas and would provide us with dark skies and ample viewing ability. From a photography standpoint, the only thing it did not have was something interesting in the foreground. (We thought about Valley of Fire, but they technically close the main road at night.)

But even without something interesting, the aurora display would shock and exhilarate us.

northern lights seen near vegas
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
northern lights seen near vegas
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

The Northern Lights Via Camera Vs. Your Own Eyes

Before discussing what we saw, I want to address something many people don’t understand about the northern lights.

For us in the lower 48, the aurora usually looks like a hazy cloud, maybe with some color. (I can attest to seeing them incredibly brightly with my eyes in Alaska.)

What you see in the photos is thanks to our cameras, which can pull in much more light than our eyes. (This has something to do with the cones and rods in our eyes, and the low light doesn’t allow our eyes to work properly.)

I say all of this to set the stage for what came this evening with the Northern Lights near Vegas.

northern lights seen near vegas
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Watching the Northern Lights With My Parents

Some 40 years ago, my dad saw the northern lights briefly on a bike-packing trip in Canada. My mom, though, had never seen them. The stage was set for her to cross this off her bucket list.

For the most part, what we saw with our naked eyes outside of Las Vegas was a hazy cloud that ebbed and flowed with a light to moderate pink hue along with light green/yellow near the horizon. (From talking to my dad afterward, his eyes had a more challenging time picking up the color in the sky. He said he hardly noticed any pink, while I definitely did, even if it was not super bright.)

However, the photos my professional camera and our phones took still picked it up incredibly well. My mom was elated with what she saw (even though it wasn’t absurdly bright to the eye) and was so happy to witness the northern lights this far south.

When we arrived and set up, the aurora show was subpar. It was very faint, though it looked epic from my camera. But then, as the time progressed, it got stronger and stronger. At one point, the entire sky was pinkish, with columns rising and falling across it.

It was absolutely phenomenal.

Over the course of almost two hours, the storm would grow strong, die off, and then grow stronger again. It honestly kept us on our toes as we had to monitor different parts of the night sky because they would hit different places.

All in all, I took almost 500 photos and planned to make some smaller time lapses of our aurora borealis display!

northern lights seen near vegas
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Final Thoughts Watching the Northern Lights Near Vegas

Anyone who sees the northern lights will tell you they put you on cloud nine. It’s the most exciting thing you can see, and it’ll give you the energy boost to do quite literally anything.

While I could have stayed out all night, my parents were getting tired, and we eventually called it a night just before 1 a.m. On the way back, we called my brother, who watched an even better showing in Casper, Wyoming. He had never seen anything like it either, and it blew his mind!

When we returned to our hotel and the bright lights of Las Vegas, it was approaching 2:15 a.m. You wouldn’t have seen anything inside the city limits, and we knew millions of people had just missed an opportunity of a lifetime.

I’m so glad we took the risk to chase the aurora in the southwest and that we got to share a global moment together. Creating this lasting memory with my parents, seeing the Northern Lights near Vegas, is something I’ll never forget!

Until next time, adventurers, stay safe.

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Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside