Chasing Alpenglow in Alaska

Alaska is home to stunning mountain landscapes and witness to an occasional natural phenomenon called alpenglow that transforms snowy mountains into artistic canvases. Alpenglow translates to “Alps glow” and can be seen in locations worldwide, including the Alps in Europe, if the conditions are favorable. In this blog, you’ll learn what might cause alpenglow and where you can hope to catch it in person in Alaska.

What is Alpenglow?

It’s like a real-life Photoshop filter that paints the peaks of mountains in fiery shades of reddish pink and orange just before or right after sunset. There are two main theories about what causes alpenglow in mountain locations around the world. Here’s the lowdown on both:

Indirect sunlight theory: This theory is the more widely accepted one. It proposes that when the sun dips below the horizon, its light doesn’t disappear entirely after sunset. Instead, it gets scattered by the atmosphere, mainly by dust and water vapor. The blue wavelengths of light scatter, leaving behind the longer red and orange wavelengths. This scattered light bathes the mountaintops in that warm, reddish glow we call alpenglow.

Direct sunlight theory: This theory suggests that the glow comes from the sun itself, even after it’s dipped below the horizon. According to this theory, the sun’s reddish light directly illuminates the mountaintops during twilight because it travels a shorter distance through the atmosphere at that angle. This explains why the glow often appears on the opposite side of the sky from the setting sun.

Both theories have their evidence and supporters. For instance, the indirect sunlight theory explains why clouds can sometimes partially obscure the glow, while the direct sunlight theory may better explain why some mountain peaks seem to glow brightest just before the sun completely disappears.

Ultimately, the exact cause of alpenglow might be a combination of both theories. The scattering of blue light in the atmosphere plays a role, but the direct illumination from the sun’s reddish light might also contribute to the overall effect.

Where to find this in Alaska?

  • Denali National Park: Witness Mt. Denali, North America’s tallest peak, highlighted by alpenglow, and you’ll agree it’s a sight that’ll leave you breathless.
  • Turnagain Arm: This scenic waterway in the Kenai Mountains becomes a mirror reflecting Mount Alpenglow (aptly named!) Hike the coastal trails or cozy up in a cabin for a front-row seat to the show.
  • Chugach National Forest: Escape the crowds and delve into the wild heart of Alaska. Hike the challenging trails of Hatcher Pass, where mountains like Symphony and Sheep can erupt in color for sunrise.

To see alpenglow in person takes a bit of planning. Here’s how to make the most of it:

  • Time it right: Sunrise and sunset are the usual suspects, but a clear winter morning might surprise you.
  • Pack the layers: Even in summer, it gets chilly at higher altitudes. Be prepared with warm clothes.
  • Go high: Hike above the tree line for unobstructed views and a stunning panorama.
  • Photographing alpenglow isn’t difficult for a photographer with a landscape-friendly wide-angle lens. Because of the intense colors, photos often have more saturation. They are most vibrant before the sun peeks over the horizon and lights the scene directly. The biggest challenge for some may be waking up early enough to catch the conditions.
  • Unplug and see: Don’t forget to soak it in and be in the moment. Breathe the crisp air, listen to the silence, and feel the energy of the mountains. It will never look the same as it does with your own eyes.

Alpenglow isn’t just a pretty sight that creates an Instagram-worthy backdrop; it’s a reminder of some of the magic you can experience in nature.


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