The northern lights, aurora borealis, are usually only visible near the Arctic Circle. But every once in a while, when conditions are perfect, they make an appearance as far south as DC. I caught a glimpse early Wednesday morning.
Aurora over Chesapeake Bay on Wednesday morning.
On Tuesday news spread that a heavy solar storm was hitting Earth, and producing some of the strongest aurora in years. Maybe strong enough to see from DC.
Since the sky was clear, the moon below the horizon, and conditions perfect, my wife and I booked a Zipcar to the clearest northerly view I could think of: The northern tip of Kent Island, across the Bay Bridge, in the middle of the Chesapeake.
And there was the aurora. Barely visible, but there. Dim green flashes floated low against the horizon, flowing in great fast waves from east to west. It was nothing like the huge curtains of light you see in the famous pictures (we’re too far south for that), but it was unmistakable nonetheless.
How you can see them next time
Aurora are sometimes visible from DC’s latitude. But they may never be visible from inside the District of Columbia, because this far south they appear very dim, and only close to the northern horizon. To see them, find an extremely dark north-facing vantage point, with a clear sight of the horizon.
If there are street lights turned on or trees blocking the horizon, you probably won’t see them even if conditions are otherwise right.
Since we live in Northeast, we decided Kent Island would be ideal. It’s about an hour drive east of DC, assuming no traffic—usually a safe assumption after midnight.
Route to Kent Island. Map from Google.
You will need a car to get there. And since news of likely aurora this far south typically only comes the day of the event, you won’t have much time to plan ahead. But in the age of car-sharing, even a car-free urbanite can get it done.
Central cities are booming all over the US, as Americans rediscover the benefits of walkable urbanism. But the boom isn’t confined to only big cities. Smaller cities are also enjoying a renaissance of their own.
Here are ten little cities near DC with genuinely great urbanism.
Frederick, MD: With stately historic buildings, fancy restaurants, rowhouse neighborhoods, and the best riverwalk in the region, Frederick is a bona fide quality city. Photo by Gray Lensman QX! on Flickr.
Hagerstown, MD: Less fancy and more blue-collar compared to Frederick, Hagerstown’s solid core of 19th Century streets is more like Baltimore than DC. Photo by J Brew on Flickr.
Cumberland, MD: If Frederick is a mini DC and Hagerstown a mini Baltimore, Cumberland with its sharply rising hills and narrow valleys is a mini Pittsburgh. Photo by Dave Olsen on Flickr.
Annapolis, MD: With its baroque street grid, 18th Century state house, and as the home of the Naval Academy, Annapolis was an impressive town years before DC existed.
Winchester, VA: Winchester has a successful pedestrian mall, and the most gorgeous library in Virginia. Handley Library photo by m01229 on Flickr.
Charlottesville, VA: Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall is even more successful than Winchester’s, while the University of Virginia contributes The Corner, an interesting student ghetto neighborhood, and Thomas Jefferson’s famous Lawn. Photo by Ben G on Flickr.
Staunton, VA: 19th Century warehouse town sister to nearby Charlottesville’s academic village. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.
Fredericksburg, VA: Similar in size and scale to Old Town Alexandria, if it were 50 miles from DC instead of right across the river. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.
York, PA: Probably the most substantial city on this list, York is a veritable museum of 18th, 19th, and early 20th Century buildings. And its surrounding Amish countryside offers an object lesson in sharing the road. Photo by Joseph on Flickr.
Gettysburg, PA: The battlefield is justifiably more famous, but downtown Gettysburg is a charming little place, often overlooked. Photo by Tom Hart on Flickr.
To qualify for this list, I excluded cities large enough to have tall buildings downtown (sorry Baltimore, Richmond, Harrisburg, and Wilmington), and any city close enough to DC be accessible via WMATA (Alexandria, Silver Spring, Kensington, etc). Otherwise the list is essentially subjective.
Now that MARC’s Penn Line runs on the weekend, it’s easier than ever for Washingtonians to day-trip up to Baltimore. I made use of the service over the winter, for no reason but to bum around and take some pictures. That’s the sort of thing a city nerd like me enjoys.
If you’re enough of a city nerd to look at my pictures, here they are.
To see urban wildlife in the snow, find flowing water
Despite cities’ reputation as concrete jungles, most have a healthy collection of wildlife. Birds, rodents, deer, anything that can live on the margins of human activity. But what happens to that wildlife when the city is hit with winter weather?
With temperatures consistently below freezing, and even the mighty Potomac River frozen all the way across at points, wildlife is going to be looking for drinkable water. On Saturday, I dropped by fast-flowing Rock Creek to try and spot some. I wasn’t disappointed.
A Northern Flicker (top), Starlings (bottom left), a Downy Woodpecker (bottom center), and my viewing spot near P Street Beach (bottom right).