Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- Chasing the Northern Lights
- The Northern Lights of Iceland
- Catch the Northern Lights Show in the Swedish Lapland
- More Swedish Lapland Hot Spots
- The Lights of Northern Norway
- More Norway Destinations for Northern Lights
- Watch the Northern Lights Dance Across the Skies of Fairbanks, Alaska
- Brave the Cold in the Alaska North for More Aurora Borealis Viewing
- Venture to Canada and the Stunning Canadian Rockies
- Aurora Borealis Shines Over Canada’s Northwest Territories
- Hot Spots for Northern Lights in America’s Lower 48
There’s a reason the northern lights find a place on so many bucket lists. Watching the aurora borealis gracefully dance across the sky in shades of green, pink and purple is a mesmerizing sight. If viewing the aurora borealis sits near the top of your bucket list, these destinations from across the globe just might deliver that checkmark you seek. And here’s a bonus tip: according to scientists, solar activity is ramping up and is expected to peak in the 2024/2025 aurora season. What are you waiting for?
Chasing the Northern Lights
As someone who travels to arctic regions frequently, I’ve spent my share of hours staring into the sky hoping to see the northern lights. Sometimes my efforts were futile, but on some occasions when visiting at the right time of year, I hit the jackpot.
Believe it or not, the northern lights remain active all year round. But because they are only typically visible in the aurora zone between 65° and 72° North, visibility is rare from April through August when the aurora zone experiences the midnight sun with nearly 24 hours of daylight. But as the sun begins to set again in September, aurora season begins.
So what are the northern lights? Officially named the aurora borealis, this phenomenon is caused by electrically charged particles released by the sun. Some of the charged particles travel down the magnetic field lines at the north and south poles into the earth’s atmosphere. When those particles interact with gases in the atmosphere the magic of the northern lights occurs. This natural phenomenon doesn’t just happen in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, they are known as the southern lights or aurora australis.
The Northern Lights of Iceland
The northern lights can be seen from September through April across Iceland but the darker days of winter provide more opportunities for you to experience this natural wonder. Escaping light pollution is key to finding the best aurora viewing spots and with Iceland’s plentiful remote areas, you’ll have numerous options.
In the south, Thingvellir National Park, the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, and the black sand beaches in Vik offer excellent viewpoints to catch the northern lights. Also in the south, the Hotel Rangá sits in a remote location with low light pollution resulting in enhanced stargazing and aurora viewing. Hotel Rangá even has its own observatory with powerful telescopes to capture close-ups of the planets and stars. Regularly invited local astronomers lead tours of the night sky.
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The Westfjords and Northern Iceland offer more hours of darkness and less cloud cover than other regions making them ideal spots for aurora viewing. Consider the Asbyrgi Canyon in the north and Kirkjufell Mountain in the west.
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If your visit only includes the Reykjavik area, there’s still a possibility of seeing the northern lights despite light pollution from the city. The capital area’s northwesternmost point, Seltjarnarnes Peninsula, has minimal light pollution and the island’s Grotto Lighthouse makes a nice addition to any photos captured of the northern lights.
If you visit on a night filled with clear skies, it’s also possible to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis as you relax in the hot springs at the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik.
Catch the Northern Lights Show in the Swedish Lapland
At the Lapland Guesthouse in the village of Kangos, Sweden – one of my favorite places in the world – the search for northern lights is never far away. Guesthouse owner Johan Stenavad surveys the skies each evening making sure everyone knows when the northern lights show begins. Some evenings he attaches a sled to his snowmobile and takes guests on a northern lights safari. Other times, the dazzling light show takes place just outside the guesthouse.
Spending time at the welcoming Lapland Guesthouse delivers more than northern lights viewing. Snowmobile across the frozen landscape to experience hand-feeding reindeer. Then share a hearty lunch of hot soup or grilled burgers served fireside in a snowbank blanketed with reindeer skins.
For active adventures, don’t miss dog sledding on a frozen lake. Snowshoeing through the frosty forest. Or spend a morning ice fishing. If you’re lucky enough to reel in a fish from the icy waters, the chef at Lapland Guesthouse will happily prepare your prize catch for dinner.
More Swedish Lapland Hot Spots
A fun destination to consider, Sweden’s Ice Hotel not only provides accommodations carved by talented ice sculpture artists from around the globe, but it’s also a place to view the northern lights as early as late August. The Ice Hotel also offers a northern lights safari where a knowledgeable guide takes guests to a wilderness camp, far away from light pollution.
Located 1 ½ hours from the Ice Hotel, Abisko National Park and the surrounding Kiruna Mountains provide an ideal place for viewing the aurora borealis. If you’re lucky you will get to witness them take on colors ranging from purple, blue, yellow, or even red. The northern lights in Abisko often show themselves in the form of curtains, spirals, arcs, or coronas.
On Mt. Nuolja, a chairlift transports you to STF Aurora Sky Station, 2,952 feet above sea level. Views from this vantage point include the surrounding mountains, a star-filled sky, and, if clear skies prevail, an otherworldly show of the northern lights.
The Lights of Northern Norway
When a community procures the moniker “Town of the Northern Lights” it deserves a spot on any aurora borealis chasing itinerary. Situated 233 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark, the 15,000 residents of this picturesque fjord town seem to have won the location lottery. Surrounded by mountains and benefiting from the Gulf Stream’s warm air which finds its way to Norway’s coast, Alta doesn’t have the extreme bone-chilling temperatures of other far north locales. You’ll still need to bundle up, but it’ll be worth it to take in the glorious aurora borealis dancing overhead.
The world’s first observatory dedicated to the study of the northern lights sits above the town on Mount Haldde. And in the town center, the bold design of the Northern Lights Cathedral with its coiling body and spire clothed in rippling titanium sheets celebrates the beauty of the aurora borealis.
More Norway Destinations for Northern Lights
High above the Arctic Circle, Tromsø, Norway boasts a wealth of natural wonders including glaciers, mountains, serene national parks, fjords and waterfalls that showcase raw, sublime power. It’s also the land of the midnight sun and in winter, its clear skies set the stage for the dance of the northern lights. Often you can step outside your hotel and catch a glimpse of this stunning display. But one of the best ways to catch the northern lights in Tromsø, Norway is on a northern lights tour.
Meanwhile in Svalbard, the Northern Lights beckon you to polar bear country. This archipelago lies halfway between Norway’s mainland and the North Pole in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. Here the midnight sun creates neverending days from early spring until autumn. And from November until the end of January, the sun never shines which means you can catch aurora views 24 hours a day!
Watch the Northern Lights Dance Across the Skies of Fairbanks, Alaska
Fairbanks sits in the auroral oval, a ring-shaped area around the North Pole, making it one of the best places in America and the world to see the northern lights. They’re often visible from late August to May, becoming more intense between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. While there are many places to experience the northern lights in the Fairbanks area, one of the most intriguing is the Borealis Base Camp.
A truly unique place to view this spectacular event, Borealis Basecamp is situated on 100 acres in the snowy boreal forest just 25 miles outside of Fairbanks. Guests stay in geodesic domes with expansive clear ceilings that provide unobstructed views of the night sky and if you’re lucky, the northern lights. The best part: all of this is visible without ever leaving the comfort of your warm and cozy bed. Considering that the temperatures in the region frequently dip as low as -35 or more, the ‘not leaving the warm bed part’ is especially enticing.
Brave the Cold in the Alaska North for More Aurora Borealis Viewing
At the north end of the auroral oval, Wiseman—population 14—is worth the daring Ice Road Truckers drive up the Dalton Highway. Northern Alaskan Tour Company offers tours from Fairbanks with lodging at Coldfoot Camp – a place built for truckers serving the needs of the workers on the Alaskan Pipeline. They’ll drive you up the icy highway and fly you back to Fairbanks for a bird’s eye view of herds of caribou crossing the frozen tundra.
When the northern lights forecast seems promising, guests are transported from Coldfoot Camp to Wiseman—a tiny village just 30 minutes away. Here you’ll meet Jack Reakoff, a true Alaskan character. Jack happily shares information about the lights along with entertaining tales of life in Wiseman. He also provides photography tips along with tripods. A warm cabin with a fire burning in the hearth, hot beverages, and cookies keep everyone comfy and cozy.
Venture to Canada and the Stunning Canadian Rockies
Widely known for its dramatic mountain peaks and turquoise lakes, the Canadian Rockies are a stunning destination any time of year. But when aurora season arrives, it’s even more enticing. Jasper and Banff National Parks are two of Canada’s best locations for northern lights viewing.
Jasper is the world’s second-largest Dark Sky Preserve. Dark Sky Preserves are areas with low light pollution. So, Jasper is the perfect place to stargaze and watch the Northern Lights.
October through April is the best time of year to catch the Northern Lights show. But the nights are visible up to 300 nights per year depending on light pollution levels.
Aurora Borealis Shines Over Canada’s Northwest Territories
In Canada’s Northwest Territories, there are two aurora seasons. The Fall Aurora occurs from mid-August until the end of September. Then Winter Aurora takes the stage from mid-November until early April. During this time, the Northwest Territories experience clear skies, dark nights, and spectacularly powerful northern lights. During the winter months, this awe-inspiring site stretches from horizon to horizon unlike anywhere else in the world. When you’re not busy staring at the dazzling sky, there’s plenty to do including dogsledding, ice fishing, and learning the oral history of the area’s indigenous people. Designated as the Northern Lights Capital of North America, Yellowknife provides an ideal home base for your explorations.
Hot Spots for Northern Lights in America’s Lower 48
If a trip to the Northwest Territories, Alaska, or Europe isn’t in your plans for the winter months, there are several excellent places to catch the northern lights show in America’s lower 48. Your best bet lies in northern Michigan or Minnesota where international dark sky parks keep that pesky light pollution at bay.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula benefits from the auroral oval when it dips further south on flights of stronger auroral activity. With hundreds of miles of shoreline along the south shore of Lake Superior, dark skies prevail here. Here the auroral display sits very low on the horizon so seek out places without obstructions of trees or hills to catch the best views. Two miles west of Mackinaw City lies the Headlands International Dark Sky Park which presents an excellent location for aurora viewing.
As home to Voyageurs National Park – a newly designated International Dark Sky Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – a unique, certified International Dark Sky Sanctuary Minnesota is another American gem when it comes to viewing the Northern Lights.
Within Voyageurs National Park, expansive views of unpolluted skies unfold from its waterways opening up the skies to views of meteor showers and northern lights. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness spans 150 miles along the U.S.-Canador border and encompasses over 1,100 lakes accessible primarily by canoe. Here visitors enjoy paddling the calm waters while marveling at the breathtaking views of the aurora borealis dancing across the sky.
Pick your favorite location and get ready to check off that bucket list experience!