Aurora Borealis — the Northern Lights — are a destination in themselves. From Iceland to Canada, Sweden to the USA, here are the best times and places to see them
For many people, seeing the Northern Lights is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but you have to be prepared. Where, when, for how long, and how much you want to spend are all important questions to consider. Luckily, we’ve got a bunch of answers for you right here!
- September – April are generally the best months to go. The nights are long or, in some very northern places, virtually endless.
- As a rule, the darker the night, the better it is. Although strong auroral displays can withstand bright moonlight, your chances are better on nights where there’s a new or crescent moon.
- It seems obvious to say, but clear skies help too!
- Make sure you’re not near any sources of light pollution. Get as far away from towns and cities as you can.
- If you want to get more into the science, monitor the solar cycle and the amount of sunspots visible on the surface of the sun. If you can see sunspots, it means the sun is pumping out those solar winds which produce the northern lights.
- It’s a myth that it has to be cold! It’s simply that the best auroras happen on clear nights in the north that, by definition, tend to be cold!
- There’s an app for that! My Aurora helps Northern Lights hunters with all of the above, from weather forecasts to sun imagery and maps of solar winds.
Taking photos? Here are some picture tips as well:
- Long exposures and a higher ISO are both key to capturing the lights.
- Maybe think about getting a wide-angle lens. It’ll allow you to capture as much of the sky as possible.
- Get a tripod! Long exposures and shivering hands lead to awful photos!
So now you’ve got the gear, where should you go?
In the most northern parts of Norway, you can see the Northern Lights from as early as October. The port city of Tromsø is a popular spot and gives you the chance to book a boat trip away from the city to see the Lights diving and swooping across the ocean. Even further north is the town of Alta, surrounded by Arctic tundra, mountains, and forests. The Lights appear most nights, and while you’re there you can also head up the fjords to do some whale-watching, or go snowmobiling or sledding. Thirdly, the Svalbard Archipelago, a collection of frozen islands in the Barents Sea and one of the most remote places in the world, is the place to be if you really want to feel you’ve made an effort!
Northern Sweden and Lapland are also definite options for aurora hunters. Just over the border from Norway, the village of Abisko (and the National Park that shares its name) are popular spots. The Aurora Sky Station is a mountaintop observatory that markets itself as “the best place on earth to see the Northern Lights” (although we’re sure a few other places make that claim too!). Kiruna, Sweden’s most northerly city, also attracts tourists throughout winter, mainly to Camp Ripan where you can experience a slightly more luxurious stay. The ‘camp’ (more of a high-end hotel really) includes excellent food, a spa, dog-sled tours, and private cabins to come back to after a hard night looking at the heavens.
Finnish Lapland is home to a number of ways to see the lights, some more scientific and some more extravagant than others. The Hankasalmi Observatory, around 15 minutes from the winter resort of Revontuli, home to a classic Finnish sauna and spa, is a great place to start. It’s in the middle of some of the darkest countryside in the country, slap bang in the center of Finland, and surrounded by lakes.
Much further north (but also home to a sauna; where in Finland isn’t?) is the village of Nellim. See the lights from the frozen shores of Inari lake before heading back inside to warm up. For something really special, however, try Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort. Here you can observe the lights from your own glass igloo, warm and cozy in a stunning structure made of local Kelo pine and featuring a kitchen, bedroom, fireplace, and, yes, a private sauna!
Iceland has built an entire industry on the Northern Lights, so there are stays and tours to suit pretty much every budget and time frame. In fact with the right weather conditions, it’s possible to see the lights everywhere in Iceland, even Reykjavík.
However, if you’re really going to make sure you get the best possible show, you do really need to get out of town, even if just a little way. Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park is only 20 minutes outside the capital but is known as Iceland’s Mecca for Northern Lights watchers. Alternatively, and only 30 minutes from Reykjavik, head to Kleifarvatn Lake, nine square kilometers of eerie calm that give exactly the right atmosphere.
Heading to the hills is another option with Öskjuhlíð (in the center of Reykjavik), the hills outside of the town of Akureyri in the north of the country, or nearby Husavik all offering excellent viewpoints. The fishing village of Sandgerdi in the very southwest of Iceland is the opposite, the very tip of a peninsula offering views to the horizon virtually to Greenland. Finally, to complete the most Iceland experience possible, why not hunt the lights from atop a glacier: the Langjökull glacier to the north-east of Reykjavik is 935 square kilometers of frozen magnificence, including ice caves and offering all manner of outdoor adventures. Stand 1,450 meters above sea level and wait for the lights to come sweeping towards you.
Not on most lists of places to see the Lights, there are parts of Scotland where it’s completely possible, but you are going to have to get off the mainland. The Orkney and Shetland island groups are your best bet, their treeless, windswept glory lending itself perfectly to a bit of aurora chasing. On Shetland, the Lights are known as the Mirrie Dancer, a beautifully poetic phrase that perfectly describes their flitting and flickering.
It’s also possible to see them from the mainland, but of course the further north you can go, the better. Thurso and Wick in the very north-east are decent bases for aurora-spotting, as is the north-west over the Moray Firth between the mainland and the Isle of Harris.
North America also gets its share of the Northern Lights, and in Canada, naturally, you’re again heading as far north as you can go. The Northwest Territories and their remote landscape of forests, mountains, lakes, islands, and Arctic tundra give a suitably last-person-on-earth feeling, made all the more powerful during the darkest and emptiest of nights, lit only by starlight and the silent magic of the Lights.
Yukon, between the Northwest Territories and Alaska, is another option, offering similarly spectacular landscapes. They do cater slightly more to aurora chasers though, with things like Dawson City’s Midnight Dome, a scenic lookout high above the town where locals gather for the Lights in winter and the midnight sun in summer. The lookout affords views of the Yukon River and Klondike Valley, meaning that even if you don’t see the lights that night, come back in the day for some of the most spectacular landscapes in the country.
Given what’s written above, Alaska is the obvious place to begin. Similar to northern Canada, the wilderness and lack of light pollution make it an amazing place to begin your search. Try Denali National Park, where even if you’re unlucky with the Lights, you’ll be able to see the Milky Way and beyond as a blanket of stars like you’ve never seen covers the sky above your cabin or camp.
Surprisingly, you can also catch the Lights in the Lower 48, at places like Priest Lake in Idaho’s panhandle, or at Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge, Schoodic Lake, or Moosehead Lake, all of which are in Maine. Cook County at the north-eastern tip of Minnesota is also a possibility, as is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Oh, and one final hint: they will never be localized entirely within your kitchen.
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