On every world traveler’s bucket list should be a trip to see the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. One of the most spectacular natural phenomena in the world, the lights are formed when atmospheric gases collide with solar particles. The glowing, multi-colored curtains of light can be seen in latitudes near the Arctic Circle, primarily between November and March.
If you’re looking for the ideal place to view the Northern Lights, you will obviously start with a location that is in the uppermost northern climes. The best viewing conditions are away from city lights on cold and cloudless nights. To select the best location, you will want to consider not only viewing conditions, but the site’s accessibility, along with nearby attractions and amenities.
We’ve put together a list of our top five recommended locations. See which one you think is best!
Finland. Northern Finland is home to the Northern Lights Research Center, and the area caters to visitors seeking a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. Lapland, Finland’s northernmost region, provides for ideal viewing, and is also known as Santa Claus’ official European base of operations. When not engaged in nighttime viewing, visitors can enjoy husky-drawn sled rides, snow-shoeing, and relaxing by the fire in a picturesque cabin.
Viewing conditions are excellent, with seasonal spottings of the Northern Lights occurring at least two out of three nights, on average. Head to the Finnish-Russian border and improve your chances even more. At Nellim, viewers from the Paatsjoki Bridge report viewing success rates of at least 90%. Watching the lights shimmer over Lake Inari is an unforgettable experience.
Atop Haldde Mountain, intrepid individuals can visit the Northern Lights Observatory. Or you may prefer to take a snowmobile or even a reindeer safari to one of Finland’s many popular lookout points.
Iceland. Because of its wide-open, sparsely populated spaces lying close to the Arctic Circle, Iceland is a wonderful location for a Northern Lights tour. It is a favorite spot for professional photographers to capture the Lights at their finest, against the sparkling winter landscapes of this majestic region.
One of the best destination points is Thingvellir National Park. This UNESCO Heritage Site is located in a rift valley formed by continental plates. It is part of Iceland’s “Golden Circle.” Considered a prime viewing area for the Northern Lights, this area encompasses not only Thingvellir but the Haukadalur geothermic valley.
Many visitors enjoy heading to the Jukulsarion Glacier Lagoon. Lying on Iceland’s southeast coast, the lagoon is filled with icebergs that prismatically reflect the Northern Lights. On the very edge of the Arctic Circle, the volcanic Reykjanes Peninsula is also a striking place in which to view nature’s night display.
Alaska. The best U.S. locale for Northern Lights viewing, Alaska almost always provides light displays during the optimal viewing months. Visitors should generally stay away from city lights and head into wilderness regions, including the Yukon Territory and Denali.
However, the Fairbanks area has such a great track record for viewings that its Visitors Bureau all but guarantees that a three-night stay will provide an 80% chance of seeing the Lights. Fairbanks is also home to a Geophysical Institute that provides Aurora viewing forecasts.
The most adventuresome visitors can take advantage of some unique ways to travel to or see the lights. For example, an arctic cruise will provide breathtaking views of the lights over the water. Planes provide “flight-seeing” tours by flying over the Arctic Circle, and overnight trains will carry visitors over the snowy Alaska Range. Some enterprising resort areas offer hot spring viewings – the ultimate way to avoid frostbite while taking in the night skies.
Russia. Because it is one of the less visited regions for Northern Lights viewing, Russia offers the advantage of less traveled wilderness areas. There, the emphasis is less upon flashy tourist offerings and more upon soaking up the primeval beauties of Northern Russia’s vast wilderness, parts of which lie close to the Arctic Circle. The Saami, a native Russian tribe, still gather to watch the lights each year, and they are said to read their fortunes by studying the colored streaks of light across the sky.
Prime viewing areas include the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia. The Siberian town of Murmansk is a convenient base area, and several guided excursions originate there. During prime viewing months, this area offers pitch-black conditions day and night, as the sun is lost to view for about six weeks each year.
Another recommended location is Severodvinsk, known for displaying some of the brightest lights in Russia. Even further north, the city of Salekhard is worth consideration, as it is noteworthy as the world’s only city that lies within the Arctic Circle. This prime location places it in an unparalleled viewing zone.
Canada. The northern portion of Canada lies within the North Magnetic Pole, so it is difficult to get better front-seat viewing of the Northern Lights than one will find in Canada. Its large, secluded wilderness areas offer ideal conditions for seeing the Aurora away from city lights.
The famed Yukon territory extends not only through Alaska, but through Canada as well, and the western Yukon provides a perfect backdrop for Northern Lights viewing. The swirling lights are pronounced near the Yukon town of Whitehorse. Other recommended viewing locations include the Calgary area and Manitoba.
To combine Lights viewing with outdoor adventure, consider a trip to the city of Yellowknife. Lying just a few miles outside the city, Aurora Village provides a teepee campground with multi-lingual guides and even heated viewing chairs. Gorgeous lakeside viewing can be found around the pristine waters of Ontario’s Lake Superior.
Outdoor enthusiasts can combine Aurora viewing with dog mushing in husky-driven sleds, snowmobiling, or polar bear spotting. Or catch a boat or plane to lovely Iqaluit, a wilderness paradise located on Baffin Island. It lies in the heart of the Arctic, away from city lights.
We selected these top five as being representative of different areas of the globe that lie in prime viewing areas. In addition to these five locales, consider one of the following alternative locations for equally inviting experiences:
Norway – Home to the world’s most northerly-lying planetarium, brewery, and university, the town of Tromsø offers extended views of green, sparkling Northern Lights. Or take a steamer cruise along the coast and see the Lights above the fjords.
Sweden – Explore the enhanced viewing created by the microclimate around Swedish Lapland’s Abisko area and discover its “blue hole” – a glimpse of sky that always remains clear. Visit Jukkasasjarvi, home to the world’s first ice bar and hotel, or take a chair-lift to the Aurora Sky Station for a four-course dinner followed by viewing of the Lights.
Greenland – While parts of this country are fairly remote, accessible areas south and east of Greenland provide excellent viewing conditions. Take a dog-sledding expedition to Kangerlussuaq, near Greenland’s international airport. It boasts an average of 300 clear-sky days each year.
Denmark – It may be the furthest Scandinavian country from the Arctic Circle, but Denmark still has some excellent viewing locations. Tour its Faroe Islands, lying between Iceland and Norway. Home to puffins and a Viking legacy, the remote archipelago provides a one-of-a-kind viewing experience.
Scotland – Its often foggy or stormy weather makes this British Isles country a choice for those with patience and an enjoyment of atmospherics. Head to the Northern Highlands, Aberdeen, or the Isle of Skye.
Whichever location you select for your Northern Lights tour, you will find it to be an incomparable travel experience.