Northern Lights: Part Two - Where and How
Welcome to Part Two in our two part series on the Northern Lights. If you missed Part One, we explored some folklore and myths about the lights and then looked at some Science to learn about what they are and how they form.
Today's blog continues with a look at five destinations to consider if you'd like a Northern Lights Vacation and we end with some tips for the best experience.
Best Places to See the Northern Lights
1. The Yukon
One of the best spots in the world to view the Northern Lights just so happens to be in our own backyards here in Canada. But for best viewing, you’ll want to head up North. Generally the best time is between late August and mid-April as the summer months are a time of the Midnight Sun (with 20 or so hours of sunlight and no real darkness). You’ll want to stay up until at least Midnight for your best chances.
One unique option is out at the Northern Lights Resort and Spa, where they’ve built 3 glass chalets you can stay in to maximize your view of the night sky. However, bookings at the resort fill up fast and they’re already booking into the 2019-2020 Northern Lights season.
Iceland is an amazing location for viewing because friends, the landscape is incredible, and changes drastically without traveling too far. Early September to the end of April is the best time to view here, and if you ask the Icelandic, they’ll say they are a superior viewing ground simply due to having fewer days of the year with cloud cover compared to its Aurora rivals.
A unique option here is the Buubble hotel, which is basically an inflated, clear igloo. Reservations can be hard to come by though, so consider a tour out of Reykjavik that will take you out to prime viewing locations. If you want to do a solo trip, consider the Westfjords or, you guessed it, head North.
It's really hard to pick any one photo of the Northern Lights in Iceland, so I chose three from @madspeteriversen_photography on Instagram.
Norway has some amazing view spots and almost all of them are in the South. I’m just kidding. They’re way up North. If you are feeling adventurous you can head to Svalbard. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Svalbard is the home of the famous Seed Vault. Svalbard is the Northernmost town on earth (a mere 1300km from the North Pole) and the island is home to thousands of polar bears, glaciers, fjords, mountains, and 3000 people. The island has really leaned into promoting it’s tourist potential. And with “Polar Night” you can sometimes see the Aurora Borealis at lunch time. So the best time of year to visit is from November to February. Surprisingly though, the climate is fairly mild with the average temperature in the winter hovering around -14°C.
If that sounds too adventurous or too expensive, consider the towns of Tromsø or Varanger. Tromsø is the largest city in Northern Norway and is situated in the middle of the auroral oval (a great thing if Northern Lights are your jam). There are a host of activities in the area, making it a great destination to go and fill your day – dog sledding, whale watching, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, plus a ton of reindeer make for a great winter destination. One local suggests heading to Parkgata Street in town, if you want to see the lights but can’t get out of the city, as there are no streetlights, making viewing easier. Or you can head out of town to the nature reserve on Lake Prestvannet for good viewing. In Varanger, you’ll be visiting the Lights and one of the top Birding Sites in the world. With over 100 different species, the opportunity to view rare birds is high, even during the winter months. From the town itself you can see rich colours as the light pollution is low.
We’ve all seen photos of them. These funky little glass igloo type domes sticking out the ground. Well friends, that would be the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Finland. There aren’t many places one can watch the lights in 360 view while lying in bed (you know, besides putting your sleeping bag OUTSIDE of the tent), but here, you can. They also have log cabins with a glass dome.
Northern Lights season runs from about August to the end of April here and Finland’s tourist site boasts roughly 200 nights a year of visibility. For best viewing, head…North. Surprise! But in addition to Kakslauttanen, there are many accommodation options that have opted for a high glass content in the design to maximize the views. Or go full on unique and stay at the Arctic SnowHotel made entirely from snow and ice (#bucketlist).
Finland is often less expensive than Norway or Sweden as well. In addition to traditional winter past times, Finland boasts reindeer safaris and ice fishing among its activities. Plus Finland’s national past time is basically sauna-ing (the human population of Helsinki is about 5.4 million. The sauna population – 3.3 million), so that’s pretty awesome.
I suspect Scotland is often overlooked as a Northern Lights Tourist Destination, but with its Northern Region at the same latitude as Norway and Alaska, it has a great position for some cool Aurora pics against the Highland background. October to March seems to be the prime viewing season.
One location is the Isle of Skye with nine Dark Sky Discovery Sites and a whole lot of local legend. Another that seems to top many lists is Orkney and Caithness, likely due to their Northern location. Shetland and Inverness are also great places to visit. Shetland hosts the Up Helly Aa fire festival during the winter and the average temperature dips ever so slightly below freezing. Seafood lovers will love Shetland with mackerel, haddock, cod, herring, whiting, monkfish and shellfish caught just off shore and it is home to Valhalla Brewery, the most Northern brewery in the UK. It’s also home to numerous rare sea birds, but very little other wild fauna, though is of course home to the Shetland pony. Shetland was also named in 2010 by Lonely Planet as the sixth best region in the world for tourists seeking unspoiled destinations and as such, is a popular stop on many cruises.
Unlike other spots on this list where one might go to see the Northern Lights and fill the rest of the time with other activities, Scotland you go for the activities and if the conditions are just right, you might see some dancing.
Tips for Optimal Viewing
1. Plan your trip with several days in the viewing location. The lights can be fickle and there’s no guarantee they’re viewable on a particular trip/tour.
2. If you’re booking a viewing guided tour, try to choose one that offers you the chance to take the trip again in the event of no lights. Your Travel Professional (hey, that's me!) can help you with this.
3. Dress warm. The best places to view the lights are in cold regions. The best time of year to view them are the winter months, and the colder the night, the better the display, so bundle up. Many of these viewing locations can get to -40°C, or, in places like Iceland with warmer temperatures, bitter cold winds. Plus the weather can often be unpredictable as the night goes on. (Side note, one source stated temperature doesn’t actually produce better displays, so I guess…take colder = better with a slight grain of salt?)
4. Photographing the lights can be tricky, but one of the best tips is to use a tripod while setting your camera to long exposure.
5. Choose a viewing location with minimal light pollution. Consider getting out from the city.
6. Go North – and then go North a bit more. The closer you get to the magnetic poles, the better your chances are for viewing.
7. Download an alert app. Here in Edmonton I use the website Aurora Watch which sends me emails (usually at 2am when I’m sleeping) to notify me of high light activity. But there are other websites and apps that will help you with predicting for the area you’re traveling to.
8. Pack a butt load of patience in your suitcase. Even with prediction apps, the lights are a fickle thing and there are never any guarantees. I took my family to Iceland during March and during our 5 days we saw nothing (were the skies too cloudy? Did we go to bed too early? Were there no solar storms? One can never really know). So be patient with the world and kind with yourself if you walk away Aurora-less. There are a number of factors that contribute to perfect viewing conditions and luck just happens to be one of them.