Best Places to See the Northern Lights
Find out where to witness the aurora borealis, with reindeer sleigh rides, ice hotels and hot springs included
At Finland’s Kakslauttanen Resort, you don’t even need to get out of bed to catch the northern lights. Gaze up through your glass-domed igloo, and you’ll drift off to sleep as emerald green, fuchsia and indigo streaks light up the night sky.
North of the Arctic Circle in the vast Finnish Lapland, surrounded by towering pines, it's a surreally beautiful place to experience the aurora borealis, which has been confounding and delighting observers for centuries. Towns across Scandinavia, Alaska and Canada market the lights as the main attraction, offering experiences for adventurers and luxury travelers alike. It's so ingrained in Norwegian culture that the government opted to add the neon lights to its passports by way of a black light feature.
Before the scientific cause of the lights—charged particles from the sun colliding with atoms in Earth’s atmosphere—was understood, local legends provided all sorts of creative explanations. The Inuit people of Greenland, for one, believed the lights came from spirits of ancestors playing soccer with the skull of a walrus. These days, you can rough it like a musher in Greenland, staying in hunting cabins and tending to the dogs, all while hunting the aurora on World of Greenland’s three-day dogsled expedition in Kangerlussuaq.
In Churchill, Canada, you can watch the lights dance over a family of polar bears from the comfort of your mobile sleeper car. There's even a chance to see the northern lights in the continental U.S.: Pennsylvania's Cherry Springs State Park reports a handful of sightings each year and holds the highest designation given to a dark sky site, from the International Dark-Sky Association, meaning that light pollution in the area is minimal and the full array of sky phenomena (the aurora, faint meteors, zodiacal light) can be seen clearly from the park.
If this is the year you vow to see nature's light show for yourself, set your sights on these eight destinations.
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Want to enjoy your light show with a soundtrack? Turn up in Tromsø for the annual Northern Lights Festival (in 2018, January 27–February 4). The nine-day celebration features more than 40 jazz, classical, dance, and electronic performances, with some events taking place outside, potentially under the aurora borealis. Stop in Emma's Restaurant to refuel on fresh fish and local delicacies like reindeer meat, then make your way to the planetarium for some perspective on the science behind the lights. Tromsø is just north of the Arctic Circle, near the magnetic north pole, so it sees the lights regularly between October and mid-March.
Every year, about 100 artisans meticulously create the Icehotel structure anew, using ice harvested from the Torne River in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle. Guests choose from a simple snow or ice room, a suite with intricate carvings, or the Northern Lights suite, complete with a light installation mimicking the natural wonder. When you're ready for the real thing, set out on the hotel's northern lights horseback tour or plan an excursion to the nearby Aurora Sky Station in Abisko (open November 30 through March 30). Located 900 meters above sea level, the station experiences little light or noise pollution—optimal conditions for viewing the northern lights. Ascend via chairlift, and indulge in a four-course meal before a guided tour and an evening of sky-watching.
The bitter cold that often comes with witnessing the northern lights can be a real deterrent. Enter Chena Hot Springs Resort, with its warm, mineral-rich healing waters. The resort's adults-only Rock Lake offers the opportunity to enjoy a light show along with a soak. Fairbanks lies directly beneath a band of aurora activity, meaning from August to May, the town regularly experiences a celestial display of green, yellow, and purple. The phenomenon is most frequently seen between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., but the early-to-bed crowd need not worry. Guests staying in Moose Lodge rooms can request to receive a phone call when the aurora is spotted in the sky.
The northern lights make an appearance over Finland about 200 nights per year. Doze off watching the dancing display from within a glass igloo at romantic Kakslauttanen Resort, 155 miles north of the Arctic Circle. And the next night, hunt for the aurora on a reindeer-drawn sleigh ride through the surrounding wilderness. In addition to two- and four-person igloos, accommodations also include a nearly century-old traditional log house with its own sauna. Hotel Iso-Syöte, on Finland's southernmost mountain, is slightly more accessible and offers a similar glass-roofed experience in the Eagle's View suite, along with snowshoeing, ice fishing and overnight stays in traditional snow igloos outfitted with reindeer pelts and specially designed sleeping bags.
With minimal light pollution and near-perfect visibility in some places, Greenland provides exceptional odds for viewing milky-green lights. A three- or four-night stay during the aurora season (September to the beginning of April) practically guarantees a sighting. Settle into the Hotel Arctic's igloos on the edge of the Ilulissat Icefjord; double rooms are outfitted with electric heating, TVs and a small bathroom, with skylights and expansive front windows so that you can soak up the night sky from your bed. If roughing it is more your style, plan a trip to Kangerlussuaq. This former U.S. military base near the airport counts northern lights sightings 300 nights per year and serves as one end of the popular three-day World of Greenland dogsled expedition. Participants sleep in hunting cabins, take care of the dogs and experience the wilderness firsthand.
From August to mid-April, the northern lights swirl across the sky above Canada’s Yukon Territory. Depending on cloud conditions, light pollution and the night's auroral activity, you could spend hours watching the neon shades of green and yellow. Learn about the science—and folklore—surrounding the colors at the Northern Lights Centre in Watson Lake. And follow your night out in the cold with a day of pampering (dry-brush massage, aromatherapy session) at the Northern Lights Resort and Spa in Whitehorse.
In Scotland, the northern lights go by a decidedly more British name: the Merry Dancers. They can be seen across the U.K. in the autumn and winter months (and as far south as England’s Kent and East Anglia). But the best bet is to head for the northernmost parts of the Highlands or the Shetland Islands in January. Book a room at Sumburgh Head, a restored Shetland lighthouse overlooking a puffin nesting area on the Atlantic, or venture to the Isle of Lewis to see the display above an ancient man-made wonder: the Callanish Standing Stones, a circular formation of rocks thought to have been erected as early as 2900 B.C. Before you go, sign up for the AuroraWatch UK text alerts about viewing conditions, so you never miss a sighting.
Polar bears have planted the Manitoba town of Churchill on the tourist map—it’s the easiest place to access that guarantees sightings. But it’s also a terrific spot for viewing the northern lights, as it experiences aurora activity more than 300 nights per year. Book a learning vacation at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre to study astronomy and northern lights photography. Or reserve a room at the NHA’s rolling sleeper-train Tundra Lodge for unparalleled proximity to bears in their natural habitat coupled with a chance to see the lights.
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