Who doesn’t dream of seeing the northern lights? According to a new survey conducted by Hilton, 59% of Americans are planning a bucket list vacation they wouldn’t have considered before the pandemic. And one of the most wish-listed experiences is to see a dazzling display of the aurora borealis (as the northern lights are also called). This is right in line with a Euronews trend report on the rise in conscious travel, with travelers looking for trips that fuel personal enlightenment and help them connect with nature. Right at the top of the list: celestial escapes. “These days people are looking for escapes, and looking at the stars is a window into other worlds,” writes Tom Marchant, cofounder of Black Tomato.
Lucky for stargazers, there has been an uptick in northern lights sightings over the past couple of years, which experts say is the result of increased solar activity like sunspots—and is expected to keep increasing.
“Our local star, the Sun, is changing with time by increasing and decreasing its magnetic activity every 11 years,” Dr. Stella Kafka, the CEO and executive director of the American Association of Variable Stars Observers (AAVSO). “When solar activity increases and the number of sunspots increase, the Sun releases high-energy particles that penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere and interact with the oxygen and nitrogen in our atmosphere, resulting in beautiful auroras or northern lights.”
According to Kafka, we are at the beginning of a new solar cycle, so the frequency of aurora viewings will continue to increase. Where should you go for the best northern lights spotting? “Auroras are more frequent close to the Earth’s northern and southern magnetic poles,” says Kafka. “For the northern hemisphere, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Scotland, Iceland, Canada and Alaska are prime destinations,” she says. “The skies are dark, the nature is breathtaking and they are near the magnetic poles.”
Here’s some good news, given that international travel is so challenging during the pandemic: You don’t have to go to the far northern latitudes in Europe or Canada, since it’s also possible to see the northern lights in the continental United States. “In the case of extreme solar events, auroras can be detected in the middle of the U.S.,” says Kafka.
Some more good news for people in search of the northern lights: You don’t have to wait until the dead of winter for the light displays to start. Typically, December through March is the best time to observe this elusive natural phenomenon, but depending on where you are in the world, you can sometimes see the northern lights starting as early as August. And they can be predicted, says Kafka: “The site Aurora Alerts provides aurora forecast up to three days in advance.”
Dreaming of an incredible northern lights viewing experience in 2021? I reported on some amazing ways to see the northern lights in 2020. This year, I’ve got 17 incredible ways to see the northern lights—from the unexpected to the truly out of this world.
And a note: If you’re planning to take a trip to any of the places on this list, you should be aware that travel during the pandemic might be restricted or challenging in some of these locations. You should always check the regulations for wherever you’re headed and take precautions to protect yourself and others.
THE BEST NORTHERN LIGHTS IN EUROPE
Become a Northern Lights Chaser in Iceland
Want to add a bucket list experience to your resume? You can become an official “Lights Chaser” at the Hotel Rangá, a luxurious lodge on Iceland’s South Coast. This hotel is already known as one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights and even offers wake-up calls for its guests when the lights are spotted in the sky. Now the hotel is taking things to the next level: It has created a dream job where one lucky photographer will be able to spend a month chasing the northern lights. The hotel’s Lights Chaser will get free room and board, a flight to and from Iceland, as well as access to the hotel’s sister property in the Highlands. In exchange, you just need to work the night shift and capture photos of this spectacular natural phenomenon. Not a bad gig. But hurry: The deadline to apply is the end of August.
Sail Under the Northern Lights in Norway
Say “om.” Vulkana, a former fishing and whaling boat, has been transformed into an Arctic spa that’s an oasis for tranquility, contemplation and northern lights viewing. You’ll find a sauna, hammam, saltwater tub, cold water pool, zen lounge, bar and a restaurant. Located in Tromsø, the largest city in northern Norway, Vulkana offers a span of adventures including midnight bathing under the northern lights, evenings with James Bond-inspired cocktails, small group fjord cruises and wintertime ski-by-boat cruises.
Photograph the Northern Lights in Norway
Perched on the edge of a remote island in Norway, Hamn I Senja has magical views of the lights. But what makes this place unique is its photography tour, offered from September to April. The organizers will do everything they can to make sure you get the perfect shot, including taking you to the best spots to photograph the auroras. If it’s cloudy by the coast, they’ll move inland to have better chances of spotting the lights. They’ll also set you up with a tripod and lessons to help you get shots that will blow up your Instagram feed.
Witness the Northern Lights in an Eco Lodge in Lapland
Finnish Lapland is not only home to more reindeer than people, it’s also the ideal setting for escaping into the wilderness to view the northern lights. The place to go: the new Ollero Eco lodge, set right by the Ounasjoki river. An eco-friendly retreat, this family-owned hotel has a main cottage, a glass igloo that floats in the water and a sleeper cabin. Besides watching the dazzling display of lights, Ollero Eco Lodge is a great place to go ice fishing, snowshoeing and to experience a traditional Finnish sauna in an off-the-grid wilderness setting.
Float Under the Northern Lights in Lapland
Here’s another way to experience the northern lights in Lapland. Located in the small town of Ranua, the Arctic Guesthouse & Igloos has a new kind of accommodation that is well suited for year-round stays: 10 fully movable igloos. Unlike regular igloos that are aimed at winter northern lights hunting, these spaces can be moved throughout the year to a setting that that is ideal for the season. In winter they can be pulled on ice and snow with snowmobiles or ATVs. In summer, they float on top of the water and move around the lake with their own electric engines.
THE BEST NORTHERN LIGHTS IN GREENLAND
Behold the Northern Lights from a Glacier in Greenland
Though it’s geographically part of North America, Greenland is politically part of Europe—and it’s a particularly good place to see the northern lights, since the country has hundreds of clear sky nights every year. Plus, all the small towns and settlements keep light pollution to a minimum. One of the best viewing locations is the 37-mile-long Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO-protected site and the fastest-moving glacier in the world. This summer, the architecturally stunning Ilulissat Icefjord Centre opened, giving people an exciting new reason to visit Greenland. The project was funded by three entities that established a partnership to raise awareness about this unique location: the Danish philanthropic association Realdania, the Government of Greenland and Avannaata Municipality. Together, they erected a visitor’s center that would match this spectacular setting and teach people about the natural and cultural history of the area. Spend the night in the nearby Ilimanaq settlement, where you’ll find 15 new tourist chalets that are part of Realdania By & Byg’s portfolio of properties with special architectural or historic interest.
THE BEST NORTHERN LIGHTS IN CANADA
Glamp Under the Northern Lights on Elk Island
Alberta is a northern lights spotter’s dream, thanks to some of the world’s largest dark sky preserves and an epic location under the aurora circle. Get ready to be amazed at the Geo Domes at Elk Island, a new glamping retreat near Edmonton that has geodesic domes where nature meets comfort. Stay up after midnight, turn off your phones and check out one of the most magnificent shows on earth.
Go Tree Camping Under the Northern Lights in Alberta
Here’s another new new Alberta glamping adventure that offers a front-row seat to this bucket list experience: the new Island Glamping trip with Urban River Adventures. Here, aurora chasers can spend the night in a Tree Tent Camp near the North Saskatchewan River and take northern lights viewing to new heights.
Stay in a Glass-Fronted Chalet With Northern Lights Views in the Yukon
When you’re staying at a place with a name like the Northern Lights Resort & Spa, you know you’re going to get some great spotting. And that’s definitely the case at this rural family-run hotel in the picturesque Yukon River Valle. The property is located in an open setting that allows unobscured views of the northern lights. It also has three new glass-fronted chalets that were purpose built with aurora viewing in mind. Watch the colorful sky from your cozy warm bed with a fire going in your room’s own fireplace.
THE BEST NORTHERN LIGHTS IN THE UNITED STATES
Sleep in a Log Cabin Under the Northern Lights in Alaska
Hands down, Alaska is the best place to see the northern lights in the United States, thanks to its geographic location and dark skies. Ground zero for celestial wonders: Fairbanks, which is located right under the aurora oval. In Fairbanks, the optimum season for viewing the northern lights lasts from mid-August to mid-April, and it doesn’t get any better than the Aurora Borealis Lodge, which has several accommodations, including a log-cabin chalet. The property offers aurora viewing tours between 10:30 p.m. and 2 a.m., when the lights tend to be the most active.
Ride a Train Under the Northern Lights in Alaska
There’s something about riding a train that’s magical—even more so when you’re spotting the northern lights overhead in the Last Frontier. Alaska Railroad runs an Aurora Winter Train that travels on weekends between Anchorage and Fairbanks (a 12-hour journey each way), as well as select mid-week departures. Passengers can enjoy the striking views from the comfort of a warm railcar with large picture windows. Want to increase your chances of seeing the lights? Book a package with Vacation by Rail, which includes the train journey, a stay at Bettles Lodge (an aurora spotter’s dream spot located just past the Arctic Circle) and several other stunning stops.
View the Northern Lights in a Dark Sky Park in Michigan
Many people think you need to go to a freezing cold place to see the northern lights, but that’s not the case in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is one of the best aurora-spotting places in the United States, with the ideal time to go being the fall and spring. Ground zero: Headlands International Dark Sky Park, near Mackinaw City. This park was one of the world’s first dark sky parks, with 550 vast acres, two miles of undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline and very little light pollution. Want to do some overnight viewing? You can rent a house right in the park.
Canoe Under the Northern Lights in Minnesota
Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes—and 10,000 northern light spotting opportunities. According to experts, lakes enhance aurora borealis viewing. So it’s no surprise that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—a vast area of protected land in northern Minnesota that’s home to over 1,100 of the world’s purest lakes—was recently named the state’s first Dark Sky Sanctuary and is often the setting for magical northern lights displays. Here, you can go camping and canoeing and watch the colorful skies reflecting off the water in this one million-acre wilderness.
Ride a Chairlift Under the Northern Lights in Idaho
Idaho’s geography and lack of light pollution help set the scene for northern lights appearances. In fact, Idaho is home to the very first International Dark Sky Reserve in the country. Want to see the northern lights? Spotting isn’t guaranteed, but you’ll have a good shot at Schweitzer Mountain Resort. When the northern lights are dancing in the sky, the resort will take you up to the top of the ski lift to see the colorful display casting a glow over the surrounding mountains.
Spot the Northern Lights at an Adventure Resort in Maine
If you’ve ever spent the night in Maine, you know that this is the land of starry skies. Want to have a good chance at doing some aurora spotting? The place to go is the New England Outdoor Center (NEOC), an adventure resort that has pine cabins, bunkhouses and tents for rent, plus an excellent outdoor center with everything from mountain biking to snowmobiling. If you are up after dark, check out NEOC’s StarCam to see if there is any action in the late evening sky.
Stay in an Astro Cabin Under the Northern Lights in Pennsylvania
Fun fact: The northern lights have been spotted as far south as Pennsylvania. It’s a rare event, but to get your best shot at experiencing it, the location to check out is Cherry Springs State Park, which is consistently rated one of the best places in the world for stargazing. This designated Dark Sky Reserve offers guided star tours and photography workshops that will help you learn how to get a great shot of the northern lights. You can go camping in the park or do some astro-glamping in one of the park’s Astro Cabins, which have their own private Star Gazing Fields.
View the Northern Lights in Washington D.C.
Can’t get to any of the above spots? Starting this fall, you’ll be guaranteed northern lights spotting at The Ven at Embassy Row, a new hotel in Washington’s D.C.’s Dupont Circle. Northern lights in D.C., you ask? The hotel is launching a digital northern lights installation and guided meditation that will transport guests to a place far far away, under the beautiful aurora-filled skies. Sure, it’s not the real thing, but it’ll definitely get you inspired to plan a vacation to see the real lights in person very soon.
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