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Best Places to See the Northern Lights

Want to see the Northern Lights? Here are the best places to go.

The ethereal dance of the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, has captivated humanity for centuries. For those seeking to witness this celestial spectacle in all its glory, 2023 promises to be an exceptional year. In this guide, we’ll explore not only how to see the Northern Lights but also why this year is anticipated to be particularly mesmerizing.

Getting to photograph the Northern Lights has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. There’s something truly magical about it, and seeing photos of them always puts me in a dreamy mood. It’s been on our bucket list, and I’m sure it is on many of yours, too. Am I right?

How to See the Northern Lights + Tips from Our Iceland Trip //

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Last Updated: November 28, 2023

What Causes the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, are a natural light display that occurs in the polar regions of the Earth. The phenomenon is caused by interactions between charged particles from the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere. Here’s a breakdown of the key factors that contribute to the formation of the Northern Lights:

  1. Solar Wind:
    • The Sun constantly emits a stream of charged particles, primarily electrons and protons, known as the solar wind.
    • During periods of increased solar activity, such as solar flares or coronal mass ejections (CMEs), the intensity of the solar wind can be heightened.
  2. Earth’s Magnetic Field:
    • The Earth has a protective magnetic field that extends into space. The magnetic field is strongest at the poles and weaker at the equator.
    • When the charged particles from the solar wind are carried towards Earth, they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field.
  3. Magnetosphere:
    • As the solar wind approaches Earth, it encounters the magnetosphere, a region of space around the planet dominated by its magnetic field.
    • The Earth’s magnetic field deflects and channels the charged particles toward the polar regions, creating an oval-shaped region known as the auroral oval around the magnetic poles.
  4. Ionization and Excitation:
    • When the charged particles from the solar wind collide with the gas molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, such as oxygen and nitrogen, they transfer energy to these molecules.
    • This energy transfer results in the ionization and excitation of the atmospheric particles. In simple terms, electrons in the atoms of the atmosphere are temporarily boosted to higher energy levels.
  5. Return to Lower Energy State:
    • After being energized, the electrons in the atmospheric particles return to their lower energy state. As they do so, they release the excess energy in the form of light.
  6. Visible Light:
    • The colors of the Northern Lights depend on the type of gas molecules involved and their altitude in the atmosphere. Oxygen at higher altitudes can produce red and green hues, while nitrogen can create purples, pinks, and blues.
  7. Variability:
    • The appearance and intensity of the Northern Lights are influenced by factors such as the type and energy of the charged particles, the strength of the solar wind, and the Earth’s magnetic activity.

The Southern Lights, or Aurora Australis, occur in a similar manner but are visible in the southern polar regions around the Antarctic Circle. Overall, the Northern Lights are a stunning example of the dynamic interplay between the Sun, Earth’s magnetic field, and the Earth’s atmosphere.

How to See the Northern Lights in Iceland //

How to See the Northern Lights

Before embarking on your Aurora Borealis adventure, it’s crucial to understand the conditions that favor their appearance. Optimal viewing times are during the winter months when nights are longest and skies are darkest. Choose locations far from city lights, and keep an eye on solar activity, as increased solar flares enhance the chances of a stunning display.

See More: How to Catch the Northern Lights

Why 2023/2024 Will be Exceptional

Astronomers predict heightened solar activity in 2023/2024, resulting in more vivid and frequent Northern Lights displays. The sun goes through an 11-year cycle, and we are currently approaching the peak of solar cycle 25, making this an opportune time for aurora enthusiasts.

The 17 Best Places to See the Northern Lights

1. Fairbanks, Alaska

Nestled in the heart of Alaska, Fairbanks is renowned for its stunning winter landscapes and clear night skies. Fairbanks offers minimal light pollution, making it an ideal location to witness the vibrant Northern Lights against a pristine Arctic backdrop.

Tips: Head to locations like Chena Hot Springs or Murphy Dome for unobstructed views.
Places to watch from: Chena Hot Springs, Murphy Dome.

2. Tromso, Norway

Situated in the Arctic Circle, Tromso is a vibrant city surrounded by fjords and mountains, providing a picturesque setting for aurora viewing. Its location in the auroral oval ensures frequent and intense Northern Lights displays.

Tips: Take a Northern Lights cruise for a unique perspective.
Places to watch from: Tromsøya Island, Ersfjord.

3. Lapland, Finland

Lapland, located in the northern part of Finland, is a winter wonderland with vast snow-covered landscapes and traditional Finnish culture. Lapland combines wilderness with cultural experiences, providing a unique Northern Lights adventure.

Tips: Stay in a glass igloo for an immersive experience.
Places to watch from: Levi, Saariselkä, Nellim.

4. Orkney, Scotland

Orkney, an archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland, is known for its historic sites and rugged coastal scenery. Being closer to the magnetic pole increases the likelihood of aurora sightings.

Tips: Visit during the equinox for extended hours of darkness. Head to Yesnaby Cliffs or Scapa Flow.
Places to watch from: Yesnaby Cliffs, Scapa Flow.

5. Yellowknife, Canada

Yellowknife, located in Canada’s Northwest Territories, is a city surrounded by pristine wilderness and numerous lakes. Clear skies and minimal light pollution make Yellowknife an excellent location for Northern Lights viewing.

Tips: Take a tour to the Aurora Village for optimal viewing.
Places to watch from: Prelude Lake, Prosperous Lake.

6. Churchill Canada

Known as the “Polar Bear Capital,” Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, offers a unique Arctic experience. Along with polar bear sightings, Churchill provides a great opportunity to witness the Northern Lights.

Tips: Combine polar bear and Northern Lights viewing for an unforgettable adventure.
Places to watch from: Hudson Bay, Fort Prince of Wales.

7. Whitehorse, Canada

Whitehorse is the capital of Canada’s Yukon Territory, surrounded by wilderness and characterized by its mountainous landscapes. Proximity to the magnetic pole enhances the visibility of the Northern Lights.

Tips: Explore the nearby Yukon wilderness during the day.
Places to watch from: Miles Canyon, Fish Lake.

8. Jukkasjarvi, Sweden

Jukkasjarvi is a small village in northern Sweden, known for its famous Icehotel and stunning winter scenery. Its northern location ensures frequent aurora displays.

Tips: Stay in the Icehotel for a unique Arctic experience. Head to Lake Torneträsk or Abisko National Park too.
Places to watch from: Lake Torneträsk, Abisko National Park.

9. Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, is a city surrounded by otherworldly landscapes, including geysers, waterfalls, and glaciers. Geographically ideal for Northern Lights visibility, offering a combination of natural wonders.

Tips: Head to Thingvellir National Park for a unique aurora experience.
Places to watch from: Grotta Lighthouse, Thingvellir National Park.

10. Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

Kangerlussuaq is a town in western Greenland, known for its stunning fjords and Arctic wilderness. Minimal light pollution and a prime location in the auroral zone make it ideal for Northern Lights viewing.

Tips: Take advantage of dog sledding tours for a unique Arctic experience.
Places to watch from: Russell Glacier, Kellyville.

11. Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Michigan

Headlands International Dark Sky Park is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, offering a designated area for stargazing and Northern Lights viewing. Designated as an International Dark Sky Park, minimizing light pollution provides optimal conditions for aurora visibility.

Tips: Attend organized stargazing events for an educational experience. Dress warmly, as temperatures can drop significantly during winter.
Places to watch from: Lake Michigan Overlook, McGulpin Point Lighthouse.

12. Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania

Cherry Springs State Park is a remote park in Pennsylvania known for its exceptionally dark skies, making it a haven for astronomers and aurora enthusiasts. Recognized for its dark skies, they minimize light pollution and enhance Northern Lights visibility.

Tips: Bring warm clothing, as temperatures can be cold during winter.
Places to watch from: Night Sky Viewing Area, Patterson State Park.

13. Saadjarv, Estonia

Saadjarv is a lake in Estonia, providing a tranquil setting for Northern Lights viewing in Northern Europe. It offers a unique European location for aurora viewing, away from urban light pollution.

Tips: Explore the charming medieval town of Tallinn during the day.
Places to watch from: Lake Saadjarv, Lahemaa National Park.

14. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Voyageurs National Park is situated in northern Minnesota and is known for its interconnected waterways and pristine wilderness. The park’s remote location minimizes light pollution, providing a clear view of the Northern Lights.

Tips: Combine Northern Lights viewing with winter activities like snowshoeing.
Places to watch from: Rainy Lake, Kabetogama Lake.

15. Abisko National Park, Sweden

Abisko National Park, located in the Swedish Lapland, is known for its stunning landscapes and the “Blue Hole,” a microclimate that often keeps skies clear. The “Blue Hole” increases the chances of clear skies, offering ideal conditions for Northern Lights viewing.

Tips: Visit the Aurora Sky Station for an elevated viewing experience. Dress warmly for the Arctic climate.
Places to watch from: Abiskojaure, Lake Torneträsk.

16. Nellim, Finland

Nellim is a small village in northern Finland, providing a peaceful and authentic setting for experiencing the Northern Lights. Away from major cities, Nellim offers a serene environment with excellent Northern Lights visibility.

Tips: Stay in a traditional Finnish log cabin for an authentic experience.
Places to watch from: Lake Inari, Nellim village.

17. Faroe Islands, Denmark

The Faroe Islands, an autonomous territory of Denmark, are a group of islands in the North Atlantic, known for their dramatic landscapes and coastal cliffs. Strategically located between Iceland and Norway, it offers a unique vantage point for the Northern Lights.

Tips: Explore the islands’ dramatic landscapes and coastal cliffs during the day. Visit during the winter months.
Places to watch from: Tórshavn, Gásadalur.

Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights

  • Plan your trip during the peak season: The best time to see the Northern Lights is from September to April, when the nights are long and dark.
  • Check aurora forecast apps: There are several apps that can help you track the aurora activity and predict the likelihood of seeing the lights. Some popular apps include Aurora Forecast, My Aurora Forecast, and Aurora Watch.
  • Travel to a dark sky location: The aurora is best seen in areas with minimal light pollution. Look for a location away from cities and towns, preferably in a national park or remote area.
  • Get away from the horizon: The lower the horizon, the more light pollution you’ll experience. Look for a location that allows you to see as much of the sky as possible.
  • Pack warm clothing: Even if it’s summer in the Arctic, the nights can be very cold. Bring layers of warm clothing, including a hat, scarf, gloves, and boots.
  • Be patient: The aurora can be unpredictable, and it may take some time to see them. Be patient and keep looking up!

Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights

  • Use a DSLR or mirrorless camera: A DSLR or mirrorless camera is essential for capturing the Northern Lights. These cameras give you more control over your settings, which is crucial for photographing this elusive phenomenon.
  • Set your camera to manual mode: In manual mode, you have complete control over the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings. This is important for capturing the Northern Lights, as their brightness can vary greatly.
  • Set your aperture to f/2.8 or wider: A wide aperture allows more light into the camera, which is essential for capturing the Northern Lights.
  • Adjust your shutter speed based on the aurora’s activity: If the aurora is active, you can use a faster shutter speed to freeze the movement of the auroral curtains. If the aurora is fainter, you may need to use a slower shutter speed to allow more light in.
  • Raise your ISO: The ISO setting controls the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light. Raising the ISO will allow you to take longer exposures without sacrificing brightness.
  • Use a tripod: A tripod is essential for stabilizing your camera, especially when using longer shutter speeds.
  • Focus to infinity: The Northern Lights are so far away that you’ll need to focus your camera to infinity to get them in focus.
  • Use long exposures: The Northern Lights are best captured with long exposures, typically between 5 and 30 seconds. This will allow the aurora’s movement to be captured.
  • Experiment with different compositions: There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to composing a photo of the Northern Lights. Experiment with different angles and framing to create unique and striking images.
  • Use a remote shutter release: A remote shutter release will help to prevent camera shake when taking long exposures.
  • Protect your camera from the cold: The cold can damage your camera’s battery and sensor. Bring a camera bag with a fleece lining to keep your camera warm.
  • Be patient: The Northern Lights can be unpredictable, and it may take some time to see them. Be patient, keep shooting, and you’re sure to capture some stunning images.

Planning Checklist

Is seeing the Northern Lights on your bucket list? What’s something you plan on checking off your list next?

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“Discovery consists not of seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes” – M. Proust

Esther and JacobPin

Esther + Jacob

Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, one of the top 5 travel blogs in the US. They believe that adventure can be found near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They explore a new city in depth every year and currently base themselves in Las Vegas.

Follow on Instagram (E + J), YouTube, TikTok, and Pinterest.

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