The best places to see a miracle: Chasing the Northern Lights
I was 31 when I traveled to Norway for the first time. I felt that I needed some chill after visiting lots of crowded cities, Mediterranean and Far Eastern destinations. Maybe this is the stage in someone’s life when they’re prepared to visit the frozen north, where snow and ice cover everything.
It’s the perfect place to slow down and evaluate your life while treading the snow in the shadows of ancient rocks.
Religious Jews wear the kippah because when they put it on, they feel like the sky of God covers them, providing shelter and spiritual safety. When I got my first glimpse of the Aurora Borealis at the age of 31, the following thoughts came into my mind: finite and infinite met, and the sky is telling stories above my head about old heroes and forgotten gods. They are there, flickering in the background like stars, while we are sitting under the colorful dance of the lights. Although these moments make you feel very tiny, it is a truly uplifting experience. Maybe that’s the reason why everyone who has experienced this unmatchable, wonderful phenomenon wants to see it again and again.
What is Aurora Borealis?
Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights have been admired by people for thousands of years, but it became a real tourist attraction only during the last few decades.
According to the scientific explanation, this temporary light phenomenon is caused by charged particles penetrating into our atmosphere near the North Pole. The particles originate mainly from solar winds, and most of them are hijacked by the magnetosphere. However, around the magnetic poles these charged particles can get into the atmosphere, and the precipitating particles cause a spectacular light phenomenon.
Of course, the above explanation is not nearly as exciting as another one, which states that the Northern Lights are the embodiments of spirits wanting to get in touch with their loved ones on Earth from the distance. The approach of the Inuit is not as romantic, although pretty interesting. They say that the lights occur when the spirits of the dead play a spiritual ball game with the skull of a walrus.
It’s up to you to decide which explanation to accept. Personally I can relate to the approach of the Cree tribe, who believe that the Aurora is a part of the circle of life.
The Aurora occurs in the altitude of 50-600 miles, but most often it can be observed at around 60 miles. Its shape varies constantly, and often resembles a curtain or some curvy ribbons.
When can you see it?
Northern Lights can be observed from late fall until early spring, not constantly though, because it depends on the activity of charged particles. The most amazing part is how it forms itself: sometimes it just cuts through the starry night sky suddenly, like an elongated spear.
Centuries ago, when light pollution was not as significant as it is today, Northern Lights could be seen at lower latitude regions as well. However, if you want to experience this unique phenomenon these days, you’ll have to travel to the northern parts of Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Alaska, Canada or Greenland.
In case of strong solar activity and magnetic storms, the phenomenon is still observable in lower latitudes, but you shouldn’t count on that. Real, adventurous tourists don’t wait for this, but pack their things and travel to the North.
Chasing the Northern Lights: How to plan a trip?
If you’re planning to go on an Aurora viewing trip, your first task will be to decide in which season you want to go. Summer is out of the question, because these lights can only be seen in dark, and the amount of dark hours is very low in the Summer in the auroral zone.
Perpetual daylight it’s not ideal for Aurora viewing, you’ll just probably end up going home tired and disappointed.
Darkness is not the only prerequisite of Aurora viewing. Having a clear sky is also necessary, and your best chance for that is in Winter and Spring. Fall is risky in this case, so ideally you shouldn’t plan on going then.
The best part of the year for some hunting is between December and April, particularly at new moon. Of course you should do some research before, as things are not set in stone in the case of Northern Lights: According to Norway Lights for example, the most active months in Norway are March, April, September and October. However, the latter two won’t help you if you can’t see anything from the clouds.
What to consider when you’re already there?
First of all: dress up warm, because starry nights can be cold, and the Aurora can be seen most often between 10 PM and 2 AM. The active period of the phenomenon is generally around 30 minutes.
4 places for Aurora viewing
This is my choice of viewing location, and according to general consensus, it’s the best place of all for viewing Northern Lights. It’s located in Finnmark county, and is one of the Northernmost cities in the world, populated by around 10,000 people. The yearly average temperature is around 2 degrees Celsius, which is considered really warm in such Northern regions.
The flickering lights of the city don’t pollute the night sky, so visitors can enjoy the Aurora while the chilly wind brings them the scents of fresh sea.
I traveled to Hammerfest from Oslo by train, and as I was able to reserve my tickets soon enough, it wasn’t so expensive. In exchange I could enjoy the rattling of the train at night. While watching the lights you can taste some Norwegian beer, which is surprisingly good, or you can drink some specialty hot drink to warm up your shivering body.
I visited Luosto two years after Hammerfest to soothe my thirst for Northern Lights, and it didn’t disappoint me. The small town located in Pyhä-Luosto National Park is a real miracle of Lapland, where Aurora can be seen in its full glory, up to 200 times a year.
This area is very special, as it’s almost fully intact. The only way to get around is by using a snowmobile. At the lodges there are special, so-called “aurora alarm” devices installed, which will warn you every time a light phenomenon appears in the sky.
Specifically the capital city Reykjavík, which provides a perfect view of this miracle when the sky is clear. If you are lucky, you don’t even have to leave your hotel room to see the greenish-blueish ribbons in the sky, as they can be seen even from your balcony.
Denali National Park, Alaska
Getting to Alaska is a milestone in the life of every human being, and you can relate to that even as an American citizen. During my travels a lot of people told me that Alaska was on their bucket list, and that their dream was to see the unspoiled nature which we have seen in hundreds of movies, with snow covered peaks and of course the Yukon river.
Denali National Park is located around 90 miles from Fairbanks, and being so far away from the city lights, you have a good chance of seeing Aurora even in the Fall. The season starts in August already, so shivering in cold winter nights can be avoided. Another benefit of the National Park is that although it’s located far away from the city, it’s still easily accessible.
This place is not visited by the average tourist very often because of its remote location, but you can easily get there from Fairbanks for some carefree sky gazing, without anything to bother you.