Best Places to See the Northern Lights

Amazing aurora borealis

Photo: Finnish Tourist Board [CC BY 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

One of nature's most spectacular phenomena is the aurora borealis, colloquially referred to as the northern lights. Caused by geomagnetic storms in the outer sections of the Earth's atmosphere, these amazing light shows are most visible in the autumn and winter when the Northern Hemisphere's nights are at their longest. Many people would not even be aware of these nature-made fireworks if not for the pictures sometimes published on the internet and in glossy magazines like National Geographic. These photographs are usually taken north of the Arctic Circle, where the northern lights are at their brightest.

Depending on conditions and visibility (not to mention where the sun is in an 11-year cycle), the aurora borealis can be seen as far south as the northern contiguous United States. Sightings are not guaranteed, however, and even aurora-seekers in places like Maine and Michigan's Upper Peninsula can go a year or longer without seeing the even faintest glow in the northern sky. Around the world, other hot spots like northern Scandinavia and Greenland draw serious aurora-seekers because of their consistently clear skies and the brightness of the lights.

Scandinavia

Photo: Carsten [CC BY 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Scandinavia is arguably the best place in the world to see the aurora borealis. During the colder months of the year, many tourists head to this section of the world to appreciate the colorful lights show. Serious aurora-seekers have been known to drive across borders (from Norway to Finland, for example) to find cloudless conditions.

Areas near the Arctic Circle in northern Norway (pictured), Finland and Sweden offer the best odds of seeing the northern lights at their most spectacular. As it gets brutally cold here in the middle of winter, most tourists come earlier in the fall, when it first gets dark enough at night to see the lights. As in Iceland, northern lights tours are popular in Scandinavia, with numerous options available for those who are willing to spend a few days in the icy landscapes.

Denali National Park, Alaska

Photo: Jacob W. Frank/NPS [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Denali National Park in Alaska might not be the first place you'd want to spend a cold autumn or winter evening. However, when viewed from this location, the northern lights are as spectacular as they are anywhere in the world. The show can start as early as late August when the long summer days of the far-northern latitudes end, and the aurora borealis becomes visible in the night sky.

Northern lights-seekers who get to Denali early in the season can avoid the harsh winter weather and still get to see the lights show. Denali is relatively easy to get to but is far enough away from population centers that no form of light pollution will interrupt the views of the sky.

For those who don’t want to venture too far away from civilization, the town of Fairbanks, Alaska, is an equally attractive option. Several tour companies in this city offer nighttime rides out into the countryside for lights viewing. When it comes to forecasting the northern lights, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks is highly respected.

Northwest Territories

Photo: Kas Ish [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Some people on the Canadian side of the border head to the Yukon, just east of Alaska, to see the northern lights. Canada's Northwest Territories, however, offer equally perfect viewing conditions. The city of Yellowknife is a popular destination for aurora-borealis tourists.

Like Fairbanks, Yellowknife has a good infrastructure for tourism. Tours leave Yellowknife for the surrounding rural wilderness, where the lights are more visible. Lodges in these outlying areas are kept open during the winter specifically to provide accommodations for those viewing the northern lights. Tour companies also offer a variety of other options, including nighttime sightseeing rides in sleighs or on dog sleds.

Iceland

Photo: Borkowska Trippin/Shutterstock

Iceland is another hot spot of sorts for aurora seekers. While winter is not the most pleasant time of year to visit this aptly named island in the North Atlantic, Iceland is one of the best destinations for viewing the northern lights. If the sky is cloudless, it is possible to see the lights often during the autumn and winter months.

Tourists can spend their time in the relative warmth and comfort of the capital city of Reykjavik and wait for the right conditions to occur before they join one of the many aurora borealis tours that leave from the city and head to northern areas of the country to see the lights.

Greenland

Photo: Greenland Travel [CC BY 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Greenland, the largest non-continental island on earth, is an ideal location for seeing the aurora borealis. The northern lights shows can be viewed regularly, with tour companies that specialize in taking visitors on viewing expeditions during the fall, winter and spring seasons. Greenland is a sparsely populated place with few roads and even fewer towns. This means that light pollution is not an issue in the least. What may be an issue, at least for casual lights seekers, is the lack of infrastructure.

The wildness is, however, one of the best aspects of Greenland for tourists with a sense of adventure. Travel takes place primarily via dog sled or snowmobile. It is also possible to take a bush plane to some of the more remote corners of the island to get the best views of the night sky. In short, this is a great place to see the aurora, thanks to the prevalence of clear winter nights and proximity to the Arctic Circle. Moreover, it is arguably the best place in the world for northern lights seekers with a sense of adventure and a love of the road less traveled.

The Lower 48

Photo: Paul Sparks/Shutterstock

Northern lights viewing conditions are seldom perfect in the Lower 48 states of the U.S. That said, people who can get as far north as possible have a better chance of seeing the skies lit up on a clear night. Taking a peek at the daily aurora forecast can be helpful. However, these forecasts seldom look more than a week into the future, so a trip north is not something that can be planned far in advance.

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, northern Minnesota, Wisconsin (pictured), the Dakotas and Montana are places that will give tourists the best odds of seeing a spectacular lights show. But, again, the window of opportunity is brief, and conditions have to be clear (as in cloudless), so there are no guarantees, even if you can travel north on short notice.