The 8 Best Places to See the Northern Lights

Green and purple northern lights over Greenland fjord
Greenland is one of the best places to view the northern lights because it's extremely dark and located right on the Arctic Circle. Posnov / Getty Images

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 autumn and winter, when nights in the Northern Hemisphere are longest. Depending on conditions and visibility (not to mention the sun's placement in the 11-year solar cycle), the northern lights can be seen as far south as the northern contiguous U.S. (though not often).

Aurora-seekers in places like Maine and Michigan's Upper Peninsula can go a year or longer without seeing even the faintest dancing glow. Meanwhile, hotspots like northern Scandinavia and Greenland see regular action thanks to their proximity to the Arctic Circle and their consistently clear, dark skies.

Here are eight of the best places in the world for viewing the northern lights.

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Northern lights appearing at dawn over small village in Norway
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The Arctic Circle runs straight through the middle of this Scandinavian country, making it a magnet for aurora hunters. The lights can be seen from late August to early April, although frigid temperatures put off most folks from visiting during the coldest months. Those willing to brave the chill could be treated to 24-hour aurora sightings in northern regions—such as around Abisko and Tromsø ("the capital of the Arctic")—as these places go weeks and months without sun during the winter.

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Denali National Park (Alaska)

White and pink northern lights over snowy mountains
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Its northern placement and lack of light pollution make Alaska's Denali National Park an epic northern light-viewing location. However, like most northern locales, the park gets too much light in the summer (sometimes more than 20 hours a day of sunshine) to enjoy them. The National Park Service says mid-August to mid-April is peak aurora viewing time, but beware that the abundance of snow limits park access during winter. While you should be able to see them from any place in the park, the more north you go, the better.

For those who don’t want to venture too far away from civilization, the town of Fairbanks, Alaska, is an attractive alternative. 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.

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Northwest Territories (Canada)

Glowing igloo and snow-covered landscape under the northern lights
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In Canada, many will head to the Yukon, just east of Alaska, to see the northern lights, but the Northwest Territories offer equally perfect viewing conditions north of eastern British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. The city of Yellowknife is a particularly popular destination for aurora tourism. It even has an "Aurora Village," a family-owned Indigenous business with teepees, group aurora viewing, and native storytelling.

There are also a number of tours departing from Yellowknife that take visitors out to the surrounding rural wilderness, where the lights are most visible. Lodges in these outlying areas are kept open during the winter specifically to provide accommodations for those viewing the northern lights, which are best seen from mid-August to mid-April.

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Multicolored northern lights over a snowy Mount Kirkjufell
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Another high-latitude tourist attraction ripe for aurora viewing is Iceland—the aptly named "land of fire and ice." Now, the "fire" in its moniker is derived from its volcanic terrain, but it could also hail from the sky's tendency to put on a fiery, colorful display. During the winter solstice, the sky is dark for 19 hours straight, but you can also view the lights on either side of the cold spell. They're visible from September through March.

Tourists can revel in the relative warmth and comfort of the capital city of Reykjavik and wait for the right conditions before hopping on one of the many aurora borealis tours to more northern areas of the country. The "green lady"—named so because the lights often appear green in color—is often spotted in Jökulsárlón, Kirkjufell, Stokksnes, and Grotta Nature Reserve, just outside of Reykjavik.

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Northern lights above a church and the town of Nuuk
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Greenland, the largest noncontinental island on earth, is ideal for seeing the aurora borealis because it has so few roads and towns that light pollution is next to nil. It also has a polar night lasting from late October to mid-February, during which the aurora can be seen frequently and at any time of the day. Greenland is defined by its remoteness, which can be both a blessing (because it means the northern lights are that much easier to find) and a curse (because the lack of infrastructure makes it especially hard to get around on your own). There is no shortage of aurora-centered tours, however, in the fall, winter, and spring.

Traveling around here consists mainly of dog sledding or snowmobiling. It's also possible to take a bush plane to some of the more remote corners of the island that offer the best views of the night sky.

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Northern U.S.

Multicolored northern lights over a lake in Wisconsin

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Viewing conditions are seldom perfect in the contiguous U.S., but the lights are less elusive in the far north, such as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Montana. The window of opportunity is fleeting—the aurora is most likely to be seen in October, November, and April, when skies are clear and nights are both long and very dark. Taking a peek at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 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 too far in advance.

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Green northern lights over snow-covered cabins in Laponia, Finland
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Finland is an Instagrammer's aurora paradise, offering tourists picture-perfect glass igloos and other unique accommodations built specifically for the purpose of viewing the cosmic phenomenon. According to Visit Finland, the lights can be seen about 200 nights a year in the northernmost region of Lapland. While Norway is known as the northern lights capital of Scandinavia, Finland is widely thought of as a more affordable alternative. The best time to see the lights here is during fall or spring.

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Northern lights over ancient stone formation in Callanish, Scotland
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Like northern U.S. states, Scotland is perhaps a more realistic option for an aurora-hunting excursion, as it doesn't require traveling to the exceedingly remote (and freezing) Arctic Circle. This U.K. nation is, however, a more promising option than the contiguous U.S. for lights spotting, as it's quite a bit further north (on the 56th parallel versus the 37th). Although Edinburgh, Scotland's bustling capital, has been treated to northern lights displays before, the general rule is to get north, away from brightly lit cities. Some great destinations include the Northwest Highlands, the Outer Hebrides, the Moray Coast, Caithness, Shetland, Orkney, and the Isle of Skye.