Finding the best places to see aurora takes planning and more than a bit of luck but choosing the right place to visit and stay will increase those chances. The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) are natural phenomena that can be seen with dark skies at high latitudes. The pillars and bands of coloured light will illuminate the dark sky and are a bucket list adventure for many people.
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Criteria for Finding Somewhere to View the Aurora
Catching a glimpse of the northern or southern lights is something that takes planning and patience. Many people will spend a day in Iceland and be disappointed that they didn’t see any activity. This is a numbers game. The longer you spend somewhere, the more chance you have to see a display. And finding that display is easier if you know what you are looking for.
READ MORE: HOW TO FIND THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
One of the factors is positioning yourself in the right area and the suggestions below will give you some key places to view the aurora. However, first some key factors to look for when choosing a place to stay to see the aurora.
When you first start looking for a place to stay and view the northern lights you need to ensure that it is within the aurora zone.
In Scandinavia this is around about 66°N in Scandinavia and 69°N in North America. As an easy guide, anywhere within 1000km of the Arctic Circle is a good start. The following countries are far enough north to have a chance of seeing the Northern Lights
- Alaska (US State not country)
- Greenland (Part of Denmark)
- Northern Ireland
- The Faroe Islands (Park of Denmark)
- The Netherlands
The Southern Lights are far more elusive and harder to view because of the shape and geography of the earth. There are, however a few places that you can see them. These are:
- New Zealand
Clear Horizon to the North (or South)
When selecting somewhere to visit or stay it is essential that you have a clear horizon. The cottage or hotel that you select may be beautiful with views across a lake but if the mountain it sits under is to the north you are going to miss all but the strongest of displays. Use google earth to locate the hotel and if you can, use street view to see what the views are like and any obstructions that may prevent you from seeing the display. Many wilderness camps are on lakes or on high fells where there are no obstructions and the views are uninterrupted.
In the south, you need a clear southerly horizon to ensure you see the most of any display.
Away from Light Pollution
Whilst the place you are planning to look at the northern lights from may appear to be in the middle of nowhere, light pollution from towns and cities can be seen from a considerable distance. When planning where to stay look and see if there are any towns or villages close to where you are planning to be. If you avoid having anything within about 50 miles to the north then the glow should be eliminated. Dark Sky Reserves make this choice relatively simple. Don’t forget that things like lighthouses and gas works, refineries and power stations can emit huge amounts of light as well.
As well as distant light pollution, look at what else is around where you are planning to be. Are there neighbours who may not be ‘light aware’ and will leave outside lights on or even indoor lights, are there street lights that will be on when the aurora is active. These are all considerations that you need to take into account.
Aurora from Home
This is one of my favourite reasons to choose somewhere to stay for aurora watching! Whilst part of the adventure is getting out into the wilderness, sometimes it is just nice to be cosy and warm with the sky illuminated above you. This means that you can curtain twitch and surf the aurora alert apps and stay warm until the lights appear and you can emerge. This works best if you are somewhere for a while and are not chasing the lights for just one or two nights. This also has the added benefit that you can set your camera up in daylight and then leave it ready to go. Even if you leave just a tripod in the position you want then life is easier.
READ MORE: HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH THE AURORA BOREALIS
Suggestions for the Best Places to See the Northern Lights
This is not an exhaustive list but is some of the best places to view the northern lights.
Alaska, U.S.A.: Fairbanks
One of the best places to see the Northern Lights in Alaska is the city of Fairbanks. At a little over 30,000 people, Fairbanks is the third-largest city in Alaska, however, there are still plenty of dark sky locations just outside of the city.
Aurora viewing locations in Fairbanks
Creamer’s Field and Cleary Summit are both two of the best dark sky locations near Fairbanks, and only thirty minutes outside of the city. For more of a foresty field, head to Cleary Summit where you can spot the dancing Aurora between the forest treetops, making for a dramatic landscape. Creamer’s Field is flat and more open, and the Northern Lights sare more easily and widely visible, though not much else will be captured nearby.
Winter weather and driving conditions in Fairbanks
There are of course winter storms, but for the most part, Fairbanks has more calm winters than other places near the Arctic, though it will be cold. The roads are frequently cleared so driving is not an issue in Fairbanks, and you should feel relatively comfortable renting a car.
Daytime activities in Fairbanks
During the day, there are plenty of things to do in Fairbanks in winter to experience more about the culture and people of the area.
- Dog-sledding is the state sport, and a great place to do it is at Chena Hot Springs which rescues retired mush dogs.
- Then, after your ride, you can take a dip in the hot springs at the resort.
- If you’d rather warm up indoors, visit the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center to learn about Athabascan history and culture (the Indigenous people of what we now call “Fairbanks” and Alaska’s Interior).
Planning a trip to Fairbanks
Alaska, U.S.A: Healy
Healy is a small town close to Denali National Park in Alaska. The proximity to the National Park ensures dark skies to allow you to easily see the northern lights. Its location within the aurora oval means that even with low activity levels you can catch a glimpse of a display.
Places to view the aurora in Healy
Close to Black Diamond Resort on Lake Otto makes for a good point to start viewing the northern lights. From Healy you can capture several peaks including Mt. Healy, the Sugar Loaf and the Jumbo Dome all of which make for a great foreground for the northern lights.
Weather and safety in Healy
Winter weather conditions are quite harsh – winters are long with freezing temperatures and snow. Temperatures fluctuate between -19°C and -11.6°C with the coldest month being January. Remember that this is bear country. Always make sure that you are aware of your surroundings and if visiting out of the hibernation season take suitable precautions to ensure your safety from the resident grizzly bears and black bears.
Things to do in Healy during the day
- Explore the Denali National Park to see some of the local wildlife and discover Mount Denali up close
- Learn about mushing at the husky demonstration in Denali National Park or visit Jeff King’s Husky Homestead
- Go rafting on the Nenana River which forms the eastern boundary of Denali National Park
- Experience wilderness hiking within the Denali National Park
Healy planning ideas
Yellowknife is the capital of the Northwest Territories, Canada. As the capital of a vast resource rich state, it is a relatively small city. It is a vibrant place with museums, outdoor activities as well as local administrative buildings and a large mining area. There are 3 diamond mines just a short flight from town.
Best places to view aurora in Yellowknife
The city of Yellowknife is located within the aurora zone and if there is no cloud cover the northern lights are visible from nearly every dark place. If you’re in a well lit place, just drive a few minutes away to a dark spot and you will see the lights. The landscape is mostly flat with many lakes, boats and waterside cottages. In winter the landscape is frozen and ice roads are carved on the lakes. These ice roads make for dramatic pictures of Yellowknife.
Winter safety in Yellowknife
Winter in the Northern Territories is harsh. It goes down to -40 or lower. Given the extreme temperatures it is best to purchase outdoor clothing locally as it will be designed for the environment. If you’re not used to the climate it will only be a short while before you start to feel the cold. In just a couple of minutes eyebrows, eyelashes and nostrils will freeze. In summer you can drive out of town to see bison and other wildlife but in winter, do not venture out too far. A car breakdown could be lethal as there may be no signal and if it is there, it would take too long for help to arrive.
Things to do in Yellowknife when there is no aurora
- Hike to Cameron Falls within the Hidden Lake Territorial Park
- Visit the City Hall and Yellowknife Old Town to see how this lakeside town has evolved
- Explore the Diamond Museum to see how diamonds are mined in this Arctic region
- Visit the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre to learn about the culture and history of Canada’s North-West Territories
- Drive the Dettah Ice Road that links Yellowknife with Dettah. This 6.5km stretch of road is open from late December to mid-April and is a good spot to watch the aurora in your warm car.
Yellowknife planning suggestions
Northumberland is one of a number of locations in England that sees the northern lights. These include Cumbria and the Lake District, the Norfolk Coast as well as many places when activity levels get above Kp6. Due to a combination of light pollution and lower latitude it is often difficult to see the aurora borealis in England and when it does appear it is often an arc close to the horizon.
Best place to see the northern lights in Northumberland
There are a number of locations with the perfect combination of dark skies and a clear northern horizon but the best has to be Sycamore Gap. This lone tree sits in a dip of Hadrian’s Wall, the location used in the opening scenes of Robin Hood, Princes of Thieves and is an ideal spot to photograph the northern lights. Hadrian’s Wall sits along an escarpment and so anywhere along the wall is perfect for viewing the aurora borealis.
Night time safety on Hadrian’s Wall
Sycamore Gap can be seen from the nearby country road but there is a blind summit and no space for parking so the better option is to walk from Steel Rigg but this involves walking along an unlit footpath with very uneven ground. Unlike other areas where temperature and weather is a consideration, in Northumberland there is the added problem of terrain and navigation at night.
Things to do near Sycamore Gap and Steel Rigg
- Visit Housesteads Fort or Birdoswald, once garrisons with over 1000 Roman soldiers with large sections of Hadrian’s Wall still visible and walkable
- Have afternoon tea in the perfect Northumberland village of Simonburn used in a number of Catherine Cookson television series
- Experience the Long Drop, an abandoned farm house with a toilet perched over a deep gorge
- Walk through secluded woodlands and over six bridges to the magical waterfall called Hareshaw Linn
Planning a trip to Northumberland
Ruka is located above the Arctic circle in the north east of Finland close to the Russian border and the larger town of Kuusamo. The town is a busy ski resort but just a short distance out of the town it is possible to find dark skies to view the northern lights.
Best places to see and photograph the Northern Lights in Ruka
Getting away from the lights of the ski resort is essential to see the lights. If you have the time heading to Oulanka National Park or Riisitunturi National Park will give you clear skies and stunning landscapes to add to the foreground of any photographs you will take of the northern lights. The high fells of Riisitunturi National Park are particularly beautiful with its snow laden bending trees.
The area around Ruka is generally safe for night photography and other than the usual weather considerations and dressing for the surroundings hunting the northern lights in this arctic region is relatively easy and safe.
Things to do near Ruka
- Visit the Palosaari Reindeer Farm, a traditional Sami farm
- Drive huskies across the fells of Riisitunturi National Park
- Walk through Oulanka National Park to the lake or frozen waterfall
- Learn to ski on the fells above Ruka
Planning a trip to Ruka
Rovaniemi is the capital of Lapland, in northern Finland, and is notable for being Santa Claus’ “real” home town, as well as one of the best places to see the Northern Lights.
Photographing Aurora In Rovaniemi
Rovaniemi has more than enough spectacular scenic photography locations — including almost infinite stretches of Nordic forests and pristine wilderness — all of which offer unique backdrops for watching the Northern Lights. The Northern Lights appear in Lapland about 200 nights of the year-and can be seen from Rovaniemi one out of every three nights in winter.
While in Rovaniemi town itself, you can use an Aurora prediction app and then rush down to the Arktikum Park and Lake for a decent chance to see the action. There is a small amount of light pollution here, however, so a better way to see the phenomena is to go out on a Northern Lights tour with experienced guides who are experts at exposing Lapland’s beauty to tourists.
Staying safe while hunting for the Northern Lights
Owing to the snowy road conditions and freezing temperatures, setting out for a tour of the Northern Lights is typically safer and more comfortable. There are over 50 places from which they pick the best spots every night. If you’ve got your own car, Santavaara Hill would otherwise be one of the most famous locations and is relatively easy to access
Things to do in Rovaniemi
Other than Northern Lights viewing, there are so many other things to do in Rovaniemi including:
- Discovering more about the nature, society and history of Lapland at the famous Arktikum Museum of Science.
- Enjoying an authentic Finnish sauna experience, either in your hotel or one of the public saunas in the city.
- Going for a trip to the Santa Claus Village and stepping into the Arctic.
- Get your creative fix at the surprisingly modern Museum of Art in Rovaniemi
- Exploring the modernist Rovaniemi Library, a treasure of International Style Modernism designed By Alvar Aalto
Rovaniemi planning suggestions
Kirkjufell is a small but incredibly recognisable mountain on the Snæsfellsnes Peninsula in the west of Iceland. During the day it is a fantastic location with the mountain standing behind a small waterfall and at night it is in a great location for watching the aurora borealis reflected in the sea or the plunge pool of the waterfall.
Photographing the Northern Lights at Kirkjufell
At Kirkjufell the northern lights are a common sight although cloud cover can be a problem. In the autumn the paths are clear and easy to access both the waterfall, the small lake behind the waterfall as well as the coast just outside the small town of Grundarfjörður. It is possible to walk from Grundarfjörður making it the perfect base to wait for the northern lights to appear.
In the winter months the area is accessible but the paths can become icey and more difficult to navigate. However the outline of Kirkjufell coated in snow with the northern lights above is worth the cold and winds to explore.
Staying safe at Kirkjufell
Kirkjufell is very close to the town of Grundarfjörður and this makes it relatively easy to explore in the winter months. As with anywhere in the Arctic region you should ensure that you are dressed in suitable clothes and be aware of changing weather conditions. The path to the waterfall will be ice in the winter months so you need to make sure you have suitable footwear and the wind can howl across the bay so being aware of your camera and tripod is essential to make sure it doesn’t get blown over.
Things to do near Kirkjufell
Kirkjufell is located on the Snæsfellsnes Peninsula one of the popular places to visit in Iceland
- Kvernafoss Waterfall a large waterfall a short distance from Kirkjufell
- Òlafsvík a thriving town to the west of Kirkjufell
- Skarðsvík Beach is located on the south side of the Snæsfellsnes Peninsula and has a golden sand beach
- Explore the alternative route around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Kirkjufell planning help
Iceland: Thingvellir National Park
One of the best locations to see the Icelandic Northern Lights is from Thingvellir National Park and its immediate surroundings. The main reason the park is so attractive is that its dark skies are easy to get to from Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavík.
Best Places to view aurora borealis in Thingvellir National Park
Along with dark skies which is optimal for viewing this natural phenomenon, the area provides a somewhat diverse landscape with a few different interesting features. Inside the park, there is Thingvallavatn, a lake that can provide a water surface for possible reflection of the northern lights.
However, a visit inside the park isn’t absolutely necessary. Anywhere on main highway 36 near the turnoff to the park also provides opportunities for nice viewing. There are various snow-capped mountains, the occasional house light, and in some places, even the glow of Reykjavik in the distance.
Winter weather safety around Thingvellir National Park
Keep in mind that Iceland weather changes rapidly so a look at the aurora forecast is needed to determine the night’s viewing chances. Be sure to wear warm, waterproof clothing due to cold temperatures and wind possibilities.
Daytime activities for Thingvellir National Park
- Silfra Fissure provides a chance to snorkel, swim, or dive between the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia
- Almannagjá is a walk along the gorge to view the continental rift and see a Game of Thrones filming location
- Öxarárfoss is the only waterfall in the park
- Thingvellir Church and Prime Minister Summerhouse with the current church dating back to 1859 although a church has been on site since 1000 AD.
- Thingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake can be explored
Thingvellir Trip Planning
Ireland: Malin Head
If you ever manage to witness the Northern Lights in the Republic of Ireland, feel special. This spectacle on the Emerald Isle is rare, but unbelievably beautiful. Additionally, it distinguishes itself from aurora borealis sights in northern countries, such as Sweden or Norway, because they are usually displayed slightly above or on the horizon. This low light spectacle allows for the most stunning light and water reflections.
Best places to see the Aurora Borealis in Ireland
By far the best place to observe the Northern Lights in Ireland is on the most northerly point of Ireland, Malin Head, and on the surrounding headlands of the Wild Atlantic Way coastal route. When the weather is right (not always the case, as it rains a lot in Ireland) and the solar conditions coincide, these beautiful headlands are far enough away from towns or cities or other sources of light interference.
Coastal safety at Malin Head
Make sure to wear sturdy boots and always watch where you walk, as the cliff edge is partially very steep. The rugged coastline is absolutely magnificent. Make sure to locate yourself close to the signal station on Tower Hill (also known as Banba’s Crown).
Daytime activities around Malin Head
During the day, this beautiful area has a lot to offer too:
- Make sure to visit the Star Wars filming locations on Malin Head
- Stroll Along the stunning Five Finger Beach
- Spot the ‘EIRE’ sign from WWII to alert pilots that they were entering neutral airspace from top of Malin Head
- Visit the Doagh Famine Village
Planning a trip to Ireland
Norway: Senja Island
Senja island in Northern Norway should be on your radar for several reasons, not only it’s a hikers’ paradise and a true heaven for any outdoor enthusiast, but also a stunning location for northern lights spotting! The island is home to stunning fjords and mountains, its rugged coastline, beaches and peaks are fantastic locations for Aurora Borealis hunters!
Best Locations to watch the northern lights on Senja Island
Senja Island has a number of viewpoints that provide excellent places to watch the northern lights. These include Bergsbotn viewing platform near Bergsbotn, Tungeneset viewpoint near Steinfjord and Knuten viewpoint in Mefjordvaer. If you are feeling more adventurous then any of Senja’s amazing mountain peaks, especially Husfjellet, Hesten, Keipen or Barden make a good location for aurora hunting. They’re spacious enough to accommodate a 2-person tent, so after a satisfying Aurora hunt you can stay overnight rather than descending a rough path.
Aurora nights on Senja Island
Northern lights watching in Senja is fairly uncomplicated, even during insignificant solar activity period the sky is very likely to be illuminated all over your head! On a clear night you can expect to see the polar lights from early September till early March, if lucky you may see the dancing beams of various colours with naked eye. However, always make sure you have warm cloths as the temperatures can drop near zero during the clear arctic nights.
Daytime activities on Senja Island
- Drive the Senja National Tourist Route and find some quiet places including secluded beaches and small fishing villages
- Walk along the beach at Ersfjord with its golden sands and turquoise water
- Drive the narrow and winding road to Bøvær Lighthouse
- Visit the busy fishing community on the island of Husøy
Planning a trip to Senja Island
Tromso, Norway provides a stunning backdrop to witnessing the magic of the Northern Lights. While the city is not always the most ideal place to witness the lights, strong displays are easily visible from within the city limits.
Places to see aurora around Tromsø
While seeing the northern lights in Tromso is not guaranteed, there are plenty of places around the city to see them. The Fjellheisen Cable Car takes you up to the Storsteinen mountain ledge, where you can enjoy panoramic views out over Tromso and the surrounding areas. Since the mountain ledge is located high above the city, light pollution is not as severe and the chances of being able to see the lights are much higher. The vantage point also gives you the unique chance to view the lights and the sprawling city in one shot.
Winter nights in Tromsø
Winters in Tromso are dark with the sun during the peak of winter staying well below the horizon. However, given its coastal position, the temperatures are warmer than places further inland. If you are out spotting the lights away from the city, be prepared for temperatures well below zero.
Daytime activities in Tromsø
During the day there are plenty of amazing things to do an see while you wait for the Northern Lights to come out and play such as:-
- Dog Sledding is one of the best activities in the region and while it’s physically demanding and fun at the same time, it offers a chance to really explore the tundra
- Whale Spotting allows you to out into the dark waters of the Arctic Ocean for the chance to spot majestic humpback whales and orcas hunting for herring
- Explore Tromsø, one of the northernmost cities in the world where there is plenty of beautiful buildings dotted around the city, such as the Arctic Cathedral
- The Polar Museum is a great place to escape the cold and learn all about the history of Tromso and its role in Arctic exploration. While much of the museum is dedicated to history, there are also more scientific exhibits, unlocking some of the mysteries of the Arctic.
Planning ideas for visiting Tromsø
The Orkney Islands are located off the north coast of Scotland and in a similar way to Shetland and Ireland they are far enough north to be within the aurora zone especially when the Kp levels are higher.
Best places to see the Northern Lights in Orkney
Heading north on Orkney mainland will get you away from the lights of Kirkwall and Stromness and provide dark skies. Brough of Birsay is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights on Orkney. This has lots of parking and the lights reflected in the sea can be beautiful. Another popular location is the Ring of Brodgar. This neolithic stone circle makes for a great foreground in any photograph of the northern lights.
Safety when hunting for Northern Lights in Orkney
Of all the locations to view the northern lights, Orkney and Scotland in general is one of the easiest places. The climate is less harsh and cold temperatures are relatively uncommon and are never as extreme as the Arctic areas. The biggest concern in this area is the wind. The winds can be extreme, gale force is not uncommon and this can drop the temperature dramatically. Always make sure you protect yourself from wind and take care when opening car doors and setting up your camera in windy coastal locations.
Places to explore on Orkney during the day
- Skara Brae is a neolithic village which was discovered in sand dunes in the 1800’s
- Stromness is a small town with a history linked to the Hudson Bay Company and has a small museum
- Walk to Brough of Birsay across the tidal causeway and visit the small lighthouse
- Explore the sites that make up the UNESCO World Heritage site of Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Orkney travel planning
Kiruna is a large mining town in the north of Sweden. It is the northernmost town in Sweden and developed as the large iron ore mine grew in size. It is best known to visitors for its Ice Hotel that is open during the winter months in the countryside outside the town.
Photographing Aurora over Kiruna
Kiruna town is not good for seeing the northern lights as the town is well illuminated and the mines feel as if they are permanently lit, however heading out of town is easy and dark skies surround the town very quickly.
The area around Kiruna towards the Ice Hotel is perfect for seeing the northern lights. The skyline is clear with open fells and small areas of well spread pine trees. Even from the roadside the northern lights can be seen and finding out of town parking areas in daylight means you will be able to easily view the lights once the night arrives.
Safety photographing the Northern Lights in Sweden
The weather in Sweden is more settled than coastal areas and this means that while there is less chance of storms the temperature can plummet during the winter months. You need to ensure that you are correctly dressed and look after your camera when you go back indoors after taking photographs. Condensation can form in the camera and cause damage.
Best things to do in Kiruna
- Visit the Ice Hotel for a unique night under the stars
- Kiruna Church is one of the largest wooden buildings in Sweden and is built in the Gothic Revival style
- Go underground and explore the iron-ore mine in the town
- Take time to visit the Samí museum to understand the local culture
Planning a trip to Kiruna
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