People flock to Iceland for a host of reasons including a chance to see the Northern Lights. But if you are concerned about over-tourism in Iceland or the expense of visiting the country, have no fear. There are plenty of other places in the northern hemisphere to enjoy the phenomenon of the Aurora Borealis.
Here ten travel bloggers provide alternative destinations in Canada, Norway, the United States, Finland, and even Scotland for getting a glimpse of these celestial beauties. But before we get to the best destinations for viewing the Northern Lights, let’s try to increase your odds.
When and Where to Get the Best View of the Aurora Borealis
Not all years are created equally when it comes to spotting the Aurora. The Northern Lights, caused by sunspots or solar flares, are cyclical. They run in 11-year cycles with the last peak in solar activity occurring in late 2013. Frequent Aurora occurrences are likely for a two to three year period beyond the peak.
If you missed the most recent peak or can’t wait for the next, don’t worry they are an annual occurrence. Typically, the Northern Lights can be seen from late August to mid-April. However, to increase your chances head north in September and March near the time of the Fall and Spring equinox. Late September through late March offer opportunities for optimum viewing.
As the saying goes, “timing is everything.” The Lights may be seen anytime between 6 pm and 4 am when the skies are dark. However, the highest probability for viewing them is between 10 pm and 1 am.
The best destinations for viewing the Aurora fall within what is known as the Northern Lights Oval. The Oval covers most of Alaska, parts of northern Canada, the southern half of Greenland, Iceland, northern Norway and the northernmost areas of Sweden and Finland, plus the western half of northern Russia. The Northern Lights Oval is not the same as the Geographic North Pole. It is based on the Magnetic Pole which is offset by about 20-degrees and varies from year to year.
In addition to being in a place where the Northern Lights occur, you need to be away from city lights which can hide the Aurora Borealis. And just as light pollution can obscure their visibility, so can cloudy skies. Check the weather forecast before heading out.
If you are really serious about seeing the Aurora and you have ticked all the boxes for being in the right place at the optimum time, increase your chances by checking the Aurora forecast. Check out Aurora Service Europe for information on viewing the lights in Europe. For the North America forecast check the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.
View the Northern Lights in Canada
Yellowknife is only 400km (about 250 miles) south of the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Northwest Territories. This far-north location makes for a long Northern Lights season, stretching from around August to April. If you can handle the cold (and I mean the SERIOUS cold of -20c or -4F and below), visit from January to March when the nights are especially long and dark.
If the Aurora Borealis is active, you’ll be able to see the lights dance across the sky from most places in Yellowknife. However, for the best Northern Lights viewing opportunities, find a dark spot away from the (small) city lights. You may want to try an aurora chasing tour or wrap up warm in the pretty teepees at Aurora Village.
Even if the Northern Lights allude you, there’s plenty of things to do in Yellowknife to make it a holiday destination in its own right. Yellowknife Old Town may be relatively new by world standards (dating back to the 1930s), but it’s full of character with friendly locals, interesting sites, and good bars and restaurants. In the Downtown area, you can learn about the culture and history of the Northwest Territories at the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre and the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories.
Yellowknife turns into a winter wonderland for much of the Northern Lights’ season. Try your hand at winter activities including dog sledding, snowshoeing, ice fishing, snowmobiling and driving the famous Dettah ice road. When the weather warms up, outdoor activities center around the stunning Great Slave Lake and surrounding hiking trails. Even if you’re not lucky enough to see the Aurora Borealis, Yellowknife is sure to capture a place in your heart.
Jasper Alberta, Canada
Jasper, Alberta is one of my favorite places on earth. This national park has so much beauty and there are limitless activities from day to night, including the chance to see the Northern Lights. It’s one of the world’s largest dark sky preserves, which means there’s no artificial light around to obscure the view.
The best chance at seeing the Northern Lights is from September through mid-May. In Mid-October, Jasper National Park hosts a dark-sky festival where visitors can come to view the incredible sky and participate in hands-on science and astronomy events.
Jasper has a number of campgrounds and accommodation options to host guests visiting for the Northern Lights. These range from budget-friendly hostels to luxury resorts where you can view the Aurora Borealis from the comfort of a hot tub.
Jasper is one of the best places to visit in Alberta. There are plenty of other things to do in Jasper besides look at the incredible sky. These include hiking, dog sledding, skiing/snowboarding, and the chance to spot some of Canada’s best wildlife.
Submitted by Lora of Explore With Lora
Northern Ontario, Canada
While many people think you have to venture into Alaska or the Nordic reaches of Scandinavia to experience the Northern Lights, there is a cheaper, more accessible alternative closer than you may think. For an off-the-beaten-path adventure, consider Northern Ontario, Canada for a chance to take in one of nature’s most stunning displays.
While the Northern Lights can be seen in different places around the northern parts of the province, there are a few locations that stand out. Manitoulin Island, located in Lake Huron, is accessible through Sault Ste. Marie — just a quick drive from Michigan. The pristine island is home to one of the darkest skies in the province. This allows for viewing a stunning light show.
If you’re feeling adventurous, head up to Thunder Bay where the Provincial Parks — like Sleeping Giant — are prime for spotting the lights.
While you are exploring these vast green areas of the province, there are loads of other Provincial Parks that are great for hiking, camping, and taking in amazing nature. Lake Superior Provincial Park is one such place. Accessible from the Trans Canada Highway (Highway 17) just south of Wawa, the drive cuts along the coast of the lake and through rolling green hills, allowing for plenty of beach stops or lookout points.
Submitted by Eric from Ontario Away
Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
The small town of Churchill is known as the polar bear capital of the world. Bears occasionally wander the town’s streets. This has necessitated the existence of a detention facility nicknamed the ‘bear jail’ close to the airport. Thanks to the town’s remote northerly location, more than 2,000 km (about 1250 miles) northeast of Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, the night sky is largely free of light pollution. Remarkably, the Aurora Borealis occurs, on average, more than 300 times a year in the sky above Churchill. Consequently, it can be a great location for viewing both polar bears and the Northern Lights.
Day trips on modified all-terrain vehicles with heated cabins are one option for viewing polar bears on the tundra close to Churchill. During the springtime, when cubs emerge from dens during March and April, trips to Wapusk National Park are an option. During summertime, beluga whales swim into the shallows of the Hudson Bay and it’s possible to swim with them. However, sightings of the Northern Lights are reduced due to the short hours of darkness.
If you like the idea of staying in luxury accommodation by the shore of the Hudson Bay, Seal River Heritage Lodge is a great base. You can learn about the behavior of bears from resident guides during autumn when the long dark nights offer time to view the Northern Lights dancing in the Manitoban sky.
Submitted by Stuart Forster of Go Eat Do
The Best Place to View Aurora Borealis in Norway
When it comes to the Northern Lights in Norway, the town of Tromsø usually gets all the love. But if you head a little further north into Norway’s Finnmark region, you’ll find the town of Alta which I think is even more fascinating.
Alta, Norway, is only home to about 20,000 people and doesn’t see nearly as many tourists as Tromsø. But it’s arguably a better option for anyone hoping to see the aurora.
Alta sits right on the inner part of the Altafjorden and gets a taste of the Gulf Stream coming off the Atlantic (meaning winters aren’t generally super cold here). Add to this a fairly low level of annual precipitation, and Alta has some of the best Northern Lights conditions in Scandinavia.
The world’s first observatory dedicated to studying the Northern Lights was built in Alta in 1899, and the town boasts a telling nickname: “Town of the Northern Lights.”
Along with taking a tour to chase the aurora, visitors can do several other unique things in Alta, too. You can stay overnight at the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, a hotel made completely out of ice. Try dog sledding and even stay overnight at the Holmen Husky Lodge. You can visit the Alta Museum and learn about ancient rock carvings that are recognized by UNESCO. And you can admire the Northern Lights Cathedral, which was built to mimic the falling sheets of the Northern Lights.
If you want to see the Northern Lights in Norway, definitely consider planning a trip to Alta!
Submitted by Amanda Williams of A Dangerous Business
Best View of Aurora Borealis in Scotland
Orkney is a group of islands 8 miles north of Scotland mainland. It is an easy location to find the Northern Lights within the UK. The ferry from mainland Scotland leaves three times a day from Gills Bay near John O’Groats or Scrabster near Thurso.
Once on the islands, heading north towards Birsay will give you the perfect location to await the lights. From Birsay the horizon is clear to the north with no light pollution. The nearby stone circle known as the Ring of Brogdar is also a good location as the stones give a good foreground for photographs.
Orkney is a little further south than some locations, therefore, a bit more solar activity is needed for the lights to be visible. Weather can also play a part in seeing the lights in Orkney. Storms come through on a regular basis in the winter months and cloud cover can be troublesome. However, the islands cover a large area with good roads so you can easily drive around looking for clear skies.
Orkney has lots to offer beyond the Northern Lights. The whole island is a UNESCO world heritage site. Skara Brae is the oldest Neolithic village in Europe and has a good visitors center. The islands are home to an array of wild birds and offer wide open beaches that are beautiful whatever the weather.
Submitted by Suzanne of Meandering Wild
Because the north of Scotland lies on the same line as Nunivak Island in Alaska and Stavanger in Norway you have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Though they have been spotted all over Scotland, the further north you head the better your opportunity. This is especially true if you visit in autumn or winter.
If you stick to the mainland you can try out Scotland’s newest tourism boost, the North Coast 500. The route takes you from the city of Inverness in the east, over to the west coast, then up around the north coast, giving you plenty of opportunities to see the Aurora Borealis. The route has been named Scotland’s Route 66 and the scenery along the way is absolutely stunning. Its white sandy beaches to dramatic mountain ranges, to wild Jurassic-like landscape, means during the day you can enjoy the sights of beautiful Scotland. While at night you can settle down in your accommodation with a cuppa or a wee dram of whiskey and await the spectacular Northern Lights.
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Any location along the northern coast provides ideal viewing conditions. Since there are few places to stay, most are relatively secluded and without bright street lights. Although the promotion of this new route has made the area more popular it’s such a remote and vast area that it still feels deserted. It really is the ideal place to experience the spectacular Aurora.
Submitted by Nicola Holland of FunkyEllas Travel
Best Place to See Northern Lights in Finland
The Northern Lights were on our bucket list for a long time, and we found the perfect place to chase them; Saariselka, Finland. Saariselka has amazing places to stay that will allow you to view the auroras right from the comfort of your own room.
We stayed at the Northern Lights Village, in an igloo-shaped room, with a section made of windows that allowed us to view the Northern Lights from our warm and cozy bed. Northern Lights Village also has an ice bar made of snow and ice. You can order your drinks which come in an ice-glass and sit on the frozen stools at the ice bar too.
They also had great tours going out to see the lights. We went on a Northern Light snowmobile tour, a snowshoe tour and an aurora camp tour, where we got to sit by a campfire, roast sausages and drink hot berry juice as we watched the lights.
Our trip to Saariselka was definitely one of our favorite bucket list trips.
Submitted by Sara of Our Kind of Crazy
Best View of Aurora Borealis in the USA
North Dakota, USA
Just outside Devils Lake, in central North Dakota is one of the darkest places in the contiguous United States. While the city and resort areas have modern amenities including restaurants, bars, and entertainment, stargazers can venture just 15 minutes outside of town for dark skies. On fall and winter nights when solar activity is particularly intense, lucky viewers can see Northern Lights dancing along the horizon. This was the case when I visited in September 2016.
The name Devils Lake comes from the Dakota Indians whose name for the lake translated into “pure source.” Though it was often mistranslated as “spirit” or “sacred.” When combined with the fact that the water had a high salinity making it undrinkable, early settlers inaccurately translated the lake’s name to be “Devils Lake”.
Today though, this high salinity and rich nutrients result in a thriving ecosystem plentiful with fish and migratory birds. This natural bounty draws visitors seeking fishing and watersports as well as hunting, biking, and hiking adventures.
Those wishing to see some of the more common animals that call this part of North Dakota home should visit Sullys Hill National Game Preserve. Here you can see American Bison, Prairie Dogs, and other animals from your car window or with only a short hike.
Submitted by James Hills of Mantripping
By Train in Alaska
I’ve yet to meet a traveler who didn’t have Alaska on their bucket list, nor an adventurer who didn’t crave a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Fortunately, you can combine them to achieve some major bucket list checking.
“But I’m not comfortable driving around in the snow and ice,” you say, plus, renting a car in Alaska is a pricey proposition. Not to worry. You can ward off the wintery, Alaskan chill, in a warm, cozy train car, on the Alaska Railroad.
Having experienced the wonders of a trip on the Alaska Railroad in summer, I now long to experience Alaska’s winter magic by train. There are eight, seven, and six-day itineraries. Each trip includes stops for optimal Northern Lights viewing.
As the train has no sleeper cars, you overnight at hotels in Fairbanks, Talkeetna, and Anchorage. All towns/cities that have the potential for Northern Lights sightings.
In addition to stunning scenery, and a hopeful peek at Mt. Denali during your train journey, stops include activities like a guided Northern Lights tour, a hot spring soak, and an optional excursion to a Musk Ox Farm.
I highly recommend visiting these furry friends while in Alaska.
If you enjoy relaxation and the beauty of nature, and if Alaska and the Northern Lights are on your travel-to-do-list, hop on board the Alaska Railroad for an unforgettable adventure.
Submitted by Sarah Hawkins Miduski of Obligatory Traveler
Now that you’ve been armed with all this information and tips on the best places to see the Northern Lights beyond Iceland, I wish you luck in chasing the Aurora Borealis!!