Northern Lights Tours | Aurora Tour | Tourism with TravelQuest
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Northern Lights Tours

Low in the north, a faint green arc of glow emerges from an Arctic twilight. As dusk turns to darkness, the glow brightens and expands—perhaps into rays stretching toward the zenith, or maybe into curtains of light swaying across the sky. After a time, the celestial light show fades. Those skywatchers lucky enough to have seen the spectacle return to the warmth of their lodgings, still in awe at the marvellous display of heavenly lights.

Witnessing the aurora borealis, the northern lights, is high on many people’s bucket list. But to see them, it’s best to join a northern lights travel group and head north into the Arctic (or south, toward Antarctica, for the aurora australis, the southern lights). Only in these remote locations are you likely to see the aurora. Why? The answer lies with the origin of these celestial lights.

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What are the Northern Lights?

Sky-filling northern lights are a spectacle to behold. If the display is strong, it might be seen well beyond the Arctic regions. The name “aurora borealis” was coined by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1619: Aurora was the Roman goddess of the dawn, while Boreas was the god of the north wind. Galileo had the misconception that auroras were due to sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere. 

But Galileo’s interpretation was no more fanciful than many others. Candles in the clouds, omens of war or clashing celestial armies, souls of the departed, and light reflecting off northern glaciers were some of the many explanations offered for the aurora. Not until the last century was it realized that these ghostly lights have their origin far from Earth.

The source of the aurora is 93 million miles (149 million kilometers) away. Pouring from the Sun’s corona, its rarefied upper atmosphere, at more than one million miles per hour (1.6 million km per hour) is the solar wind. When this steady stream of solar particles reaches Earth, it’s often only partially deflected by our planet’s protective magnetic field. Some particles breach Earth’s shield and become trapped in its radiation belts. 

There, 60 to 250 miles (100 to 400 km) above Earth’s surface, these particles strike atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere, releasing photons of light that create the aurora borealis. The two main colors seen in the aurora—vivid green and deep red—are due to collisions between these charged solar particles and atoms of atomic oxygen. Particles colliding with nitrogen atoms produce blue and pale red colors. 

The solar wind blows fairly constantly. But when the Sun is active, a giant burst of energetic particles called a coronal mass ejection (CME) may get blasted toward Earth. When a CME arrives, the additional charged particles overload Earth’s magnetic field. The result is often a spectacular auroral display.

The Northern Lights: Where and When

While these lights are invisible to us during daytime, they’re always there to see if you’re in the right place and have clear, dark nighttime skies. The aurora is a more-or-less permanent feature of our planet’s high latitudes. It’s usually confined to two narrow, invisible, doughnut-shaped regions in the sky known as the auroral ovals—centered on Earth’s north and south geomagnetic poles. Positioned beneath the northern oval are numerous excellent aurora-spotting regions including Iceland, Alaska, northern Canada, and northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Each territory also has stunning and unique Arctic scenery. 

For more than two decades, TravelQuest has ventured into the Arctic in search of the northern lights. In Alaska, we initially stayed in Fairbanks, but later we lodged in the countryside at the Chena Hot Springs Resort, northeast of Fairbanks. Much of Alaska sits directly under the auroral oval. At the Chena Resort, away from the lights of Fairbanks, the views of the aurora and the starry night sky are incredible.

Our northern lights tours to Iceland are unlike trips offered by other aurora tourism companies. Of course we spend one or two days exploring the sights in and around Reykjavik. However, most of our time is spent in the amazing Icelandic countryside. Here we stay at hotels or guesthouses with quick access to the outdoors from our rooms. This makes for easy and comfortable northern lights watching at your convenience. Volcanoes, geothermal fields, hot springs, moss-covered lava flows, glaciers, and waterfalls are all part of our amazing Iceland itinerary. Because we often travel in the north and west of Iceland, we’re far from the crowded tourist destinations (and artificial lighting). And no matter where we go on this little island, we are always under the auroral oval, and much of the country is set up for northern lights tourism.

Several years ago we added Norway to our aurora travel itinerary. Our northern lights tours are, again, unlike most others. We begin in remarkable Oslo, and then enjoy a picturesque cross-country train ride to the coastal city of Bergen. Here we board one of Hurtigruten’s coastal ferry ships and sail north for several days, right into and through the auroral oval. The coastline scenery is spectacular. But more important, the skies of Norway’s inshore waterways are very dark. When the northern lights strike, the ship’s Captain obligingly dims the vessel’s lights. Near the northern tip of Norway, we actually have to look south to see the northern lights! After the cruise, we remain in northern Norway to learn more about the indigenous Sami people and their culture of herding reindeer. 

The northern lights are always present, day and night. However, they are not bright enough to compete with daylight, twilight, or even the light of the full Moon. This means we need darkness to see them. So we must not only carefully choose our Arctic viewing location, we also need to judiciously select the time of year we travel to see them.

Our favorite period for an aurora borealis tour is the end of summer, close to the autumn equinox. The temperatures are pleasant, the hours of darkness are gradually increasing (but there’s still plenty of daylight for sightseeing), and there is colorful fall scenery. And there’s science behind our choice of viewing dates. Around the time of the autumn equinox (September 21st or so), the Sun and Earth are aligned such that Earth’s magnetic field lets in more charged particles from the Sun than at other times of the year. This means the northern lights tend to be more active in late September than during other months.

The aurora borealis can take many shapes. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
Northern lights over TQ’s Iceland lodgings. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
Aurora over the Norwegian fjords. (Photo by Judy Anderson /TQ)

Why Travel With Us

There are plenty of books about the northern lights, many with amazing photos of nature’s heavenly light show. But it’s impossible for an image, or even a video, to capture the vibrant colors, the rapid motion, and the sky-filling extent of the northern lights. You need to be there to see it for yourself. It’s a sight you will never forget, and TravelQuest will deliver the opportunity to witness this spectacle. 

We begin all of our aurora borealis tours in a major city, to help you become acclimated to a new country and a new time zone. But cities have too many lights; the sky is too bright. To see the aurora properly, you need to be positioned out of town. However, we don’t want you to spend your evenings on a bus driving into the countryside, parking at a dark site for several hours, and hoping the northern lights appear before it’s time to head back to your city hotel. That’s why most of our aurora-watching accommodations are either on a ship sailing the dark Norwegian coast, in the suburbs of small towns or villages, or, ideally, at countryside lodges or hotels far from city lights.

Seeing the northern lights is our priority, so we include as many dark-sky nights as possible on our trips. Still, viewing the lights is but one aspect of a TravelQuest aurora tour. We also head off the beaten path and journey to picturesque, out-of-the-way spots known only to our amazing local guides. Whether it’s visiting a Sami reindeer herd in Norway, or climbing an extinct volcanic cone in Iceland, our tour days are not just for travel. We introduce you to the country and its people, who have the privilege of living in a land graced by the presence and beauty of the northern lights.

Photographers under the northern lights. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)

An Aurora Tour With TravelQuest

If you have never seen the aurora borealis, join us for our next northern lights expedition. We take you into the Arctic and position ourselves beneath the auroral oval. We stay numerous nights as far away as possible from city lights, so our aurora watching can take place under pristine, dark skies. Our trip astronomer is with us for the entire journey to explain the northern lights, help you capture images of it, and wake you if a display appears after you’re gone to bed.

No matter where we go, we have plenty of time to take in the magnificent Arctic scenery. Our goal is to ensure that—regardless of the weather, the sky conditions, or the activity level of the aurora—you have an amazing journey into some of the northern regions of our planet. Contact us to learn more about our next aurora borealis tour.

Header image by Paul Deans/TQ