Northern Lights Trip | Aurora Borealis Expeditions | Travel | Vacation Trips
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Northern Lights Travel

Out of the northern darkness emerges an arc of pale-green light. The arc expands, brightens, and curls like a wave rolling across the sky as vertical rays reach toward the zenith. The glowing curtain of light ripples and pulses, the base of the arc turns a pale red, and the display extends from horizon to horizon. Overhead the sky suddenly erupts with beams of green, red, and purple shooting out of the zenith, eliciting gasps of wonder and astonishment from the assembled watchers below.

Witnessing a display of the northern lights, the aurora borealis, is high on many people’s bucket list. But to see them, you need to travel north, into the Arctic. Yes, there are southern lights, the aurora australis, but they are rarely visible beyond Antarctica.

When planning a northern lights travel vacation, keep in mind that there is no guarantee you’ll see them. So it’s often said: Go for the scenery, hope for the northern lights. The aurora borealis is almost as unpredictable as the Arctic weather. But thanks to the amazing Arctic scenery, it’s well worth the journey.

Explore this and other types of eclipse travel

Where to Go on a Northern Lights Adventure

The best Arctic locations for aurora borealis travel lie beneath a narrow, invisible doughnut-shaped region in the sky known as the auroral oval. This oval is centered on Earth’s north and south geomagnetic poles. Beneath the oval lie numerous excellent aurora-viewing regions including Iceland, Alaska, northern Canada, and northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Each region has stunning and unique Arctic scenery.

For more than two decades, TravelQuest has taken travel groups into the Arctic on northern lights expeditions. In Alaska, we often headquartered 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. Away from the lights of Fairbanks, the views of the aurora and the starry sky are incredible.

Our numerous aurora vacations to Iceland are not like most other northern lights trips. While we do spend one or two days exploring the sights in and around Reykjavik, most of our touring takes place in the Icelandic countryside. Here we stay at hotels with easy access to the outdoors from our rooms; very convenient for northern lights watching at your leisure. Volcanoes, vast tracts of moss-covered lava flows, glaciers, waterfalls, hot springs, and geothermal fields 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 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. After visiting Oslo and Bergen in the south, we board one of Hurtigruten’s coastal ferry ships and sail north for several days, right into and through the auroral oval. The skies of Norway’s inshore waterways are very dark, and 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!

At times, TravelQuest has considered adding northern Sweden and/or Finland to our aurora travel itinerary, and we’re always looking at other possibilities. Feel free to contact us about potential future northern lights holidays.

Iceland’s Strokkur geyser bubbles and erupts every few minutes, shooting boiling water 100 feet (30 metres) into the air. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
The scenery is spectacular when seen from Hurtigruten’s coastal ferry ships as they sail the waters of coastal Norway. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)

The Best Time to See Northern Lights

When thinking of the Arctic, visions of cold, snow, and dark often spring to mind. While it doesn’t have to be snowy or even very cold to see the northern lights—it does have to be dark. This is why aurora travel does not take place during the summer. From mid-April to late August, the skies in the far north are too bright to see the aurora; some regions even experience 24 hours of daylight. Against sunlight, the faint, glimmering bands of the northern lights are invisible.

With its long hours of darkness, winter is an obvious choice for an aurora holiday, but Arctic winters can definitely be cold and snowy. So TravelQuest prefers to offer aurora expeditions in early autumn or late winter. But the main reason for the dates we choose is astronomical. Around the time of the equinoxes (the 21st of March and September), the Sun and Earth are aligned such that Earth’s magnetic field lets in more charged particles—the cause of the aurora borealis—from the Sun than at other times of the year. This means the northern lights tend to be more active in late September and late March.

Our favorite time of year for an aurora expedition is the end of summer, around the time of 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. It’s a wonderful time to be in the Arctic on an aurora vacation, and seeing the northern lights makes it even more special.

Rapidly moving curtains of aurora ripple across the sky over Rørvik, Norway. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
Multi-hued rays pour down from the zenith during a spectacular corona aurora. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)
Sometimes the aurora in Iceland is so bright, it penetrates a cloud layer. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)

A Spectacle to Remember

It’s easy to understand how the magical light show that is the aurora borealis mystified and terrified the ancient peoples of the north. Were those colorful curtains of light, pulsing and waving across the sky a display of angry spirits—a bad omen? Were they the restless souls of the dead or perhaps a harbinger of war? Today we know that the northern lights are the result of Sun/Earth interactions, but understanding the science doesn’t diminish their grandeur.

There are plenty of books about the northern lights, many with amazing photos of nature’s heavenly light show. But no photograph can do justice to the aurora’s visual magnificence. A pale-green glow in the north that expands into a sky-filling wash of color. Multi-hued rays of light, red-tinged at their base, that sway across the sky like giant cosmic curtains. If the aurora is strong, light pillars might converge at the zenith and explode into rapidly flickering greens, pinks, and purples. This is a coronal aurora, a vortex of rapidly flowing light—a rare spectacle and the ‘holy grail’ for aurora watchers.

It is true that the camera can record more than the eye can see, particularly when it comes to color at night. But all aurora photographs are merely freeze-frame snapshots of a spectacle in motion. 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 have to be there to see it for yourself. It’s a sight you will never forget.

Aurora watching from a ship is a very comfortable experience. (Photo by Paul Deans/TQ)

Join Us for an Arctic Adventure

If you have never seen the aurora borealis, join us for our next northern lights expedition. We’ll take you into the Arctic and position ourselves under the auroral oval. No matter where we go, we’ll have plenty of time to take in the magnificent Arctic scenery. We’ll 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 will be 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.

And on your voyage with us, you can explore one of the great unanswered questions of the aurora borealis. Do they make a sound? Over the decades, peoples of the north claim to have heard the aurora as it swooshes overhead. It’s controversial and scientifically, it seems unlikely. So why not join us on an aurora adventure, and listen carefully as you stand in awe beneath the dancing northern lights. To learn when our next aurora borealis trip departs, contact TravelQuest.

Header image by Paul Deans/TQ