I must say that I am really beginning to love researching all these amazing places I post about during my #wanderlustwednesday series. Like I said in a previous post, I used to do this when I was younger: find a place, learn everything I could about it, and write it all down in a composition notebook for future reference. But now with the internet and being able to add links and a million pictures it has just become even more enjoyable. I love all the responses I get on instagram about these beautiful places and I hope I inspire someone to put these little known destinations on their bucket list.
Alright, enough of my rambling. Today I am not lusting over a little thing, but instead talking about a well known occurrence because it can be a little bit daunting to figure out the exact how and where to see these things. I am talking about the Aurora Borealis – commonly known as the northern lights.
An aurora is a natural light band in the sky. "Aurora" is latin and means sunrise or, alternatively, the roman goddess of dawn. "Borealis" comes from the greek term Boreas, meaning "north wind," coined by Galileo in 1619.
To see the lights you have to go far north into some pretty desolate regions. Because of this, vacations to see them can be a bit expensive.
Your best shot to see them on somewhat of a budget is to be in the right place at that right time. Historically, that has been November to March and between latitudes 65 to 72 in a ring called the northern lights zone (they were extremely creative when they came up with the name obviously).
Inside that zone there are 3 places that are relatively accessible to reach on a modest budget.
Reykjavik is an idyllic city in Iceland with tons of things to do outside of just chasing Northern Lights.
Flights to Reykavik can be relatively inexpensive because Iceland Air has an ongoing promotion that includes up to a week stopover flight when you flying between the US and Europe. This makes it a an easy and inexpensive stop to add if you are going on a longer trip and can save money on the way to Europe. Matt actually just flew Iceland Air to Switzerland and got a cheap flight for stopping over in Iceland.
Clouds are one of the main factors in being able to clearly see the lights and unfortunately Reykjavik is considered a very cloudy city. Crisp cold weather and clear skies go hand in hand. Since Iceland is right on the cusp of the arctic circle, you have less of a chance of it being cold enough – and in turn clear enough – to see the lights than if you go deeper into the arctic circle.
But, when you do get a clear night, Reykjavik has such a small amount of light pollution that on a good night you will be able to see them just by walking towards the Grótta light house, Miklatún or Hljómskálagarður parks. You can also rent a car to get out of the city and drive in any direction, but most people head for Þingvellir National Park. Of course, for the most expensive option you can always go on a tour. These range from $70 - $260 per person. Some tours will even come with a guarantee that if you don't see lights you will get a chance to go on another tour.
If you don't have a passport and/or want to stay inside the US to see them then you can take a gamble on Michigan or you could increase your odds and travel to Fairbanks, Alaska.
Just like the rest of the cities, you can possibly see the lights while in them but its best to get away to the more desolate dark regions.
60 miles outside of Fairbanks there is a resort called Chena Hot Springs Resort. Aurora sightings tend to happen in the wee hours of the morning so Chena provides wake up calls to all rooms.
They also have an "aurorium," a (heated!!!) log cabin/common room perched on a hill with floor to ceiling windows looking out at the sky that everyone hangs out in from 10pm-3am. It's ideal if you prefer a more social setting. Plus the warmth. Did I mention it's warm?
Lastly, you have Alta Norway, where Matt and I plan to spend a few days this upcoming January. Alta has earned the nickname "The City of Northern Lights" and it's well-deserved – the first northern lights observatory was built there, and I can only assume the people who built it chose Alta for a good reason. Needless to say we are extremely excited, if not a little bit nervous.
The main reason it is on the list is because right now Norweigan Airlines has great offers on trips from JFK to Alta (and reversed). Think $600 round trip tickets! That's a plain steal for a round trip to a remote city in northern Europe. And of course it is by far one of the best places to see the lights!
Because it is so far north, you don't have to go far to see the lights. However, a huge con to this place is how expensive it can be once you get there, but AirBnb's tend to be on the more reasonably side so I highly suggest those. Matt and I are staying in a somewhat remote AirBnb that was very reasonably priced. What you lose in a tight budget though, you gain in peace of mind, as Alta has some of the clearest and cloudless skies in the world. And with clear skies you (hopefully) get some great views.
I can't wait till my northern light experience next January and I will of course do an update post on everything I learned and saw along the way. If you are planning to see the lights or interested in learning more, don't hesitate to email me with questions!