Here’s Why the Northern Lights Are 100% Worth the Journey North
For centuries, people have tried and failed to describe the experience of standing under the northern lights. Viewers have been exhilarated, moved to tears, surprised into stunned silence as undulating ribbons of green light dance across the sky. Among other things, Aristotle described them as “jumping goats.” The Norse epic Kongespeilet calls them “a vast flame of fire.” Galileo called the spectacle as the northern dawn or boreale aurora. Mythologies and superstitions rose throughout the north to describe what, until the 20th century, was a mystery only explicable by the intervention of a divine being.
I’ve been fortunate enough to view the phenomenon while traveling in Minnesota, Iceland, and Norway. But what I’ve seen was a shifting emerald mist along the northern horizon. Make no mistake, it’s always beautiful. However, when we talk about the northern lights as a bucket list event, you want to stand in under the luminescence of streaks so bright they cast shadows on the ground. This wasn’t something I had seen.
To get that experience, you need to be immensely lucky, or you need to chase them, centering a trip around the aurora. Even still, it’s a roll of the dice. You might be wowed, or you might not see anything at all.
For Americans in the contiguous states, chasing the northern lights means traveling north to Alaska, Iceland, Norway, Greenland, Finland, northern Russia, or, in my case, Sweden. I went to the Swedish Lapland with Visit Lapland, a company that connects travelers with experiences throughout the region, as my guide, hunting the northern lights.
Everything You Need to Know About Chasing the Northern Lights
The first thing future aurora hunters want to know is where to go. That’s more complicated than you might guess. To see the northern lights, you need dark skies. The aurora is the result of reactions between the Earth’s atmosphere and solar winds. Those reactions are more-or-less taking place all the time, but the shimmering lights it produces are only visible when it's dark and the conditions are right.
You'll also need to head north (or south, of course, if you’re searching for the southern lights). From time to time, the northern lights do drift further south than their usual haunts, visible as far south as the northern parts of mid-US states. However, those instances are the exception rather than the rule.
The northern lights aren't always out. Hunting them is a bit like whale watching. You position yourself as best you can and hope to find what you're looking for. Maybe one night it will be just a glimpse of a fin far off along the horizon. The next time you might not see anything at all. Other times, the whale is so close it knocks your ass into the drink.
Many factors go into whether the aurora appears. However, the best indicators are only available over the relatively short term. They’re good to note while traveling, but they won’t help you decide when to go. You just have to risk it, heading to an Arctic nation in the fall or winter.
Most of these northern regions have 24 hours of sunlight in the summer, which prevents you from seeing anything in the night sky (or, rather, the lack of night sky). Winter is the peak travel time for northern lights travelers for this reason.
Off to Lapland
Yes, the dead of winter is high season in northern Sweden. But the nights are plenty long in the early fall, so I was hopeful if a little skeptical. Though it’s not high season, travelers are missing out on a killer time to be in Lapland. The fall is an incredible time to travel Nordic regions. The leaves were changing vibrant colors across forested mountains. Moose and reindeer roamed along lakes and mountainsides. It was something like the Upper Midwest in the US rather than a tundra ripped from the pages of Snowpiercer.
I like the cold. I seek it out. However, if you are like most people and think summer is the bee’s knees, fall carries the added bonus of, well, not being winter. You still have to bundle up, but you're not freezing your ass off. It's absolutely possible to sit on a hillside or hike up a steep mountain path for hours without worrying about losing the use of your fingers.
In the far north, around Bjorkliden and Abisko, close to the Norwegian border, the forest hikes are stunning, whether they wind along the massive Torneträsk lake or curve up mountains to glacial pools. Further south, near Lulea along the west coast, you can take boat rides out into the archipelagos that feed into the Gulf of Bothnia.
That’s all to say that there’s a lot to do beyond of standing outside in the dead of night, staring at the sky. It may come as a shock to many that northern lights tourism is a relatively recent phenomenon, something repeated to me ad nauseam throughout my time in Lapland.
The boom in northern lights hunting has brought many amenities to the region, including luxury hotels like the Ice Hotel, where you can spend a night in a room sculpted from ice by an artist. Or there’s Treehotel, with stunning architect-designed treehouses capable of producing instant envy from anyone following your Instagram. There’s also the soon-to-open Arctic Bath with eight cabins that freeze into the Lule River during the winter months. Despite this, there’s lots of focus put on sustainability and respecting the rights and heritage of the indigenous Sámi people in the region.
These elegant, one-of-a-kind hotels are absolutely not the trappings of an economical vacation. Though they do provide a unique stay that, for many, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Nonetheless, there are cheaper accommodations to be found. Moreover, cheap flights to the region are available, especially during the offseason. From the US, flights run through Stockholm in the south before taking you to Lulea or Kiruna further north, where you can find transportation via bus or train if you’re not interested in renting a car. Though, the drives along myriad lakes and mountains are breathtaking.
The Real Show Arrives
The solar cycle and the geomagnetic forecast made it look as though it wasn’t an optimal time for hunting the northern lights during my stay. But this far north, there’s no reason to let that get you down. The lights appeared on my first night in Lapland. That first night in Brandon, just north of Lulea and miles south of the Arctic Circle, it shifted as though the aurora was breathing, threatening to reach its spindly green fingers across the sky, but it never did. It was the slowly shifting green glow I’d experienced before.
There was a concern that, though it wasn’t the spectacular display I was looking for, it might take the thrill out of the hunt, strip it of its urgency.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Kiruna, a town further north that is being physically moved by the government-owned mining company, that I discovered this was simply a stupid fear.
After a dinner of reindeer with lingonberries -- two staples you’ll find on almost every menu -- the haze was strong along the northern horizon, slowly reaching out to the east and west. Without warning, a well-defined line of electric light sprang across the sky overhead. One stunning bolt of green. Then two. My neck began to ache because it’s entrancing. You can’t look away in its presence. There’s a nervous, exciting energy present after days of waiting, knowing the display could change or disappear at any moment.
I laid on the ground in a cold parking lot, attempting futilely to get comfortable on the loose gravel and get the best view of the lights that had silenced me. But those rocks and the cold disappeared. Only the night sky mattered. There aren’t enough superlatives to explain that first vision of otherworldly light, casting its light over you. There’s nothing quite like it. You comprehend instantly why it was the source of superstitions and why so many have searched for the words to convey the aurora’s power.
This, I thought lying in the gravel with a belly full of reindeer, is worth every ounce of effort it took.