Courtesy of Safartica
Photo by Anton River/Shutterstock
Not all Northern Lights experiences happen before a backdrop of snow.
Think the aurora borealis only comes out in winter? Think again: Fall is prime time for a preparty with this natural phenomenon in the planet’s northernmost locales.
A few years ago, on a late-August evening at the tail end of a summer I’d spent sailing under the midnight sun along the spectacular Norwegian coast, something surprising happened. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Northern Lights erupted across the first dark sky I’d seen in months.
I blinked to be sure what I was seeing was real—the curtain of shimmering green light that had suddenly whipped itself into a Tinkerbell trail across the sky—then summoned everyone up on deck. Even our Norwegian travel companions couldn’t believe their eyes.
We weren’t surprised so much by the sight of the aurora—the skies above the northern part of the country, where we were, are famous for the phenomenon. We were shocked that it was happening while we were all still in T-shirts, enjoying the last official days of summer.
Most people have seen images of the aurora borealis coloring the sky green, pink, and purple above a backdrop of snow-covered mountains or pine trees. In truth, as long as the requisite solar activity is present, the aurora can show its shimmering self across night skies free of cloud cover as soon as late summer and early fall in northern latitudes. And the closer you get to the auroral oval—the atmospheric region above the North Pole where the aurora borealis is brightest—the more likely you are to see the lights dancing directly above you (in lower latitudes they tend to appear off to the north and lower on the horizon).
“Autumn tends to be the most underestimated season for Nordic travel and Northern Lights viewing,” says Norwegian Tietse Stelma, CEO and cofounder of tour operator 50 Degrees North. “It’s possible to see the Northern Lights as early as August. Having said that, the likelihood is much greater after the September equinox.
“Most people [in Scandinavia] have long summer holidays. In contrast, autumn brings back normalcy, like work and school, and also glorious autumn colors and forests full of mushrooms,” Stelma continues. “It’s a season most people really look forward to, and a very nature-oriented, outdoorsy time of year. The glorious, crisp months of September, October, and November provide a much gentler and authentic Scandinavian experience and are a great time to visit the region.”
So while you most likely won’t be catching the show from atop a sled pulled by reindeer across a frozen fjord, there’s a certain autumnal appeal to off-season aurora-chasing in Nordic regions and beyond, including colorful leaves and fingers that don’t get frozen snapping photos. In the following places, it’s game-on for a Northern Lights–focused trip in fall:
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Prime aurora-viewing season in Rovaniemi, Finland’s official home town of Santa Claus (yes, really), isn’t during the festive month of December but rather during the more reliably clear month of September, when snowstorms don’t threaten to obscure the skies. The period from September through the end of October is also around the autumnal equinox (September 23 this year), when the sun crosses the equator and disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field that cause the Northern Lights are said to be strongest.
“September and March are the best times to see the Northern Lights here because [they are] closer to the equinox[es],” says Andrea Cammisuli of outfitter Safartica, which offers autumn aurora tours around Rovaniemi that include a bonfire picnic experience and one in which participants float in a survival suit in a lake for a face-up look at the dancing lights.
With an Early Bird Aurora Break package from Arctic SnowHotel & Glass Igloos, 30 minutes north of Rovaniemi in the Lapland village of Sinettä, guests can look for the Northern Lights as they fall asleep under glass domes as early as September 20—a full three months before the hotel that is, yes, made of snow opens for the winter season. Did we mention Finland’s birch trees burst into flaming colors in September, too? Eye candy all around.
Tromsø and other destinations in northern Norway are hot spots for Northern Lights tours. But you can up your chances of a successful viewing if you head further north still, to the town of Alta in the county of Finnmark, which is right under the auroral oval. The first modern studies of the Northern Lights phenomenon played out here in the late 19th century in an observatory atop Mount Haldde, southwest of Alta, which now operates as an unmanned hikers’ cabin. The months of September and October in Alta actually see as much polar light activity as the darker months of February and March—and sometimes even more.
While Alta’s most popular winter activity is dog-sledding—the Finnmarksløpet, Europe’s longest dog-sled race, is staged here every year—you can bond with the pups in a different way during the autumn aurora months. At Trasti & Trine, a dog-sledding center near the Alta River, while away the hours until darkness falls by hiking with the dogs. Consider a cooking class here, too, to learn about Norwegian fare with chef Johnny Trasti, who incorporates local game, such as ptarmigan and elk, as well as fall’s foraged forest berries and mushrooms into the menu.
Arctic Sweden lacks the dramatic fjords and towering mountain peaks of neighboring Norway but is nonetheless a place of austere and profound beauty. Places like Kiruna (home to the original Icehotel) and nearby Abisko National Park are squarely on the radar of Northern Lights devotees. They arrive in droves in the winter months—you may meet some that hail from as far away as India and China—lured by Instagram images of the Icehotel’s gorgeous block facade lit by the aurora borealis. In autumn, however, the experience comes free of the crowds jostling into position for the perfect aurora selfie. By late August, the sun sets around 8:30 p.m. in Kiruna, leaving plenty of hours of darkness for aurora viewing. The Icehotel gets built anew every November using ice from the Torne River, but you can sleep year-round in the artfully carved ice rooms of Icehotel 365—a permanent, climate-controlled structure complete with an ice bar serving champagne. Warm cabins are also available.
An accessible aurora hunting destination for those in the United States, Fairbanks, Alaska, falls within the auroral oval. The city officially lists the viewing season as occurring between August 21 and April 21, and the 2019/2020 viewing season is already off to a stellar start; the kind of aurora sightings we all dream of seeing had already been documented by August. “[September and October] are excellent months to view the aurora in Fairbanks,” confirms Amy Geiger, communications director for Explore Fairbanks. “The mild temperatures make it particularly appealing, and during this time period you can marvel at the aurora reflecting on water surfaces, [a sight only visible] before the lakes freeze and snow flies.” The city has an Aurora Tracker on its website to help you gauge the likelihood of seeing activity at several popular viewing spots, including the Chena River State Recreation Area and Cleary Summit.
While not as far north as the aforementioned locales, Iceland remains a popular place for chasing the Northern Lights. The fall shoulder season of September and October is prime time to visit this destination that’s become burdened by overtourism in summer and winter. Improve your chances of seeing the aurora at its brightest and ditch the lights of Reykjavík for a more remote locale. About a two-hour drive east of Keflavik International Airport, Hotel Rangá in the town of Hella is set in the inky countryside near Iceland’s south coast. The hotel has an onsite observatory with a roll-back roof and two powerful telescopes for guest use. Astronomy experts are sometimes on hand to guide you through the stargazing and, hopefully, the aurora show, too. The hotel will run an Age of Aurora package for four-night stays starting October 1, but September is also fair game for tuning in to the heavens.
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