Many years ago I went on one of the best holidays ever. Together with my parents I went on a long road trip through Alaska and British Columbia. We drove an estimated 6500km, so you can imagine we spent a lot of time in the car. It’s not my intention to write up a full trip report, but just to highlight one of the most amazing experiences, and a first one for me too!
We had just left Fairbanks, our most Northern destination, to travel towards the Denali park (named after the mountain formerly known as Mount McKinley). We were a bit disappointed, since we had not seen the Northern Lights the night before due to a thick overcast. However, on the next night we were more than lucky. Staying in a small B&B a bit North of the Denali entrance, this evening the sky was exceptionally clear.
Our host suggested we would drive a few minutes away from the lights of the few houses. It was cold, darn cold, even though it was only early September, so we stayed in the car most of the time… until we saw some movements in the sky. First weak, then stronger, and finally the entire sky was dancing with white, light green / yellow and even reddish / purplish lights. All within a matter of minutes. It was magnificent. Of all the times I went out to see the lights (about ten times now), this was definitely still the strongest I’ve seen them. And according to locals, seeing the reddish colors was also rather special since it’s normally the lighter green and white that show up on the dance floor.
What are the Northern Lights?
“The Northern Lights are actually the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. Variations in colour are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth. Rare, all-red auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora.” (source: Aurora Service website)
The Northern lights Oval is the ring circling the magnetic North Pole. This is the best area to see the lights. The Oval encompasses the Northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. It also extends through Siberia, Alaska, Northern Canada, Greenland and Iceland.
The exact latitude of the Oval will depend on the intensity of solar activity. The higher the so-called Kp index, which ranges from 0 to 9, the farther South the lights reach. Usually the index is around 1 or 2, with sometimes going up for a period to 3 or 4, but higher than that becomes already rare.
Many locations where the lights are visible are uninhabited and quite remote, sometimes even inaccessible. Luckily, we have places like Tromsø in Norway and Rovaniemi in Finland where you can spot them! You can even spot them in Iceland in the middle of the Atlantic.
So without further ado, let’s dive into these amazing trip destinations and learn more about them.
Iceland: Land of Fire & Ice
In November 2018 we organised our first Aurora Borealis trip to Iceland. Although just a 4-days trip, it is quite amazing how much we can see in this extraordinary country. Right from the moment we leave Keflavik Airport, a former NATO base about 50km from downtown Reykjavik, to the moment we return there on our last night, this trip is filled with highlights. And it all starts with discovering the lively Capital itself.
Formed and shaped by volcanic activity over millions of years, Iceland is a country of fire. The natural beauty of this land knows no boundaries. During 2 daytrips we discover the famous South Shores and the Golden Circle, with stops at five spectacular waterfalls, boiling mud pools and a house-high geyser, the continental divide, a black sandy beach with hexagon-shaped rocks, a large crater, all with massive volcanos in the distance.
With such scenic panoramas, it is hard to imagine how it can get any more spectacular. Well, coincidence makes Iceland also one of the few reachable places on the planet where one can spot the aurora borealis. Therefore we try to spot the lights on every evening we’re there. On the first evening on a boat on the Atlantic. On the second evening by bus from Reykjavik. And on the third evening while enjoying a swim in the warm waters of the Blue Lagoon spa.
One of the most spectacular countries with the world’s third longest coastline (after Canada and Indonesia), Norway is an amazing holiday destination. With its historic cities, countless fjords, high mountains and friendly people, it should be your holiday destination at least once. In 2018, Expat Club organised its first trip, starting with a day to the Norwegian capital Oslo and followed by several nights in the far Northern city of Tromsø.
Often called “The Paris of the North” this small city of 75.000 is a remarkable tourist destination. It’s the perfect place to discover the Sami culture, learn about Polar marine life, and go on exciting activities like dog sledding and snowmobiling. There are many good hotels, restaurants and interesting museums.
But Tromsø is also one of the most “easy to reach” places in Europe where you can see the Northern Lights. Located at 1h30 minutes flying in Northern direction from Oslo, it lies well above the polar circle and smack in the middle of the Aurora oval.
The great thing about Tromsø is that one can drive in various directions to get to a place without clouds. Although it’s not far from the open ocean, one can drive West towards the ocean, North to a rather dark area with a view on the Lyngen Alps, and South to places between the mountains or even further towards Finland. Admitted that going towards Norway’s neighboring country is a bit of a drive, it oftentimes means a considerably lower chance of overcast and virtually no light solution.
Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland
We’re too old to still believe in Santa Claus, so visiting a place where the good old man supposedly lives would probably be the most ridiculous destination on our calendar. But for Christmas 2019 we did go there with two dozens guests and we can say that we had a total blast! Rovaniemi is a lively place that became known as the official residence of Santa Claus. Needless to say there is a big marketing story behind it, but if you don’t mind the mirage you’ll be in for a lovely Christmas time.
Our trip starts off in the Finnish capital Helsinki, where we’ll discover the city with a local tour guide. We visit downtown Helsinki and the UNESCO-protected fort island Suomenlinna, while enjoying our first Christmas dinner in an excellent typical Finnish restaurant right across the Cathedral. In Rovaniemi, about 1h10 flying from Helsinki, there are plenty of activities. Besides the traditional dogsledding, reindeer sledding, and snowmobiling, there is an excellent museum dedicated to Lapland and the polar region in town.
But the main destination for our trip is of course Santa Park and Santa Claus village. We surround ourselves with elves, Christmas music and good old Santa himself! The atmosphere in the underground Santa Park is great. With several souvenir shops, Santa’s official post office, an elves theatre and even an actual Santa ride, you’ll be in for a few hours of atmosphere. And of course don’t forget about an actual picture with Santa himself! Next is Santa Village. With its many activities, restaurants and other things to do and see, this is definitely the highlight of our trip. We have lunch in an exceptional Ice Palace, go for a reindeer ride and cross the polar circle. And that brings us to the final and possible most beautiful part of our journey North… the Northern Lights. Because also Rovaniemi regularly welcomes the spectacular dance of light in the sky, and logically we are going to look for it also there!
Alaska, the final frontier
With the entire continental US and populated part of Canada being located at the same latitude as Spain and Portugal, seeing the Northern Lights in this part of the world is exceptionally rare. So one must fly to the North of Canada, where there is virtually nothing to do, or set course for the US’ largest State Alaska. Located in the Northwest of the country and separated from the mainland by a big chunk of British Columbia, getting there was quite a journey back in the days. But luckily nowadays every major US and Canadian airline has several daily flights to the most important and by far largest city Anchorage (its capital is Juneau). In 2021 we plan our first trip, which will start from here.
We have planned a once-in-a-lifetime road trip through a big chunk of the drivable parts of the State, with visits to lovely fishing towns, national parks and other interesting places. Although the Aurora can be observed in the entire state, depending on the strength of the solar waves, the more North the better. And since distances are substantial, anywhere around Fairbanks would be best since that will be our most Northern point during this trip.