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The Best Places to See The Northern Lights

By: Sarah Marcantonio

Were the Northern Lights jealous of the solar eclipse? After all the hoopla generated by this summer’s celestial syzygy, the aurora borealis made a rare appearance in the contiguous United States earlier this month, showing its stuff in places like New York’s Catskill Mountains, rural Illinois, even as far south as Arkansas. The cause was an abnormally large solar flare, which may not happen again for many years. 

Missed it? Fear not—we’ve selected the best places to see the lights around the world (although, as with all natural wonders, aurora sightings are never guaranteed). 

Canadian Rockies

Our northern neighbors are known to be thoughtful and polite, which may be why they’ve given us such a convenient way to see the aurora borealis. From September to March, you can fly to Calgary, drive two hours to the stunning and remote Banff National Park, check in to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, and just look up. The grande dame hotel in the heart of the park—originally built to lure railway travelers to the west—still entices with snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, sleigh rides, and a massive spa. 


It may be one of the best-known spots to see the Northern Lights (especially from September to April), but Iceland offers plenty of distractions at eye level. The Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel, just outside Reykjavik, offers easy access to a host of Icelandic adventures, from hiking ancient glaciers to fly-fishing in icy rivers. All that action makes for a tiring day, but the friendly staff will happily give you a wake-up call the moment the cosmic show starts.

Lapland, Finland

Way up beyond the Arctic Circle, the aurora appears so frequently that the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort built glass igloos expressly for watching it. The snug, romantic little pods let you lay back in bed and watch the luminous sky under a glass dome—or simply stargaze if the lights aren’t cooperating (aurora season runs from mid-August to the end of April.) Other winter activities in this remote but pristine region include snowmobile safaris, reindeer rides and, this being Finland, saunas. 


There’s one place in the United States that sees the lights regularly: Alaska. They’re most visible from August to May, especially overnight. At Chena Hot Springs, a modest resort about an hour from Fairbanks—well clear of urban light pollution—a nightly snow coach brings guests to the top of a ridge for unobstructed views (there’s a heated yurt dispensing hot chocolate and cider). If you don’t want to go to all that trouble, just ease into the resort’s hot spring–fed lake and keep your eyes peeled.

New Zealand

OK, sticklers, we hear you. The aurora australis, the kind you see in the southern hemisphere, is not the same as the aurora borealis, but it's not much different either: same colors, same diaphanous form, same elusive nature. In fact, it's even rarer, which means a trip to the South Island of New Zealand is loaded with bragging rights. Base yourself at the breathtakingly beautiful Azur Lodge outside Queenstown, then take a drive/ferry combo to get to Stewart Island, where the aurora do its gleaming thing from March through September. Shack up at Observation Rock Lodge, which can organize hikes, birdwatching tours and kayak trips of the sparsely populated island.  


How to get two bucket list experiences in one trip: Visit Scotland between September and April, where the beauty of the green-tinged aurora is matched only by the green hue of the world-famous golf courses. Book a room at the Old Course Hotel in St. Andrews, which provides access not only to its storied namesake, considered by some the best golf course in the world, but also Duke’s, its own championship course. After playing 36 holes or so, head two hours north to Aberdeen, whose open farmland is one of the best places in the UK to spot the Mirrie Dancers, as locals call the lights. (And while you’re at it, play a round at the Royal Aberdeen Golf Club, founded 1780.)