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.
Most people have seen images of the aurora arboreal 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 aurora oval—the atmospheric region above the North Pole where the aurora arboreal 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 Tsetse Selma, CEO and co founder 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,” Stella 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.”
Prime aurora-viewing season in Romanian, 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.
September and March are the best times to see the Northern Lights here because [they are] closer to the equinox[es],” says Andrea Camisole of outfitter Sarcastic, which offers autumn aurora tours around Romanian 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 Snow-hotel & Glass Igloos, 30 minutes north of Romanian in the Lapland village of Bassinet, 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.
Tromp 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 Fingermark, which is right under the aurora oval. The first modern studies of the Northern Lights phenomenon played out here in the late 19th century in an observatory atop Mount Chaldea, 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.
At Traits & Trina, 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 Traits, who incorporates local game, such as ptarmigan and elk, as well as fall’s foraged forest berries and mushrooms into the menu.
An accessible aurora hunting destination for those in the United States, Fairbanks, Alaska, falls within the aurora 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 Cheney River State Recreation Area and Clear 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 over tourism in summer and winter. Improve your chances of seeing the aurora at its brightest and ditch the lights of Reykjavik for a more remote locale. About a two-hour drive east of Reykjavik International Airport, Hotel Range in the town of Helga 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.