The northern lights, or aurora borealis will leave you awestruck, it’s no wonder people are scrambling for trips to see the Northern Lights. It is phenomenon caused by particles from the sun colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere. Light is emitted from atoms, excited by electrons, accelerating along the planet’s magnetic field lines. The resulting light bands inspire endless photographs. The different colors are determined by what gases are in the air.
The northern lights are best seen between September and April, between 5pm to 2am. As far as which month is the best, it’s a toss up. December to February offer the longest nights, while the months closer to Fall and Spring offer better weather conditions for added aurora activity. If you’re interested in making the trip to see the lights soon, you’re in luck: aurora activity is at its peak between now through 2013.
Unfortunately, seeing the northern lights can be unpredictable and costly. Northern light cruises and tours can cost upwards of several thousand dollars. By no means an exhaustive list, here are a few places to affordably see the northern lights.
Alaska tends to have clearer skies than most places in Europe, making seeing the northern lights here even more advantageous. Fairbanks is a good place to stay. Driving slightly out of town, you should be able to see the northern lights. Cleary Summit, 17 miles outside of Fairbanks, is an optimal viewing spot, with easy access from the highway. The UAF Geophysical Institute (http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/) offers a northern lights forecast.
Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada
Occasionally, it can be seen as far south as the northern borders of the United States. However, for a surefire shot at seeing the northern lights, head up to the Canadian wilderness. Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon, is a prime spot. Clear skies are more likely in Whitehorse because it is the driest city in Canada. There are a couple hostels in Whitehorse—check out the Beez Kneez Backpakers Hostel, which offers free carpool to their “secret spot” to view the lights. Canada also provides a three day aurora forecast (http://www.auroraforecast.com/).
While making Reykjavik home base, you can join a cheap northern lights tour starting at 30 €. A plus about many of the tours is that if you don’t see the northern lights on your first attempt, you can try again another night for free. However, to not deal with the crowds, hire a car and drive 30 miles outside of town. Þingvellir National Park is a popular place to see the lights. An alternative idea is to peel off the winter clothes and dip into one of the several geothermal pools in the countryside. It doesn’t get any better than seeing the lights while going for a toasty midnight swim.