When holiday vacations roll around, many of us try to escape the dark, cold winter by jetting off to tropical beaches and balmy islands. But why not embrace the winter by enjoying the very best it has to offer? Long, dark nights hold an appeal all their own, especially in the northern latitudes, where viewing the spectacular light shows of the aurora borealis can make for the trip of a lifetime.
Late fall and winter are the best times to see the northern lights, and this year’s light shows are predicted to be some of the best in a decade. 2014 marks the high point in an 11-year solar cycle, and this heightened activity on the sun can lead to more vivid auroras on earth. However, viewing the northern lights isn’t as simple as driving north with a camera in hand, even in particularly active years. For the best chance of seeing them, choose a destination far away from cities and towns, as light pollution can dim the auroras or obscure them entirely. Go out on clear nights between 10 pm and 2 am, the best hours for viewing, and plan to go out for multiple nights in a row, as this can boost your chances of seeing a stunning show.
The best places for viewing the northern lights are beneath the “aurora oval,” which tends to rest over the Arctic Circle but can drift farther south into Canada, Northern Europe, and even the Lower 48. Websites tracking auroral activity can give you an idea of current conditions across the hemisphere. But even if you’re further south of the optimal viewing areas, you still have a chance to see the northern lights. On particularly clear nights in areas far from population centers—such as Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania, the darkest spot in the Eastern US, and Steens Mountain in Oregon, which has the darkest nights in the Lower 48—you may catch a glimpse of the elusive phenomenon if you gaze toward the northern horizon.
Does going out on a sub-zero expedition in the middle of the night sound like the last thing you’d want to do on vacation? Tour operators in many aurora borealis destinations have come up with some smart solutions to that problem. In Fairbanks, Alaska, you can view the northern lights from the comfort of a hot spring with Alaska Northern Lights Tour (alaskanorthernlights.net) and Alaska Tours (alaskatours.com). The Aurora Zone (theaurorazone.com) lets you spot these streaks of color from the warmth of a private teepee. And Iceland, a hotspot for northern lights viewing, has the most comfortable viewing arrangements of all. Just snag a seat in the Hotel ION bar just outside of Reykjavik, and you’ll get a panorama view of this natural wonder through their floor-to-ceiling windows. With a warm drink in hand, you won’t even regret not jetting off to Tulum.