Ribbons of teal, green and magenta streaking and dancing across the sky in a dramatic, otherworldly light show, the Northern Lights are at the top of many traveler’s bucket lists. This phenomenon, scientifically known as aurora borealis, is the result of charged particles released by the sun colliding with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, occurring near the magnetic poles. (It also takes place in the southern hemisphere, where it’s known as aurora australis.)
Seeing the lights is never a guarantee, but heading to the right place in the right season can increase your odds dramatically — and there’s plenty of active, adventurous fun to be had in the process. Families can hike, cruise or reindeer sleigh as they try to catch a glimpse of the elusive aurora. Here are 5 ideas for working the Northern Lights into an unforgettable kid-friendly escape.
How about ice fishing or dog sledding while you wait for those colorful bands to appear? Sitting within the oval-shaped zone of aurora activity, Fairbanks is the best U.S. location to see the Northern Lights, in part because of its distance from the coast and low precipitation. While the auroras can technically be seen year-round, Fairbanks’ aurora season is from August 21 to April 21, when skies tend to be clear and dark enough. If you prefer a more relaxed approach, you can also view the lights while staying in a glass-ceiling dome at Borealis Basecamp.
In the Land of Fire and Ice, combine the quest for an aurora sighting (September through March) with hiking, ice climbing, glacier walking and soaking in the geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon. Backroads offers a six-day Northern Lights Family Adventure, which includes activities such as hiking to 650-foot-high Glymur Waterfall, snowshoeing in Thingvellir National Park, walking on a glacier by day and searching the sky for nature’s electrifying light show by night.
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Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten has been sailing since 1893 and leads cruises along the Norwegian coast, with ports of call including Bergen, Trondheim and Tromso in the Arctic region. Along with the typical excursions and culinary highlights, being on a ship limits the light pollution from land and allows for multiple opportunities to see the lights, since you’re always moving. Go from October to March for the best chances. Hurtigruten also offers a special 12-day astronomy cruise with expert astronomers onboard.
It’s been calculated that the Northern Lights are visible approximately 200 nights of the year in Finnish Lapland, which has made the area, and its glass igloos, world famous. Skies are dark enough for viewing starting in late August and lasting through April. Along with snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, reindeer-driven sleighs are an active way to go about aurora spotting. Catch the reindeer express at the Northern Lights Village, which offers accommodations, activities and restaurants onsite. Alternately, consider Hotel Iso Syote’s cottages, configured to accommodate families, or some of the area’s more luxe digs like the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel.
From the Yukon Territory to Churchill, Manitoba to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, northern Canada offers a number of places with ideal conditions for seeing the Northern Lights. Mid-November to April is peak viewing season, but the phenomenon appears about 240 nights out of the year — that’s a rate of 65 percent! As a bonus, Churchill is also home to wildlife like peregrine falcons, snowy owls, Arctic terns and, of course, polar bears. The best time of year to see polar bears in the wild is October and November, when the bears move from their summer homes to seal hunting.
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