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This past Christmas, Brad and I ventured above the Arctic Circle to explore Tromsø, Norway, and the beautiful fjords in search of the northern lights. The light shows we experienced far exceeded even our best expectations, so I felt the urge to share what it was like to go northern lights hunting in Norway for four nights.
Getting to Tromsø, Norway
We flew in to Norway on an SAS A330 in business class which I booked with Star Alliance partner, Aeroplan for only $12. Although the seats in business class were comfortable, I struggled to get any sleep which would make things very interesting for the next 24 hours.
By the time we made our way through the airport in Tromsø, picked up our rental car, found parking, and walked back to the Raddison Blu amid a heavy down pour of sleet, we only had about 2 hours before our first northern lights tour started!
When I arrive in a new place, I struggle to subdue the excitement and am usually not able to just jump on a bed and take a nap. So despite my best attempt, I stayed wide awake for the next two hours until it was time for our tour.
Our tour was set for 7pm, which meant that I’d been up at that point for about 30 hours straight. I was really worried I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the northern lights tour and considered putting it off until the next day, but I knew I’d never be able to let it go if the lights came out that night and I missed them. So I sucked it up and decided to go.
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Night one: An intro to the northern lights
We boarded up the tour van and took off through the snowy highways. It was drizzling with a mix of snow and sleet and all I could catch were quick glimpses of thick forests on the side of the road. Luckily, this van came equipped with quality wifi (that was even better than some hotels) and so it was easy to pass the time.
After about an hour and a half of riding, I noticed a very faint whitish streak in the sky through the dark-tinted windows. It was so faint, that I had to squint to make out the object. In any other setting I would’ve dismissed it for a cloud but the sight reminded me of exactly what I saw when I witnessed the northern lights from a plane.
Our van stopped on the side of the road and we all got out. To my amazement, it was the northern lights!
The only problem is that the lights were very weak and almost entirely shrouded by clouds. To be honest, it wasn’t the most impressive sight but at least we could say we saw them if nothing else appeared. Lucky for us, we were in store for a great show.
After about five minutes of watching these lights, the clouds moved back in and covered the sky, so we moved on to try to find clearer skies. Our guides used their partners strategically roaming the Norwegian countryside in different regions to locate the clearest skies and they directed us.
After about 30 minutes, we saw more northern lights activity in the clouds and decided to set up a new spot on the side of the road. This new spot opened up to a large mountainous fjord.
It was at this point that the lights came out much more vividly and I saw my first truly impressive sight of the lights. While the camera picks up their green color better than what you’d see in real life, when the lights are strong, they look unmistakably green to the naked eye.
After setting up my tripod and spending some time adjusting the settings on my camera, I started to snap away at the sky, capturing thousands of stars along with the lights reflecting on the water.
After each minute, we noticed more and more stars dusting the sky as the clouds opened up. Green streaks stretched from overhead all the way down to the horizon beyond the mountains. This was a true northern lights experience and what I had been hoping for ever since my nightmare of a trip to Iceland in 2014.
After a couple of minutes for the lights to begin to intensify. They grew thicker and brighter and appeared all over the sky in different places. One thing about the northern lights is you never know what they’re going to do.
Suddenly, these streaks started moving fast, whipping and whirling through the night sky. The green intensified into white and even purple and pink colors came out. It was electric.
There were ooohs and ahhhs from everyone in our group. I was beyond thrilled and just trying to capture some of the moment on my camera. I’d already been mystified by the lights earlier but this was just unreal. I had no idea the lights truly danced.
This went on for about 5 minutes and even when the dancing died down, the northern lights continued to appear and reappear in the sky for hours. Our group built a fire and some lay down on reindeer skin hides to watch the light show. Servings of hot chocolate and hot soup warmed us up as we finished up the night.
We didn’t make it back to our hotel until late close to 2am that night but it was completely worth it, because I could not have asked for a more memorable encounter with the northern lights.
Night two: A battle with the elements
I questioned whether we should go out a second night in a row. The first night had been such an overwhelmingly amazing experience that I could’ve happily ended my northern lights experience there. My feeling was that if the lights didn’t show the second night we would be ending our northern lights experience on a low note, not to mention that it would just suck to spend hours roaming aimlessly in a van all night.
But, we decided we didn’t travel all that way to Norway to settle for one good night of the lights so we decided to go out a second night.
This night was a battle. We settled on a point along the rocky coast to watch the lights but the the winds whipped up from the Norwegian Sea creating a brutally cold experience at times. Unlike the night before, I had to completely bundle up and keep my gloves, beanies, and face mask on at all times and I still found myself shivering. The winds penetrated my jeans and thermals and after a couple of hours I could feel my toes getting icy.
Despite the cold, however, we caught some of the most amazing views of the northern lights. It started out with a pretty mild showing like the night before.
And then as the evening progressed, a more intense display showed up.
Eventually massive streaks of green covered the sky and moved fluidly behind the low-lying clouds.
At one point, things had gotten quiet for a while and a few people in our group went back inside the van to defrost. I’d just set up my tripod outside the van and the folks warming up inside the van asked me to tell them if anything happened.
Well, within about two minutes, I noticed thick green streaks appearing more intense in the sky and I knew something special was happening. I ran into the van and told them to come out and that’s when we witnessed an even bolder display of the northern lights. This time we saw bright pink streaks rippling all over the sky and even through the clouds.
A tour bus, with immaculate timing, pulled up right as this show was starting and as the lights show picked up, tourists poured out of the bus, immediately gawking up to the sky as they caught this magnificent show.
It’s worth noting that northern light experiences can sometimes become something of an endurance event. By the end of this night, I could barely feel my toes and my face and I was utterly exhausted from so little sleep but the hours spent under the lights had been 100% worth it.
Night 3: The test drive
On night 3, clouds blanketed the sky and sleet poured down all over Tromsø. Even though we’d enjoyed our tours the two nights before, we decided it was time to do some exploring on our own in our rental car.
I’d still been running on fumes from the lack of sleep from the past three days, so we decided to only do a “test drive” about an hour into the fjords just to see how difficult it would be to drive on those icy Arctic roads. Having virtually no experience in driving in cold conditions, I wasn’t sure if we’d be sliding up and down the roads and to be honest was a bit nervous about it.
Luckily, we didn’t have any issues that night so we decided that the next night we’d venture a few hours all the way into Finland while chasing the northern lights.
Night 4: Christmas night with the northern lights
Night 4 would be one of the most memorable experiences of my entire life. It was also Christmas.
We started very early around 5pm, as it was already very dark. This night was special because it was the first clear night of our trip. Even though the city of Tromsø was still covered in snowing clouds, the fjords found inland were completely devoid of any clouds.
About 25 minutes into our drive, we were riding along the coast of a fjord and I took a peak out the side of the car window. That’s when I noticed a massive streak running across the sky, over the tops of some mountains overlooking the fjord.
We stopped and got out to catch some photographs. This green streak soon doubled and then tripled as the color intensified. Soon the entire sky was filled with these green ribbons of light, folding and stretching above us.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were witnessing an unexpected solar storm hitting the Earth’s atmosphere.
It was an absolutely brilliant display of light.
The lights continued to morph into several odd shapes and at one time even formed a giant “X” in the sky.
Other odd shapes continued to come to life as we watched.
Eventually we made our way a bit further into the fjords until we started to witness another spectacular showing forming in the sky.
This showing started to transform into something resembling a northern light cyclone at one point.
After a few minutes, more and more lights appeared and we witnessed the strongest display of northern lights that we saw during our entire trip.
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At one point, the lights almost covered the entire sky.
I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, the sight of the lights never got old. Sure you’d get neck cramps from looking up at the sky for hours and you’d begin to freeze, but those were small prices to pay considering the reward of catching the northern lights.
After the intense display, we made our way into Finland. We climbed through a winding road across the border where we had no cell phone service and didn’t see but maybe one or two cars — this was Christmas night after all.
We stopped for a while and I got out of the car. As soon as I stepped out into the -2ºF air, it was eerily quiet. Absolutely no noise coming from anything. All I saw was a brilliantly clear sky with lights slowly waving through it.
After trekking into Finland, we returned back on our way to Tromsø. Before arriving back into the city, we made a few stops to admire the dancing lights that continued to appear throughout the night.
We were blessed with one more strong showing of the lights — this one came with bright showings of purple that rippled through the sky.
We made our way back to the hotel some time around 1am. My experience with the northern lights had been well beyond even my most optimistic hopes. After having such a disaster of a trip in Iceland in 2014 while trying to catch the lights, this was all the redemption I could’ve asked for. I really hope to see the lights again (soon) one day but until then, these memories will suffice for me.
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Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.