After our incredible fortune in Sweden, Courtny and I caught a train into Western Norway. We planned a road trip up to the arctic town of Tromsø, followed by a cruise along the coast to the Lofoten Islands. There was still a good chance of seeing the northern lights, though there is typically more cloud coverage along the Norwegian coast than in Abisko National Park. But the beauty of that region is not limited to the aurora; in fact, the northern lights are just a bonus. Everywhere you look, you see a flawless combination of mountains, water, and bridges. Few places on earth can compare to Western Norway when it comes to sheer beauty.
After driving through a number of snowsqualls on the four-hour journey to Tromsø, we loaded our rental car onto the ship and checked into the room. We worried that the following day would be too stormy to see much of the scenery. Courtny and I could not have been more wrong.
We awoke to a stunningly clear, crisp day. On the deck of the boat, the fresh, chilled air woke us up with a harsh bite. Norway is beautiful in the winter, but no one will ever accuse it of being warm. As we cruised along the coast and past the fjords, the otherworldly nature of what we were witnessing helped us forget about the cold. We spent hours admiring the views, only taking the occasional break to relieve the numbness in our cheeks.
As we approached the Lofoten Islands, the sun began its quick descent into the evening sky. The cruise pulled into its port; we hopped in the car and began the drive to the tiny fishing town of Reine. Much of the drive was during blue hour on an unusually clear night for the area. I felt like I could see for miles; my gaze piercing right through the crisp, clean air.
With about 30 minutes in the drive, we noticed a few faint aurora ribbons forming above the mountains. By the time we arrived in Reine, the northern lights were out in force, waving above us. Reine already has some of the most dramatic landscapes on the planet. When you add in the northern lights, it’s an embarrassment of riches for any photographer.
We stared in awe at the towering structures around us. Just minutes before, the only visible sections of these mountains were the bases. The peaks had disappeared into the darkness of night. That all changed under the blanket of a bright green northern lights show. Now we could clearly see not only the tops of the mountains, but also just how awesome, how dramatic, this Norwegian fishing town was.
When the auroras finally left us for the night, we realized how exhausted we were. We walked to what would be our home for the next two nights; a cozy cabin right on the water, complete with a full kitchen, queen bed, shower, and stop-in-your-tracks views of the surrounding mountains. We turned in for the night, already excited to explore the islands in the light of day when we awoke.
Neither of us remembers even getting to the bed, but we woke up feeling refreshed after getting eight hours of sleep for the first time on the trip. We jumped in our car and began a full day of driving, photographing, and completing our Frozen-themed vacation video. Don’t worry; that video is embedded at the end of this post. In the majesty of daylight, you would be hard-pressed to find somewhere as beautiful as the Lofoten Islands. We had seen some amazing landscapes on the ship, but nothing quite as incredible as this. Between the wild coastline with its violent waves, the skyscraping peaks, and the soft light of the overcast sky, our road trip was simply breathtaking.
The sun went down that evening around 5:30. It was our final night in the Arctic Circle, so we decided to hunt the northern lights one last time, even though the forecast looked less than promising. We filled up on some mouthwatering arctic cod, plus a berry-and-apple-based dessert—it’s healthy if it’s fruit—then went back to our room to bundle up one last time. We slid on our balaclavas, buttoned up our snow pants, and stepped outside.
Our hunt for the aurora began exactly how we expected it would; the atmosphere was simply too overcast to see much of the night sky. Occasionally, some of the thicker clouds would disperse, and we would catch a glimpse of the northern lights through the thinner, wispier clouds. After about 90 minutes of this, our tour guide, Joanna, saw clear skies and a strong ribbon forming in the distance. We hopped in the van and drove toward the light. When we got out, the ribbon was even stronger, now glowing a bright green.
We set up our cameras and waited to see if we would get one final show. And boy, did we. I was adjusting my tripod when, without warning, the snow beneath me lit up a bright green. I whipped my head up toward the sky and saw the northern lights taking over. Never in my life have I stared in such bewilderment at nature. How could something this incredible exist? The lights danced above us – rhythmic, yet unpredictable.
The experience of seeing an aurora show in full force is hard to describe. The best way for me to put it into words is this: you’ll feel like a small child. There were four of us watching the northern lights from the same spot that night, and all of us were literally cheering and yelling at the sky. I was taken back to my childhood, when my sister and I would lay outside for hours and stare at the stars above us. I remembered looking through my telescope toward the moon, astonished at how small I felt. And, now, after 15 years, the Norwegian night sky had given me that same sense of scale once again.
About a year ago, my wife, Courtny, and I began planning our northern lights trip. The night sky has always been a passion of ours. We’ve witnessed stunning meteor showers, gorgeous blood moons, and skies so clear that the glow of the Milky Way cast our shadows. But one phenomenon still reigned at the top of our bucket list: the aurora borealis.
With just over one week of traveling time, we decided to start our adventure in the frozen tundra of Abisko National Park. Abisko is world-renowned for being one of the best spots on the planet to witness the aurora. Lake Abisko provides the area with a microclimate; this microclimate, we were told, gives Abisko more clear nights than anywhere else in the Arctic Circle. The forecast was telling us otherwise. Still, we remained hopeful, and, after one night in Stockholm, we were off to the arctic.
“Welcome to Abisko,” our shuttle driver sarcastically announced. “Since we can’t see much out the window, just imagine buildings, a frozen lake, and mountains.” We watched as other tourists got off at their stops and rapidly disappeared into the blizzard. “Next stop: Abisko.net.” Courtny and I hopped off the bus. The driver looked down at my Converse shoes. “Sneakers?! You’re hardcore! You just need to walk up this driveway until you run into a building. ENJOY THE ARCTIC!” And just like that, Courtny and I were standing in the flurry. We looked up the driveway, still not able to see anything more than five feet in front of our faces.
Fortunately, soon after check-in at our hostel (which was only about 30 feet from where we were dropped), the weather began to clear. Outside, we could hear the sled huskies barking. That’s Courtny’s version of paradise, if you were wondering. That was also our first activity we had planned for our time in Abisko. We quickly changed clothes - no, I didn’t wear the Converse kicks - and met the tour guide in the hostel lobby. After a few minutes of walking and rounding up the dogs, we were off on our dog sledding adventure.
As the huskies pulled us through the wintry landscape of Arctic Sweden, the words of a local man played through my head: “Take a moment to breathe. You won’t believe how fresh the air is up here.” What an interesting, and beautiful, recommendation that was. The dogs whisked us through the woods and out into an open field, where the wind picked up and created small snow drifts. The peace of this frozen desert was enough to calm any busy mind. This is everything I hoped it would be.
When our tour concluded, we went back to the hostel for an afternoon nap. Spoiler alert: a trip to hunt the northern lights includes a big adjustment to your sleep schedule. After our midday rest, we got ourselves dinner and bundled up for our first night of looking for the aurora. We took a step outside and… snow. Snow falling everywhere. With thick clouds and heavy snowfall, I was already assuming we would get no northern lights on night one.
We piled into the snowmobile-attached sleds and our guides drove us out into the wilderness. Occasionally, we caught a glimpse of the aurora, but the snowfall and cloud coverage was still a huge obstacle. “Take a moment to breathe.” I realized how little I actually cared. Yes, I wanted to see an amazing northern lights show from the ground. After all, that was what we traveled 4,000 miles for. But I was in the arctic. At midnight. Bundled up in a blizzard with my wife. And we had already made some amazing new friends on this trip. I couldn't complain. It came time to head back from the wilderness for hot drinks and snacks in Abisko. As we arrived, we noticed the snow suddenly stopped. Looking up, the clouds began to quickly part. Maybe this whole “microclimate” thing is real. Out of nowhere, a faint gray cloud appeared above us. It was moving quickly and without pattern. Before we knew it, this "faint gray cloud" had turned to a bright green. The aurora danced above us for about 15 minutes, and it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.
After getting a few hours of sleep, Courtny and I were up and at ‘em the following morning with the Sami Reindeer Experience tour. The half-day tour gave us a glimpse into the fascinating Sami lifestyle and culture. We interacted with the beautiful reindeer for a couple hours before taking turns riding a reindeer-pulled sleigh. Some went fast, some took their time - these are still wild animals, after all. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the hostel for another arctic nap.
When we woke up from our afternoon sleep, we had no idea what kind of emotional roller coaster the evening would provide. We layered up and headed off to the meeting point for our second northern lights adventure in as many nights. As we cruised across the frozen tundra of Abisko, a magnificent green ribbon formed in the clear skies above us. This is going to be a good night. We arrived at our tent, unpacked the cameras, and got ready for what was going to be an amazing show. Unfortunately, the clear skies were covered by clouds within minutes.
Everyone on the tour went into the tent, occasionally popping our heads out to see if the skies had magically cleared. They had not. We spent our time talking, eating, and drinking hot chocolate. Eventually, I made my way back out into the freezing cold to stare at the sky and hope for the best. Suddenly, about 30 minutes before we were scheduled to head back to town, the clouds began to part. We caught the glimpse of an occasional ribbon above us, so we knew the aurora had made an appearance. Clouds dissipated more and more; as they cleared, both the sky and the snow in front of us glowed a vibrant green. As we gazed toward the heavens, the northern lights danced and lit up Abisko. This is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.
It was one of those nights that I remember every detail from. I remember shivering in the silent darkness of Abisko, looking at the sky and hoping I would see this stunning show. I recall the taste of the lingonberry juice and the way the hot chocolate warmed me. I remember the childlike bliss that overtook Courtny and me when the clearing clouds revealed a bright green light. I remember getting back to the hostel, with a smile permanently glued to my face… in fairness, the arctic chill may have frozen that expression, but I believe it was more due to my genuine satisfaction.
Our time in Abisko was brief. But our aurora-hunting holiday was far from over. Up next: chasing the northern lights through the dramatic, otherworldly landscapes of Western Norway. Thanks for reading!