SWEDEN: In search of the northern lights in Abisko National Park

A view of the Abisko River in Abisko National Park.

My best friend Jenna and I first traveled to Sweden in summer of 2011 with a trip to Stockholm. For Jenna, it was a chance to connect with her roots, since her grandmother on her father's side was born in Sweden. We had an excellent time soaking up the Swedish summer despite the country's expensive prices, and we left with a fondness in our hearts for this beautiful country of friendly people who speak alarmingly good English.

When she began to plan what would be her second trip to Europe to visit me, we decided to make another trip to Sweden together. But, we wanted to see something new. In doing some research of things to do in Sweden in winter, Jenna came across a national park in northern Sweden called Abisko National Park, which is supposedly one of the best locations in the world for seeing the northern lights. It just so happens that peak season for the lights there in November to March, and we would be coming right in the middle of that period (January).

This caught our attention immediately. The park is VERY far north, well inside of the Arctic Circle. It was somewhere no one we know has ever been before, so that gave it points in our book. Plus, the idea of going to far northern Sweden in the dead of winter had just the right mix of crazily stupid/awesomely ridiculous that made us want to do it even more.

We did some research to figure out logistics as far as where to fly and where to stay, and finally we booked what we would later say if the best trip either of us have taken to date.  It was an adventure for sure, not all parts of it smooth, but I wouldn't trade it for anything else in the world.

For our flights, we determined that our best option was to fly into Stockholm, spend the night there, then fly up to Kiruna (in the north), stay in the park, fly back to Stockholm, spend the night, then return to Germany. It was a lot of flying for a five-day stay in Sweden, but that was more or less the easiest (and cheapest) way to do it.

We departed from Frankfurt on Tuesday, Jan. 7. Our first flight got us into Stockholm later in the evening (around 10 p.m.) and our flight the next day was in the late morning, so it made more sense for us to stay close to the airport rather than take the 45 minutes to get into the city. We booked a cheap night's stay at the Connect Hotel, about 10 minutes from the airport with a free shuttle, which was perfect for our needs.

The next day, we headed back to the airport for our flight to Kiruna. I had no idea what to expect from this plane, since we were flying to such a small city (population of about 10,000), although there is a fair amount of tourism that comes up there for the national park. I half expected a little 10-seat propeller plane.

Instead, our plane was surprisingly large and perfectly nice -- three seats on either side of the aisle, and probably 20 or so rows. I suppose that makes sense in hindsight, since both Norwegian (which we flew) and SAS offer daily flights to and from Kiruna to both Stockholm and Copenhagen -- there clearly must be regular demand for these flights. It did seem though like most of the makeup of our flight up there was locals coming home, as opposed to tourists flying up.

The flight up to Kiruna took about an hour and a half. It was quite cloudy so we there wasn't much to see below us on the way up, but that just gave us more time to enjoy the free wifi (you go, Norwegian!).

One byproduct of the wifi was that I happened to see this post on Facebook from one of the tour operators in Abisko. It was a beautiful picture of the aurora, taken just the previous night from the park -- and, according to the poster, indications were good that we'd be in for some great aurora watching the next few nights.

I had tried very hard up to this point to not get my hopes up for seeing the lights. Everything I read said not to count on them, you're lucky if you see them no matter how far north you are or how clear it is, etc. So I went into this trip telling myself it was more about the experience of going somewhere completely new and unknown than anything else.

All of that self-restraint was destroyed the second I saw that post. My heart started racing. This is it, I thought to myself, the best chance I may ever have to see the northern lights. With a buildup like that, if we came home empty handed it'd be very hard not to feel extremely disappointed. As we began our descent into Kiruna, my mind starting racing with the possibilities the next couple days held.

Landing in Kiruna (taken from my cell phone).

Landing in Kiruna was quite the experience itself. As the airport came in view, I was amazed to see just how tiny it was -- it was an adorable, bright red building in a sea of white snow. We landed smoothly on a snowy tarmac, and when it was time to deplane, we exited directly onto the tarmac and shuffled through the snow to the entrance of the airport.

Although Kiruna was the closest airport to the park, it was still an hour and a half drive from there to Abisko. There is a train that runs right to the lodge we were staying, but the times didn't match up well at all with our arrival into Kiruna (which really seems quite stupid to me -- they'd probably get a lot more people paying for the train if they adjusted the schedule to match the incoming and outgoing flights). Because of this mismatch, I booked a shuttle for us to and from the airport. The website described our ride as a bus, so I was expecting to see a large-ish charter bus of some type. There were a couple such buses parked in front of the airport when we arrived, but neither was going to our lodge. After both drove away and the time of our pickup at 1:30 p.m. grew nearer, I began to get a little anxious that nothing had arrived yet.

As we waited outside, I called the information line for the company we had booked with to make sure we hadn't somehow missed the ride. It took a bit of time to finally get through to someone, but once I did we found out that our ride was there trying to find us! Confused, we eventually pieced together that a black van emblazoned with the logos of a local travel company was in fact our ride -- not a bus, like the website had led me to believe. We waited outside it, and within a few moments our ride emerged, confused at where we had been -- he had been wandering inside the airport trying to find us as we stood outside trying to find him. A classic case of miscommunication.

It turns out that we were the only two people who had booked the shuttle that day, so we got a private tour of sorts from our driver and the young woman who was with him (maybe his daughter? I never figured that out; should have asked). Both spoke solid English (like everyone else in Sweden), so they told us some things about the history of Kiruna, which is mostly known in Sweden for it's significant mining operations, and took us briefly through the town center.

Once we got out of Kiruna (which didn't take long given it's size), we sat back and enjoyed the scenery. It was a bit of a harrowing ride, as all the roads were snow-covered and quite narrow. Every time we passed a large truck (too many times for my liking), we were momentarily blinded by a cloud of snow. I was very happy that our experienced driver was the one behind the wheel rather than Jenna or I.

At one point in the ride, we even passed a moose family -- my first time seeing moose in the wild! It sounded like this was a pretty routine occurrence up there. The girl riding with us even called the sighting in to the local radio station so they could dispatch it to listeners as a traffic alert to drive carefully in that area.

One dismaying sight as we drove in was how cloudy it was. I had read many websites that cautioned that weather this far north is extremely volatile and can change quickly, so I wanted to cling to the hope that things would clear up in time for aurora watching that night. But our drivers were not optimistic about our chances that night.

This was especially a bummer because we had already booked tickets for the Aurora Sky Station, which is a small building perched on a mountain with outdoor decks to provide a place from which to look out and try to see the lights. You reach the station via a chairlift at the base of the mountain. It bills itself as "probably the best aurora on Earth"... but only if there are clear skies.

We had booked our ticket in advance because the website cautioned that tickets could sell out, and we had no way of knowing how real this threat was. We decided we didn't want to risk the possibility of not being able to go up the chairlift at all, as it seemed like a cool experience to us, so we decided to risk disappointment by booking our tickets in advance for our first night. Unfortunately, it looked like our gamble wasn't going to pay off, and in hindsight, it really wasn't necessary to book in advance. But there's no way we could have known that ahead of time.

The entrance to the lodge.

By the time we arrived at our lodge around 3:45, it was nearly completely dark outside. I had never been somewhere this far north in the winter (or been that far north period, I guess), so that was a new and disorienting experience. The lodge offered traditional hotel lodging in addition to cottages to rent and hostel-style accommodations. Trying to keep costs down, we opted for the hostel, which was a bit of a misfire.

For hostel standards it was perfectly fine, with the major caveat that the radiator in our room didn't work, which is kind of a problem when it's well below freezing outside. When we spoke with the front desk about this, they didn't seem overly surprised and gave us a portable radiator to use in our room instead. A nice gesture, but it didn't do a lot to improve the situation, so in that regard we were quite happy we were only staying two nights.

Additionally, it was probably the most hostel-y hostel I'd ever stayed in. What I mean by that is I feel like so many hostels today have done a lot to change their images to be less about budget traveling and more about giving young people a place to stay that is both fun and original and economical -- they might have funky modern furniture or colorful decors, and they pretty much always offer amenities like free wifi. Not so with this hostel. The decor was all pretty boring and dated, the rooms functional but sparse, and no free wifi in-building -- you had to walk over to the lodge for that. None of that made it unbearable (if the heat had worked in our room I would have found everything to be just fine). It was just the first time I've ever stayed in a hostel that basically matched the images of hostels I had in my mind before I came to Europe for the first time, if that makes sense -- it was exactly what I thought hostels would be like until I stayed in some and found they were generally very comfortable and pleasant to be in.

We got settled into our room, made ourselves some dinner in the hostel's kitchen and then...just sort of waited around. That was one definite downside of the limited daylight hours -- once it gets dark, unless you have a headlamp (and sufficient layers) you really can't do much in the park.

We received a weather report at the front desk of the lodge around 8:30 p.m., which, as we feared, was not favorable to aurora watching that night. Still, we had our skylift tickets for the Sky Station booked already (and there was no option to exchange them for another night), so we forged ahead with the plan.

The skylift itself was about a 10-15 minute walk from the lodge. It was a little hard to find at night (no signs along the way to know for sure you were going the right direction, although the way was at least lit). This was our first chance to really see some of the park though, and although we couldn't see a lot in the darkness, we did begin to get a feel for the park's abundant natural beauty. Part of the walk took us across a bridge located over the Abisko River and the rocky gorge through which it courses.

All suited up and ready to head into the cold!

Upon arriving at the skylift, our first order of business was to suit up in a pair of "Aurora watcher overalls," which was included in the price of the ticket. These were basically extremely thick and bulky jumpsuits, designed to give you extra protection from the cold. At first, we questioned whether we really needed these -- we were already pretty warmly dressed, and the overalls were just so cumbersome and difficult to put on. But since we'd already paid for them, we went with it -- this ended up being a very smart decision because it became very cold very quickly up the mountain.

Once we had our gear on, we headed over to the lift and the operator got us settled in. He placed a safety bar across or laps, and then off we went into the darkness.

Riding the lift was an extremely surreal and cool experience -- as well as a slightly terrifying one. It took about 15 minutes to get up the mountain, and during that time the only sounds were the rush of the wind and the quiet clacking of the chairlift. At some points we were probably 40 or 50 feet up in the air, with no sign of human life within sight. Whenever someone else got on the chairlift back at the entrance, the whole thing would stop for about 30 seconds or so, and could feel our chair bouncing slightly on the cable, swaying in the wind. If you are scared of heights, I would absolutely not recommend doing this -- I consider myself pretty good about stuff like that, but even my heart was racing. Still, the views were lovely -- even though it was dark, you could just make out the mountains ranging from either side.

Inside the Sky Station.

We finally arrived at the sky station, already quite cold despite our thick protective suits. An attendant let us off the lift, and then we headed inside. In the entry way there was a room to leave your overalls and other gear. Inside there were tables and couches that created a sort of cozy cafe atmosphere. There was a small counter where you could order hot drinks as well as some snacks, but Jenna and I had forgotten to bring any money with us. Along one wall were windows that looked back down the mountain to the lights of the village below. The station was located at about 900m elevation, so about 3,000 feet.

Shortly after we got there, one of the guides held an informational session in the station. There was one room with some exhibits related to the aurora, and she talked to us more about the science and history of the aurora. At the end, she led us all outside so we could walk around a bit, but since it was so cloudy and windy, there was really no point in spending much time out there -- there was just nothing to see beyond the lights of the village below. I do think it would be a great place to be on a clear night though. I can't imagine having a much better vantage point than the station, plus it gives you somewhere warm to escape into when you can't take it anymore.

The station is open from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., but we decided to head down around 11:30 since there wasn't much to do without an aurora to watch. We talked to one of the guides before we left, and she told us she thought we'd have a much better chance the next day. The weather forecast indicated there would be clear skies, and the space weather forecast (because apparently that's a thing?) was also favorable, with high solar activity predicted.

So we descended back down the mountain, unsuccessful in our first attempt to see the aurora but full of hope for what the next day held. Getting to see the Sky Station was still a cool and worthwhile experience, and I'm glad we got to do it -- I just wished we hadn't booked the tickets in advance so we could have been more strategic about it.

We headed to bed around 12:30 a.m. that night and got up around 8 a.m. the next day. We both would have liked to have slept longer, but with the "daylight" hours so limited, I wanted to make sure we had as much time as possible to enjoy the park. We enjoyed the lodge's solid breakfast buffet, then stopped by the equipment store to rent snowshoes, trekking poles and headlamps (for later in the night).

Start of the Kungsleden in Abisko.

We then spent a couple hours hiking through the park. There are a lot of different trails to take and parts of the park to explore. We opted to see some of the Kungsleden, or the King's Trail, which is a 440 km-long (270 mi) trail through northern Sweden. The part we walked along took us through a lovely birch forest along the Abisko River, with views of the surrounding mountains.

As someone who comes from the Pacific Northwest in the U.S. and loves the landscapes out there, I found overall experience of hiking through Abisko to be wonderful. The park was just so beautiful, and it felt so untouched by people. We saw a few clusters of people during our walk, but for the most part we felt completely alone, free to explore at our own pace.

We headed back toward the lodge around noon, because I also wanted to do some walking along the lake just behind the lodge, and again, the light was fleeting. It was never even proper sunlight, because we never saw the sun while we were there -- more of just a general brightness in the sky.

Along the Kungsleden -- the Abisko River is visible along the rocks.

We warmed up for a short bit, then headed back out to hike toward the lake. Unfortunately, by this point I was really starting to feel the cold in my fingers and toes. I have poor circulation in general, plus I didn't have the best cold weather gear (gloves that were too thin and non-fur-lined boots), so eventually Jenna and I parted ways so she could keep walking toward the water and I could start heading back to warm up.

This was where I really started to regret that we were only staying for two nights. That meant we only had about 5 hours one day to really see the park itself, which I think was a shame. I think we came into this trip prioritizing the chance to see the lights, and anything else we did would just be a bonus. In reality, Abisko as a park is a destination in and of itself, and I would have loved to have had one more day just to do some hiking.

A view of Lake Torenträsk and the mountains that line it.

As the daylight waned, we spent the next several hours hanging around the lodge, forming a general game plan for what we would do that night. There seemed to be some good clearings down by the lake that would be good for setting up camp to watch the lights, so we decided we'd head back that way around 10 p.m. that night, since the guide at the sky station had said 10:30 p.m. is usually the beginning of peak time to see the lights.

Around 4 p.m., I walked from our hostel over to the lodge to reserve ourselves a table for dinner that night. When I stepped out of the hostel, and looked up, I nearly gasped. Though it was still early in the day, you could already see some stars coming out in the sky -- stars that you could only see if the skies were clear. Stars we would have never been able to see through the clouds the previous night.

Stars meant we had a chance of actually seeing some aurora that night, and I had never before in my life been so happy to see those twinkling lights in the sky.

While in the lodge, I heard many people talking about the possibility of seeing the lights that night. Apparently there was supposed to be a massive solar storm that night as well -- one of the largest in the last 10 years -- and everyone was positively abuzz with excitement. Again, I couldn't help myself as I found my hopes raising. There were clear skies, extremely favorable space weather, and I was in one of the best places in the entire world to see the northern lights. We couldn't have timed this trip any better.

When Jenna and I walked back over to the lodge around 6 for dinner, the stars were out even brighter and in huge numbers. We giggled like loons as we stared up at the sky, excited for the possibilities the night held.

After a delicious dinner of moose bourguignon (because Sweden), we returned to the hostel to rest up for the night ahead of us. We started layering up around 9:30 that night -- two pairs of socks, plus feetwarmers, long underwear tops and bottoms plus fleece-lined leggings and multiple shirts... we did everything we could to arm ourselves against the arctic cold. It was going to be less than 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) that night, and we'd most likely be out for a couple hours, so we needed to try everything to keep ourselves warm. I even bought new gloves at the equipment store in the lodge to try to keep my fingers in commission for longer.

Armed with my camera, a tripod, headlamps and our voluminous layers, we made our way out into the arctic night. We hiked for about 15 minutes until we found a spot we liked, near the lake shore. This meant it was probably colder there than some other locations we could have scouted, but the area was relatively clear of tall trees, so it provided a great view of the sky. I set up my camera and tripod... and then we waited.

The sky was amazingly clear -- very few clouds, and the moon was extremely bright, to the point that we didn't even necessarily need our headlamps to guide us. When we did use them, we kept them on the red light setting, rather than white light -- red light protects your night vision much better than white light, and good night vision is essential when trying to see the lights.

The beautiful, clear night we had to try and see the aurora.

We tried to keep our spirits up, but after about 30-45 minutes of standing out there without seeing anything, the cold really started to get to us. Much to my dismay my fingers were already going numb, and the feet warmers in my boots didn't seem to be much help either. I began to fear that the cold would be too much for me -- what if I had to head inside before we saw anything? We tried to do small laps around the clearing regularly to keep the blood flowing. It helped, but it was still horribly cold.

An American couple from Texas, Jacob and Shailie, happened to pass by our base, so they stopped to talk with us for a bit. The four of us looked out into the night sky, trying desperately to see something. I kept noticing what looked almost like grey smudges against the sky. They didn't quite look like clouds, and seemed to move and disappear in a decidedly un-cloudlike manner. But I really wasn't sure if I was actually seeing something odd, or if perhaps my eyes were playing tricks on me. Finally, Jacob pointed out one of those smudges, asking if we saw it too -- yes, we all did, and no, it hadn't been there a couple minutes ago, we agreed.

So I decided to take a picture of it, just to see what might turn up -- it was possible the camera would pick out something we couldn't see with our own eyes. I took a 30-second exposure (the most I can do with my camera right now based on the equipment I have). and once it processed and the picture popped up on the screen, we had quite a surprise. All these smudges we kept seeing? Those turned out green -- and even a little red! -- on the camera.

Our aurora surprise on the camera.

It turned out we had probably been seeing the lights for longer than we realized. The problem was that they were so faint -- due in part probably to the bright moonlight -- that we could barely make them out against the sky. But at least, once we realized what we needed to look for, it helped us train our eyes to better spot the lights.

I took a few more shots over the next 20 minutes, which kept confirming that yes, these were the lights. Unfortunately, it was so cold that my camera battery began to fail, not letting me take the longer exposure that were necessary to actually bring out the colors of the lights. It was during one of these periods that we saw one of the best displays that night. It lasted probably only 10-15 seconds, but it was a quite clearly visible shimmering curtain of sorts -- more in line with the pictures you're probably used to seeing of the lights. I wish I had been able to get a picture of it, because I'm sure it would have looked amazing, but I'll just have to assure you that yes, it was pretty cool.

Our American friends left us to keep exploring the rest of the park. We stayed out a while longer, but with no sign of any grander displays and all of our extremities thoroughly numbed, we decided we needed to head back inside -- it was just too damn cold.

Another shot that turned out kind of cool.

As we walked back up to the lodge and turned around, we saw one more beautiful display. It was like a jagged, glowing line across the sky -- it almost looked like a tear in the sky. It still wasn't terribly bright, but brighter than most of what we had seen down by the lake; you could actually make out the green hue of the lights.

At this point my camera and tripod were already packed away. I thought about scrambling to set everything up in hopes that my battery might make one final push. But at that point in the night, I didn't have the energy or the will.

Plus, people have been seeing these lights for thousands of years without taking pictures. At some point, you have to step away from your LCD screens and viewfinders and just look at the lights. Maybe I didn't get the photographic proof I wanted from this experience, but at the end of the day, how much did that matter? I know I was there, and I know what I saw. After spending two and a half hours outside in the arctic circle staring out at the night sky, I don't really know that I need pictures to prove to people what I saw. I was there, I saw it, and it was beautiful. End of story.

We stopped at the lodge on our way back to our hostel to warm up and decompress from the experience. It was an exhausting and exhilarating night, but overall I think it was worth it.

We got up the next morning around 7 to pack up, tidy up the room, and enjoy some breakfast before our 8:15 a.m. shuttle back to Kiruna. Once again the actual catching of the shuttle was not a smooth experience -- to make a long story short, the pan pulled away just as we were walking toward it, leaving us to believe it had left without us, but it actually returned about 15 minutes later. Guess they need to quickly drop something off or something like that, but since this wasn't communicated to us, we had no idea what was going on. So that made for a rather tense 15 minutes, but luckily everything worked out.

The drive back was simply stunning. Since it was cloudy when we first came in, we didn't get to see much of the landscape, but this time it was clear as could be. We had a great view of the mountains surrounding the lake, and you could even see rays of the sunrise giving the landscape a warm glow. During the drive, we saw an arctic hare and either a fox or a lynx -- still not sure what, but something of that size. I wish I could have asked the driver to pull over, just for two minutes, so I could capture the view during the journey to Kiruna. But once again, you'll just have to take my word for it.

We caught our flight back down to Stockholm that afternoon. Since our flight back to Germany was not leaving until 4 p.m. the next day, we had booked a hostel in the city center so we could enjoy our 18 hours in the city. But after so much travel and moving around and staying up late the last few days, we were spent. We found a hip eatery not too far from our hostel, enjoyed a good meal... and then spent the rest of the night in the hostel, going to bed around 11 p.m. Not the sexiest night out in Stockholm, but at least it spared our wallets the expense of Swedish nightlife.

The next day we slept as long as we could, ate a hearty breakfast at an American-style breakfast joint called Sirup, and later I walked around a bit taking pictures. It had snowed the previous night, giving the whole city a beautiful white blanket to complement the city's characteristically colorful buildings. Stockholm is lovely in the summer, but absolutely beautiful in winter -- I feel lucky to have seen it now in both seasons.

Stockholm with snow.

Five days in Sweden, four flights, two nights in the north, one night of the northern lights. All in all, it was a bit of a whirlwind trip. As I previously mentioned, if I could do it over again, I would have stayed one more night to really enjoy Abisko. Otherwise, it was an incredible trip, and I'm so glad we didn't let the perceived stupidity of going to far northern Sweden in the dead of winter dissuade us.

Seeing the northern lights was perhaps not as grand as we were hoping, but I know we're still lucky to have seen anything at all. But rather than sating my desire to see the far north, this trip has made me want to see even more of it. It's not a frozen wasteland up there. There is an incredible wealth of natural, untarnished beauty to experience, and I hope I can continue to explore it as my time and money permit.

So who wants to go to Tromsø with me?