When my friend approached me in September with an unexpected invitation to chase the Aurora borealis in the arctics in Norway for New Year’s, I didn’t hesitate for a moment. Without delay, I asked, “Where do I book my flight to?” It was a chance too good to pass up, and I was excited to venture on this once-in-a-lifetime experience and celebrate New Year together with my close friends.
That’s how I found myself in Tromsø, a charming city also named a “Gateway to the Arctic” and one of the premier destinations to witness the awe-inspiring Northern Lights. While Tromsø offered plenty of opportunities for adventure with its wide range of tour operators and excursions, we yearned for something even more secluded and remote. So, we rented a car and embarked on a journey to Senja, an island renowned for its untouched wilderness and minimal light pollution, perfect for aurora viewing.
If you’re considering a winter trip to Arctic Norway, be prepared for long periods of darkness. During our December visit, we had less than four hours of twilight each day, and the sun never fully rose above the horizon. This can take some getting used to, as we found ourselves sleeping in much later and feeling groggy in the afternoons.
However, the darkness also offered unique opportunities for stargazing and hunting for the Northern Lights. The endless night skies are a true spectacle and a must-see for any astronomy enthusiast. On the other hand, the majestic mountains rising above the fjords that Norway is known for were not as visible in the dark.
Living in a region with limited daylight can be challenging, but the people of Norway have found a way to thrive by embracing the darkness and creating their own light. They illuminate their homes with beautiful lights and decorations and make the most of the time they have indoors with their loved ones.
But just because the sun sets early doesn’t mean the fun has to stop. Norwegians make the most of the dark winter nights by also embracing outdoor activities like skiing, camping, or Husky sledding. Even we were tempted and slid down hills like kids on New Year’s Eve for 3 hours.
With some planning and luck, it was possible to take in the area’s natural beauty, see the celestial wonders and have fun in the snow.
What to do
One of our main goals for this trip was to see the Northern Lights, which is why we chose to visit this specific location. However, the forecast for the three days we were there was not promising, with a 100% chance of clouds.
My aurora forecast app indicated a KP (global geomagnetic activity index) of 4, which meant that there was a chance of seeing the aurora with the naked eye if the sky was clear. Unfortunately, every time we looked up, all we could see were clouds.
Just as we were losing hope, I decided to go out and take some night photos. To my surprise, I saw stars peeking through the clouds. This was a sign that the sky was clearing up! After a while, I looked through the photos I had taken and saw a faint aurora in the background. As time passed, the aurora became more and more vibrant, enveloping us in its dazzling green glow.
We were incredibly lucky to have clear skies for two hours, allowing us to fully witness the awe-inspiring Northern Lights. A true spectacle started when we thought everything was over and had already gotten home. It took me 5 seconds to put on ski pants and get back outside to snow piles for some new shots.
Sitting in a pile of snow, surrounded by the Northern Lights, was truly an unforgettable experience.
Read about tips on how to hunt for aurora here.
Skiing, Snowboarding, and Sledding
Being in the heart of a winter wonderland, there are places for skiing and snowboarding on Senja. Our trip was short, and even though we didn’t have enough time to ski, we couldn’t resist the temptation of the nearby hills and mounds of snow.
While some of my friends were in the city grocery shopping, they picked up a couple of sleds, which proved to be the highlight of our trip. We spent a couple of hours going up and down the nearby hill, laughing and having fun like children. It was amusing to see a group of adults in their 30s and 40s enjoying the simple pleasure of sledding.
We also attempted to build an igloo, but it was a bit of a failure. Oh well, next time 🙂
One of my lifelong dreams was to experience the thrill of dog sledding, so when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance. However, as important as it was for me to have fun, it was equally crucial for me to ensure that the dogs involved were treated with care and respect. I couldn’t enjoy dog sledding if it meant that the well-being of the dogs was compromised.
After thorough research, we discovered a reputable company called Senja Husky Adventure that had positive reviews online. Upon arriving at the kennel, it was clear that the owner had a genuine love and concern for the well-being of the dogs. We were delighted to find that all the dogs were healthy, happy, and affectionate. I’ve never met so many cuddly dogs!
Dog sledding offers a truly one-of-a-kind way to explore the rugged beauty of the northern Norwegian wilderness. The sensation of the wind on our faces and the sight of wagging dog tails created a peaceful and serene atmosphere. As we entered the kennel, the huskies welcomed us with a chorus of howls, but as soon as the brake was released, the sled glided through the picturesque landscape in near silence. The feeling of harnessing the power of the dogs as we slid through the snow at night was truly unforgettable.
Our group of 9 was divided into pairs, with one person taking on the driver role and the other as a passenger. We took turns following each other’s trail. The ride was exhilarating, and we were also happy to help the dogs by pulling the sled up hills to prevent them from getting fatigued. It was clear that the dogs were eager to run and were excited to continue the journey each time we stopped for a short break.
After completing our sledding adventure, we assisted with the care of the dogs, taking off their harnesses and ensuring they were comfortable. Some of the dogs remained in the kennel, while others accompanied us to a small hut where we were able to give them extra hugs and scratches while enjoying warm drinks and snacks. The owner shared valuable insights about the dogs, their daily routines, and their habits. We were envious when we learned that the dogs were scheduled for a massage session as part of their care routine.
The company’s owner had thoughtfully provided us with torchlights for the dark arctic night, as well as warm winter suits and shoes to ensure our comfort during the experience.
Driving along the Senja Scenic Route
One of the most efficient ways to experience the stunning beauty and dramatic landscapes of Senja is to take a drive along the Senja Scenic Route. This road runs between Botnhamn and Gryllefjord, with the option to take short detours to the villages of Husøy and Mefjordvær.
Driving along the Senja Scenic Route was a breathtaking experience as we passed through numerous charming villages nestled between towering mountains. Each stop along the way offered its own unique charm and beauty. The steep mountains rising up from the sea, and illuminated villages tucked in between the fiords, were a sight to behold.
I was overjoyed when I found out that one of my friends was also an avid photographer. It was such a relief not to be the only one who wanted to spend hours standing outside 🙂
Due to the limited daylight hours, we were unable to drive the entire length of the Senja Scenic Route. However, we were fortunate enough to be able to make a few stops along the way and take in the breathtaking views. Although we didn’t have the chance to see all the route, we still managed to see some of the most beautiful places.
Our first stop along the Senja Scenic Route was at Tungeneset viewpoint. This location offered spectacular views of the Norwegian Sea to the west and the imposing Okshornan mountain range, also known as Devil’s Jaw, to the north.
I could have easily spent hours taking pictures at this spot, but my non-photographer friends only had enough patience for a short break 😛
The Bergsbotn viewpoint is a must-see destination, featuring a 44-meter-long platform offering panoramic views of the village of Bergsbotn and the surrounding peaks. Although we were not able to see the aurora lights, the views were still breathtaking.
The sun was setting quickly, and before we knew it, we were engulfed in total darkness. At this point, our group divided into two, with some returning home while others drove to the last stop to take some night pictures of the fishing village.
Mefjordvær, a historic fishing village situated between the open sea and towering mountains, was our final stop. As we walked out on the breakwater, my friend and I were absorbed in taking pictures while our partners focused on building a snowman. The picturesque village provided an ideal setting for capturing the natural surroundings’ beauty and the contrast between the sea, illuminated town, and the mountains.
Check out this website for details about the route and different stops along the way.
Reindeer Sledding & Feeding Tour
We could not find any tours in Senja, but there were plenty of options available in Tromsø. Unfortunately, we were not able to participate in any of these tours due to a lack of time. However, our friends, who had a very late flight, were able to visit a reindeer farm where they fed the reindeers, and learned more about Sami culture.
The Sami people, also known as the Lapps, are indigenous people of northern Europe who traditionally inhabit the Arctic area of Sápmi, which today encompasses parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. They have their own unique culture, language, and way of life, which has been shaped by the harsh Arctic environment in which they live. They have a population of around 75,000 people.
To preserve their heritage, they are the only people in Norway that the government allow to herd and breed reindeer. Reindeer sledding is a traditional activity that is closely tied to their culture. The Sami have a long history of using reindeer for transportation and for herding, and reindeer sledding is still a popular way to experience the Arctic wilderness and learn about the Sami culture.
The tour usually includes reindeer sledding, where you might visit a traditional Sami village or camp where you can meet local reindeer herders and learn about their way of life. You may also have the opportunity to participate in traditional Sami activities and possibly even try out traditional Sami clothing and food.
Tromsø is a popular destination for whale watching. The city is located in the Arctic region and is surrounded by the Barents Sea, which makes it an ideal spot for observing different species of whales. The most popular time for whale watching is typically between the beginning of November and the end of January, when the whales tend to leave the Tromsø area.
The tour usually takes several hours as, in recent years, the whales started migrating more towards Skjervoy, which is about a 3 to 4-hour boat ride from Tromsø.
Snowmobiling is a great way to experience the unique landscapes and natural beauty of the Arctic and to see wildlife such as reindeer and Arctic foxes.
Many tour operators in Tromsø offer snowmobiling tours. These tours typically include transportation to the tour’s starting point, as well as the use of snowmobiles and any necessary safety equipment. Guides will be provided, who will lead the tour and provide information about the area.
The snowmobiling tours usually take place on groomed trails, and there are different options available, from easy and short trips to longer and more challenging ones. Some tour operators also offer the opportunity to overnight in a cabin or tent in the wilderness.
Tromsø may be a small city, but it is truly breathtaking during the winter months. The streets and houses are beautifully illuminated, making for a truly magical ambiance. Take a stroll through the city center, and enjoy the sights while sipping on a warm cup of coffee or tea.
How to get to Senja
As previously mentioned, we opted to rent a car for our trip. Upon arrival, as all the ferry shortcuts were no longer in operation for the day and with our flight landing in the evening, we ended up having to take a longer route that looped around the fjords.
We braved the extreme winter weather, with roads that were slick with ice and snow. The moment I hit the brakes, I could feel the car sliding and skidding on the icy surface, despite the many plows that had been through the area. At one point, we were crawling along at just 5 kmph, struggling to see the road ahead through the pitch-blackness and blowing snow. The road that Google predicted would take us 3h20 took almost 5 hours.
So when you plan, give yourself some time in case you encounter harsh driving conditions.
On our way back, we were supposed to take a ferry but found out it was canceled. Despite the unforeseen setback, our journey was not without its highlights. The detour added an additional four hours to our travels on the morning of New Year’s Day along the snowy, icy roads, which is not what I imagined I would be doing. However, as a reward, we were treated to a rare sight when a group of reindeers decided to take a stroll on the road. Talk about luck in an unlucky situation!
Note: When renting our car, we met two couples who encountered an issue as they booked through a third-party website. Unfortunately, they discovered upon landing that their reservations had been canceled as the company did not have enough cars. We were fortunate enough to be upgraded to a better vehicle because we had rented directly from the car rental company, but the other couples had to scramble to find alternative transportation. It was a challenging task for them, especially so late in the evening.
My friend did an excellent job in researching and finding an ideal accommodation for our group of nine, the Polar Panorama Lodge. While I was outside chasing the Northern Lights in the snow, the rest of my companions were able to comfortably enjoy the show from the warmth of the lodge’s living room, thanks to the magnificent panoramic windows that offered a stunning view.