Viewing the Northern Lights in autumn

Peak autumn has a name in Finnish – it’s known as ruska. Whilst it’s a lovely time, the season is short. Tradition says that ruska starts in September and lasts just three weeks.
Late September in Lapland: the last blue bilberries cling to bright red stalks, pale chanterelles crop up in the woods and birch trees hold on to a thinning crop of yellow leaves.

“Autumn is a vastly underrated season,” explains Amy Hope, managing director of our partner Activities Abroad. “Winter has the headline activities: snowmobiles, huskies, all of that. But it can be very cold and very dark. In autumn you have really nice longer days. And the colours… it’s absolutely breathtaking – you have the oranges, the reds, it’s beautiful.”

In Finland, the autumn foliage doesn’t last long on the trees, making the season seem brief. But other seasonal displays last a lot longer. September, October and November are fantastic times of the year to see the Northern Lights in Finland.

Autumn Northern Lights trips in Lapland are a new and upcoming kind of tourism in Finland that aren’t dependent on the snow. More and more people are discovering how nice it is to see the country in its autumnal downtime.

Why see the Northern Lights in autumn?

The Northern Lights can be seen from late August and all the way through the autumn months.

According to NASA, historic records show that geomagnetic disturbances over Earth – the reason we get the aurora – are almost twice as likely in spring and autumn as they are in summer and winter.

This culminates at the spring and autumn equinox (around 20 March and 23 September).

During the weeks surrounding the equinox the Earth is tilted on its axis relative to the sun in such a way that its magnetic field is most amenable to receiving solar particles. Scientists reckon that this is why we get more aurora displays at those times of year.

Enjoying the solar maximum

The sun experiences seasons of its own – or its magnetic fields do. The sun’s magnetic fields fluctuate in an 11-year cycle. At the peak of the magnetic activity, there are more sunspots and solar flares; a look at NASA’s telescope imaging shows the sun’s surface boiling with fiery tendrils. Particles are thrust towards Earth, and when they reach us, they disturb the Earth’s magnetic field and cause auroras. More magnetic disturbance means more aurora.

The next solar maximum is thought to be in 2025, with some saying 2023, 2024 and 2025 may be some of the best years in the last decade for aurora viewing.

What’s it like viewing the Northern Lights in autumn?

Autumn has more daylight hours than winter in Lapland. In Rovaniemi, for example, you get around 12 hours of daylight and the sun sets at 7pm around the autumn equinox. It means that in autumn you can have a full day doing activities and enjoying the scenery before dark.

Though they can occur throughout the night, the Northern Lights are usually at their most active between 10pm and midnight – which is why the long summer days and midnight sun preclude you from seeing them in, say, June or July.

One of the best places to see the Northern Lights in autumn is next to bodies of water. “A lot of our locations are on the edge of lakes as there’s not much light pollution there,” Amy explains. Before the lakes freeze, they can provide a mirror to the sky – meaning that in your photographs you get double the aurora. “We call that ‘two for the price of one’!” Amy says.

The villagers of Nellim, a small town in northern Finland on the edge of Lake Inari, just under 10km from the border with Russia, claim that they are in the best place in Finland for seeing the Northern Lights.

The aurora happens between 80 and 300km above the surface of the earth – but compared to the stars, it looks comfortingly close. If the lights look red or purple, it is likely that it is occurring higher in the sky.

“The thing I love about the Northern Lights is that every single display is different,” says Amy. “Every time is different. You see a little glow in the distance and you don’t know if that will be it – whether that’s the display for tonight – but then the whole sky could be lit up and dancing.”

The weather in Lapland in autumn

Autumn is often the warmest time of year when it’s possible to spot the aurora. The temperature falls quickly through the autumn season. Daytime temperatures in Finnish Lapland in September average around 12-13°C, sinking to near-freezing by November, when the first snow usually falls.

“You can never know when the first snowfall will be,” says Amy. “We’ve had years when travellers have gone in October and it has been essentially summer. The following year we’ve been under a metre of snow. If you’re booking autumn there’s a certain level of unpredictably about it.”

What is constant is the Northern Lights. “I go every year in the last weeks of November. Some years there’s very little snow, or none, and then we get the first massive dump of snow overnight,” says Amy. “But every time, we’ve always seen Northern Lights – every week.”

It’s said that cloud cover can sometimes be a problem at this time of year – but reviews are mixed. If conditions are poor where you are and it’s too cloudy to see any night-time phenomenon, then you can use a car to get out from under the cloud to a place where the lights are viewable. This is where local knowledge of the weather comes in handy.

Whilst in winter months, you might see the Northern Lights whilst bundled in a sleigh or on a snowmobile tour across a frozen lake, in autumn the lack of snow means you’re more likely to do your vigil from a campfire after a short drive in a van to the best viewing spot. Ahead of the winter crowds, and outrunning the clouds, you’ll get the best of Finland.
Travel Team
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Why else should you visit Finnish Lapland in autumn?

Autumn is an evocative time of year in Finland, a season for hunting and foraging. Whitefish are fished before the lakes freeze. There’s the pageantry of bellowing reindeer and bright trees. It’s also a time of anticipation; animals are active with their pre-winter preparations. One less-than-loved animal is no longer present – Finland’s pesky summer mosquitos have died away.

The Sámi people – the indigenous people who live in Lapland – operate on a traditional calendar of eight seasons, including pre-autumn, autumn and pre-winter. Sámi reindeer farmers use this time to move reindeer to lowland pastures and slaughter weaker reindeer before the harsh winter season. October is rutting season for reindeer. One thing that it isn’t, is tourist season.

The peaceful season

The majority of travellers visit in winter months, here for snow and Santa. Conversely, autumn can be a quieter and comparatively inexpensive time of year to visit.

This is Finland during downtime, and it shows. “It’s a lot quieter. We only use small hotels anyway on all our trips, but instead of being full they may be at half capacity,” says Amy. “Activity groups are a bit smaller, restaurants are quieter. It’s really nice – you feel like you’re seeing an authentic side of northern Lapland.”

And whilst you’re there, there are plenty of authentic activities to try.
Thousands go in winter and do a husky safari, but there aren’t many who can say they’ve trained the dogs for the season.

Husky training

Before the busy winter season of pulling sleighs, Finland’s many thousand resident huskies need some exercise. Whilst there’s no snow on the ground, there’s still a way to take them out – husky carting.

“I find it a lot easier than sledging,” Amy says. Whilst sledges use a claw that you press with your foot so that it digs into the snow, but the cart has actual brakes. “Like a bike with handlebars!” she explains.

Husky carting is growing in popularity. Not only does it help occupy and exercise the dogs – whose welfare is very important – it also give farms income spread throughout the year. It can also help thwart the growing number of non-local operators who come up for the winter alone and then leave.

What’s more, you’ll be one of the rare travellers who can boast that you’ve gone ‘behind the scenes’. “Thousands go in winter and do a husky safari, but there aren’t many who can say they’ve trained the dogs for the season,” says Amy.

Guided walks

Everything is peppered with yellow birch leaves, from upturned boat hulls on the side of the lake to dark pathways through the woods. You walk beneath the trees – perhaps with a trusty berry picker in your hand – following your guide as you seek out a berry patch to forage.

“Local people spend their lives outdoors – it’s second nature to them,” Amy explains. “They go home from work and go for a hike, they go berry picking, mushroom picking – so we’ve incorporated this into our trips.”

On a guided walk in the forest, you can learn about edible berries and plants from a local guide. (A side note: it’s vital to go with a guide if you’re foraging for mushrooms – leave the trippy effects to the skies.)

Sámi culture

The lives of the three Sámi cultures present in Finland are depicted at the Siida Museum. Found in Inari, the Sámi capital in Lapland, this is both a museum of Sámi life and the seat of the Sámi parliament. Your autumn visit might involve learning about reindeer herder culture – this is the time of year when traditionally the reindeer herds are brought in for closer monitoring and taken in search of grazing.

Visiting Sámi people supports their community as they face the increasing challenges of a warming world.

In recent years, climate change has brought less reliable weather. Early season snowfall sometimes melts and refreezes into ice, through which the reindeer cannot dig to graze. Snow lasting later in the spring season has also caused concerns as the tourist season extends later, into a time when reindeer are pregnant and should not be disturbed.

Now, only 10 percent of Sámi people are involved in reindeer herding. You can support other Sámi businesses by buying from them. Look out for beautiful locally made products: wooden bowls with handles made of reindeer horn, books of photography and poems, bitter angelica syrup, or sweet lingonberry sauce.

Tourism’s changing future in Lapland

Lapland makes up a third of Finland’s area but supports only 3.4 percent of the population. Every fourth local person is involved in the tourism industry, which has replaced industries like forestry as the leading industry in the area. Tourism to Lapland took off in the 1980s and has been on the increase ever since.

However, Finland’s winters may become less snow sure. Climate change in arctic regions is seeing temperatures rise at double the world’s average. Southern Finland has started to experience what is called ‘Black Christmas’ – when no snow falls over the holiday, so that the black asphalt shows on the streets.

Encouraging travellers to see the beauty of autumn – whether there’s snow, or not, is key to a future of sustainable tourism in Finland. “The development of autumn in Finland as a time to go has come a long way,” Amy explains. But people are only just coming round to its charms. Until then, come and have an autumn aurora all to yourself.


In Finnish Lapland, most people come to see the Northern Lights in autumn for four or five days. This short break gives you a few chances to see the lights and get a taste of the autumnal landscape. To maximise the chance of seeing the aurora in autumn, you will be taken to places with minimum light pollution, sitting by a fire to keep warm so you can stay out for long hours – and cold weather clothing is provided. Sitting on the shore of lakes like Lake Inari could mean you see beautiful aurora reflections in the water, too. You may be driven to other locations if there is cloud cover. Serious aurora hunting trips will often have an optional aurora alert service – where they wake you if the lights appear after you’ve retired for the night. Don’t worry – alerts stop at 2am.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Vincent Guth] [Intro: Activities Abroad] [Enjoying the solar maximum: Activities Abroad] [The weather in Lapland in autumn: Activities Abroad] [Husky training: Activities Abroad] [Tourism’s changing future in Lapland : Activities Abroad]