How to see the northern lights in Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park - Scotland on Sunday Travel

In recent years, the Cairngorms have become an aurora hunter’s playground, and now is the best time to go. Here’s how to see the very special light show…

The Northern Lights in the Cairngorms. Pic: PA Photo/Visit Cairngorms.
The Northern Lights in the Cairngorms. Pic: PA Photo/Visit Cairngorms.

Seeing the northern lights is up there on many people’s bucket lists. In fact, in October 2022 more than 110,000 people searched for ‘Northern Lights’ online. But you don’t have to travel all the way to Scandinavia or the Arctic to witness the Aurora Borealis. You don’t even need to leave the UK as at the end of November, strong displays were witnessed across Scotland, and one of the best places to see the spectacle is from the Cairngorms – the UK’s largest national park.

Light pollution here is so low as it’s free from the polluting glow of street and security lights, and with its amazing vantage points and vast horizons, the Tomintoul and Glenlivet area has been awarded the prestigious Dark Sky Park status by the International Dark Sky Association, making this the most northerly place in the world to secure the title.

When to visit?

Daytime views in the Cairngorms are also stunning, here at Loch Morlich. Pic: PA Photo/Alamy.
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The best time to see the auroras is mid-October to mid-March so get booking now for a festive or new year break. Your chances of seeing the Northern Lights vastly increase throughout the autumn and winter months, when the nights are longer and darker. You are more likely to get a good sighting in the evening, and it needs to be cold with a clear sky, and ideally increased solar activity. It’s also best to avoid nights when there is a full moon as this decreases visibility of the aurora and stars. Remember to check the weather forecast and keep an eye on websites like AuroraWatch UK (aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk) which can help you identify peak times for viewing.

Where to get the best view

It might seem obvious, but remember to look north when you’re gazing upwards! The Cairngorm Mountain Car Park is a great spot to catch the heavenly dancers, as is Feith Musach, north of Tomintoul and also the Glenlivet Estate. Local residents have also reported wonderful sightings on the Dava Way, above Forres, near the Moray Firth but wherever you go in Scotland, keep an eye on the skies as you can see the Northern Lights further south. All you need is a dark place, a clear sky and very good timing. However, the best views are undoubtedly to be had further north and Cairngorm is a safer bet.

Make sure you keep an eye out for unusual light patterns in the sky. Sometimes it can look like a slight flicker of colour across the horizon, but at other times you will have absolutely no doubt it’s the auroras shinging above.

A red squirrel in the Cairngorms, which have interesting wildlife as well as sky views. Pic: PA Photo/Alamy.

Capturing them on camera

You’ll need take a tripod with you and use a long exposure to capture the lights in all their magnificent glory. Often, they might look like a film of mist to the naked eye, but if you use a camera to capture them, you will get some spectacular results when exposing for around 20-30 seconds so it’s always best to try and record them on film.

Make a trip of it

Spanning 1,748 sq miles, an area bigger than the whole of Luxembourg, and brimming with waterfalls, hills, mountains and ancient forests, the Cairngorms National Park is a paradise for adventurers, especially when it comes to experiencing dark skies. There are three ski centres, along with walking, biking and sledging trails so you won’t be short of winter activities to try during the day when you’re not gazing up at the sky at night. Nearby attractions include the Highland Wildlife Park (highlandwildlifepark.org.uk), Cairngorm Reindeer Centre (cairngormreindeer.co.uk), Landmark Forest Adventure Park (landmarkpark.co.uk), Aviemore Ice Rink (aviemoreicerink.com) as well as distilleries galore, many of which have visitors’ centres and tours and tastings to enjoy. Remember to pack a dram to take with you along with the hot chocolate and wrap up warm when you head out stargazing.

How to plan your trip

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For more information on the destination, go to visitcairngorms.com.

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