Road Trip: Aurora Borealis

A trip to Iceland (eventually) reveals the colorful Northern Lights

A photograph of a mountain with green northern lights overhead.
At Mývatn, a volcanic lake in northern Iceland. Photo by Libby Weiler

Our website asks the question: Where Will American Art Take You? In response, we've put together an occasional series of artful road trips based on staff experiences and artworks in SAAM's collection.

The alarm went off and my jetlagged body turned it off and thought, “why is my phone alarm going off when it’s so dark outside?” A few seconds later I shot up and said, “Let’s go see some northern lights!”

My friend and I were staying in a little guest house in northeastern Iceland near Mývatn. It was the end of winter and as we checked into the guest house for the night, the concierge reminded us that northern lights would be likely tonight. It was our fifth night in Iceland and we were getting antsy at the possibility of not seeing them on this week-long trip.

All week we waited for the right weather, and the aurora forecast said tonight would be the night with solar activity likely. In order to see the Northern lights, you need three things: darkness, clear skies, and solar activity. As we got into our rental car, and drove around the nearby lake we were disappointed. It was midnight, we were tired, it was bitterly cold and there were clouds. “But the forecast said clear skies!?”

I first saw the northern lights in a VR headset. Of course, I had seen National Geographic photographs growing up of the dancing skies, but the first time I witnessed the auroras moving was inside SAAM’s Beyond the Walls virtual realty experience. In it, you are able to teleport from Frederic Edwin Church’s painting Aurora Borealis to a 360-degree 6K video of actual auroras in the night sky.

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Frederic Edwin Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Eleanor Blodgett, 1911.4.1

I have always been fascinated with natural wonders. My ideal vacation is in nature. Give me a mountain and I’ll hike it. Give me a snow storm and I’ll find some skis. Give me clouds in Iceland, and I’ll wait.

We waited over an hour. A little after 1:30 a.m. the clouds started to clear. We got out of the rental car and set up a tripod. Before we knew it, the sky lit up. At first, it looked like clouds again, but as our eyes adjusted, we were able to see these dancing shapes in the sky. Then, the sky just burst open with color. I remember photographing a long exposure on the right side of the road for 30 seconds and by the time the camera clicked that it was finished, the left side of the road was overflowing with color. It was one of the most magical natural wonders I have ever seen.

If you find yourself in DC this summer, stop by SAAM’s second-floor galleries and take a peek at Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting of the auroras. If you have access to a VR headset, download SAAM’s Beyond the Walls experience on Steam to see the northern lights from your own backyard. And if you find yourself in Iceland one bitterly cold night looking up at the sky, wait an hour hopefully you’ll get to see the northern lights with your own eyes.

A photograph of a mountain with green northern lights overhead.

A second view of the Northern Lights at Mývatn. Photo by Libby Weiler.