As cliché as it sounds, Ivalo, Finland is as close to a “winter wonderland” as it gets. In winter. Ivalo transforms into the most perfect snow globe, complete with the magical northern lights dancing overhead.
It’s much less crowded, and touristy, than Rovaniemi in southern Lapland. But, you still have all the fun winter activities, including the Saarisekl ä ski lodge 30 minutes south.
Plus, your chances of seeing the northern lights are pretty high, as there is very little light pollution.
As a Florida girl, I rarely head north for winter. I get cold too easily. To me, winter is the best time to head to hot destinations that are typically unbearable in summer.
I am so glad I made a few exceptions over the years. Winter in places like Finland is gorgeous and there is an amazing amount to see and do.
If you’re hesitant about flying north for the winter, let me show you what you are missing.
The tiny town of Ivalo, Finland has a population of just over 3,000. Being about 145 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Finland’s Lapland region, means Ivalo experiences Polar Nights.
Polar Nights are where the sun does not rise above the horizon. Typically, this happens between early December and mid-January.
Jeremy and I were able to experience the Polar Nights in Norway. It was very interesting, but it severely limits what you can do. We recommend going when there’s a little more daylight to enjoy the winter activities.
Late February was perfect. There was still all the amazing snow, some daylight for getting out and about, plus a long night to watch for the aurora.
Ivalo Airport is the EU’s most northern airport and the only one for the region. Most flights are to and from Helsinki on Finnair. Other airport connections are typically through UK airports, such as London Gatwick.
Arriving in Ivalo, Finland
As Jeremy and I few over Finland, we could see nothing but white for miles. As we got closer to Ivalo, the setting sun lent hints of yellow and purple to the open landscape.
It was the afternoon when we arrived at Ivalo Airport, yet just before dark.
Our research before the trip found little in the way of public transportation, unless we only stayed at the Saarisek ski lodge. Since we knew we wanted to explore the area, renting a car seemed the logical choice.
The reality of driving in snow didn’t hit me until we landed in Ivalo. It was snowing heavily as we walked through the airport to the car rental counter. I had a mild panic attack before quickly switching Jeremy in as the primary driver at the rental agency.
When we got outside to our little Toyota, it was a relief to see it equipped with studded snow tires.
Despite all the snow, driving ended up being no problem at all.
As it’s a small town there was hardly any traffic. Plus, the compacted snow was super easy to drive on. Nothing like the ice you get on the roads in the UK. Even I felt comfortable enough to do my fair share of the driving.
Staying at the Ukonjärven Holiday Village
Our primary goal of the trip was to see the northern lights. Though, we didn’t want to do another “tour” like we did in Tromsø, Norway. Tours are expensive, and it would limit us to just looking for the aurora one night. We wanted to look for the northern lights every night.
The Ukonjärven Holiday Village ticked all the boxes. Being seven miles outside of Ivalo’s town center, there was hardly any light pollution. Plus, the frozen lake it sat on gave a perfect location to watch for the northern lights.
With only seven cabins and four rooms, the location was so peaceful.
We managed to grab the last available cabin, but it was only available for the first three days of our five-day trip.
It had a kitchen, living area, wood burning fireplace, a private bath and a PRIVATE SAUNA. Oh, how we loved the sauna!
The only thing that was a little disappointing were the twin beds. They were comfy enough, but small and far from luxurious. Other than that, we just loved this place, it was so warm and cozy.
The Frozen Lake Inari
Our first night trying to see the northern lights was a complete bust. The snowstorm was not going to let even a hint of magnificent color shine through. We decided to embrace the circumstances and got an early night’s rest.
The next morning, we awoke to a gorgeous clear sky. After breakfast, we walked down to the lake to scout out our hunting ground for the northern lights.
Only the dock peeking out from above the surface identified the lake.
Unlike the snow on the banks, which we quickly sunk into as we walked, the lake was solid and flat. Glistening in the sunlight, the snow looked light a million diamonds laid out before us.
Other than the dock, only a pile of rocks stuck up out of the snow. As I went over to investigate, the ice suddenly cracked below me. I didn’t know I could run on ice so fast. Needless to say, we didn’t venture that way again during our stay.
Exploring Invalo, Finland
We then jumped in the car to do a little exploring around Ivalo.
The temperature gauge in the car said -8ºC (17.6ºF), though the sun on our faces felt warmer.
Taking random turns here and there, we found some of the most stunning scenery.
Crystallized evergreens decorated the landscape. Mountains of snow rolled into the distance.
As we headed back for the evening, we even found a few roaming reindeer. Unfortunately, they were not interested in turning around for the camera.
Seeing the Northern Lights
When we returned to the cabin, it didn’t take long for the sky to turn dark.
The owner gave us some helpful advice on when to check for the northern lights. If you have a smart phone, the My Aurora Forecast app has a good reputation for being accurate.
Since we had a little time before the show, a quick jump in the sauna and bite to eat had us ready for the evening.
As the time approached, we piled on our 50 tons of warm clothing and headed down to the lake.
Within a half an hour, the show began.
The sky went dark after about an hour and a half. We quickly ran back into the cabin to get warm. Remember how I said we loved that sauna.
Peeking outside about an hour later, the northern lights were already bigger and brighter than they were earlier in the evening.
We stayed up into the early hours watching the aurora, and running back and forth to the sauna to warm up.
The lights also appeared on our third night at Ukonjärven, but as we were so exhausted from the night before we only viewed them for a short time.
Saariselkä Ski Resort Area
Since the cabin was only available for the first few days of our trip, we spent our final two nights at the Lapland Hotels Riekonlinna in the Saariselkä ski area.
This big touristy hotel had lots of tour groups, but was in an amazing location for the ski resort. The room was clean and comfortable, with a lovely balcony and a private sauna.
There were so many winter activities here, that we spent the next two days playing around the ski resort.
Ski lifts at Saariselkä took visitors to the top of Kaunispää arctic hill.
Waiting at the top was Kaunispään Huippu, a souvenir shop and restaurant. A great place grab a warm bite to eat before heading down the slopes.
For a breathtaking view, head up to the top of the free lookout tower.
Hoping to see the northern lights one last time, we drove up Kaunispää arctic hill one evening. Glimpses of green and blue appeared faint in the sky. They were there, but definitely not as strong as what we saw before.
In general, there was a lot of light pollution from the ski resort area below compared to the lake.
Though, if you want to see the northern lights from Saariselkä, then the top of the hill would give you the best chance to view them.
Tobogganing at Saariselkä
Whooshing down the world’s longest toboggan run was by far our favorite activity at in Saariselkä. We spent hours playing like we were children.
The whole 1.2 km trail is so much fun, but we felt the best part of the run was actually towards the bottom of the mountain.
There was a split in the trail about half way down. The windy bit went off towards the ski lifts. The straight bit headed down towards the road next to the hotels.
Its the last section of the trail near the hotels that I am referring to. There is a slight natural curve that works as a good starting spot. From here it is straight and a little steep, so you gain a bit of speed.
Though the short walk up the hill in the snow did take some effort, we didn’t need the chair lift for this section.
Unfortunately, if you took the route down to the hotels but wanted to go to the chair lifts, there was quite the walk back to the ski center along the road.
A Few Ways to Get a Toboggan
- The cheapest way is to check at the bottom of the run. Any you find without an owner is free to use. The downside is that most are broken. But, if you find one, it’s all yours.
- Rent them from the Saariselkä ski center, this will also include a chair lift ticket and usually a helmet.
- You can rent them from the hotels. We got lucky and went into to the hotel to inquire, and they gave us two someone had left with them. Usually people leave them at the bottom of the hill.
- Buy a cheap 10€ toboggan from the store.
- If you want to go at night, the Saariselkä ski center does a lit run called aurora tobogganing.
Snowshoeing in a Winter Wonderland
On our last day, we rented snowshoes from the ski resort.
Crunching our way through the snow and ice, snowshoeing was an amazing way to hike into areas less trampled.
Some areas felt way too deep for us, as we had no idea what we were doing. Renting the snowshoes was a last minute decision. We didn’t take it too seriously, just for a bit of fun.
If you know this is something you want to do, we recommend watching a few YouTube videos first. There’s a lot of technique to getting the most from your snow shoes.
As it is so easy to get turned around in a landscape that repeats, make sure you have a GPS, compass, a map you can read, or some other way to find your way back from your hike.
Other Winter Activities
If tobogganing is too childish and snowshoeing is a little too much work; in addition to skiing, there are still plenty of activities in Ivalo and Saariselkä to make you fall in love with winter.
On our next visit, we are definitely trying snowmobiling. We didn’t realize we needed to book ahead, so we missed out. You do need a valid driver’s license to do this activity.
Everywhere we went cross-country skiers glided past us. This is another one we want to try.
Ice fishing doesn’t really seem like it would be our thing, but it was very popular. We were willing to sit out on the frozen ice for the northern lights, but waiting for a fish to bite sounds like torture. To each their own!
Dog and reindeer sledding. We previously did dog sledding in Tromsø, Norway so we didn’t choose to do it again in Ivalo.