Few experiences are as awe-inspiring as seeing the northern lights in Canada. The way they swirl above your head and dance across the sky entrances all who are fortunate enough to witness the magic of the aurora borealis. Canada is currently celebrating it’s 150th anniversary, so there has never been a better time to seek out the midnight Zen of the northern lights.
The Northern Lights in Canada
At southern latitudes such as our home in Calgary we unfortunately don’t get to see the Northern Lights on a nightly basis. When there are periods of solar activity we have to contend with light pollution so it’s important to get away from the city and find a dark sky. That said, on those nights where the stars align perfectly, meaning the following 3 things need to happen: 1) there’s solar activity, 2) you have a clear night without clouds, and 3) you’re able to get away from the city, if you look to the north you can see the aurora dancing in the sky and it truly is a sight to behold.
A great resource for those of us that live in Alberta (actually, it’s helpful no matter where you live) is a Facebook group called the Alberta Aurora Chasers. This group will inspire you with their pictures, wow you with their knowledge, let you know which nights to head out, and which ones to sleep in. This group also does a great job explaining the science behind the aurora so that you know what to watch for in aurora forecasts, such as the KP Index. For example, to typically to see the aurora in Calgary, you often need a solar storm causing a KP of around 4 or 5.
Recently this group made international headlines for discovering a new aurora phenomenon which they named “Steve”. This phenomenon in the night sky is a blue stream that looks a little like an airplane contrail, typically straight overhead or slightly north. Steve tends to show on nights when the northern lights are a little bit weaker. Scientists still aren’t 100% sure what this strange blue light in the night sky. Eric Donovan, an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Calgary monitored it with the European Space Agency’s SWARM satellites and found it had a temperature of 3,000 °C! He has a theory on the cause but he’s keeping it under wraps until his full research paper is published.
Having been inspired by late night viewings of the northern lights from Calgary and some of the amazing photos from the Alberta Aurora Chaser group, we decided to take a long weekend trip to northern Canada where the chances of seeing them are greater and the displays are even more dazzling.
Yellowknife: The Best Place to See the Northern Lights in Canada
Living in Calgary, we are fortunate to be able to see the lights, even from within the city on rare occasions when the KP Index is high enough, but there is nowhere better to see the northern lights than in the Northwest Territories or NWT. Yellowknife is the capital city of NWT, a massive area north of the 60th parallel featuring the frozen arctic tundra and northern boreal forest known as taiga. Yellowknife is famous for its ice roads, long summer days and equally long winter nights, but most of all, it is renowned for having spectacular northern lights displays. At a latitude of 62.5° with minimal light pollution, wide open skies, and long winter nights, Yellowknife is ideally situated for viewing the aurora. In fact, it is probably the best place to see the northern lights in Canada since they can even be seen on nights with a KP Index of 0!
The typical season for seeing the aurora in the Northwest Territories is mid-November to early April, but they can be seen almost year round with good chances in September and April too. The challenge in the summer months is that there is very little nighttime and even during periods of heavy solar activity you may not be able to see it. So unfortunately, your best chance is to embrace the cold and visit in the winter. That said, even with only a few nights you have a good chance of being dazzled with a light show.
Getting to Yellowknife was surprisingly easy with an affordable and direct 2.5 hour flight from Calgary. Travelling in Canada’s north is a little bit more expensive than in the south, but it can be done on any budget. Yellowknife offers everything from luxury, catered tours departing from the same lodge that William and Kate stayed at or you can do it yourself like we did.
If you’re like us, looking to plan your own adventures and even, willing to go off script, we can offer some key learnings from our trip.
Getting Around Yellowknife
For the most part, you do not need a car to get around Yellowknife. A taxi ride from the airport will only set you back about $15 and most places in town can be reached by a taxi for less than $10, by foot, or by bike. We weren’t able to confirm this, but when we were leaving we saw a poster from the Yellowknife Tourism Centre saying that bikes they rent bikes for FREE to visitors. So if biking is your thing, definitely check out the Visitor Centre to see if that offer still stands.
Our first tip is that it is ridiculously expensive to rent a car in Yellowknife. For an economy car it was a minimum of about $70CAD for 50km a day, and $0.35 per KM afterwards so choose your routes accordingly. It may not seem like much, but the rate for 50+ kilometres adds up quickly if you leave the city. For example, our one day rental went from $70 to $120 since we drove along the Ingraham Trail to do a hike during the day and then again at night to chase the aurora. It was totally worth it for us, but it is something to keep in mind if you’re keeping to a strict budget. If you go during the winter and plan to leave the city limits it would be wise to consider having winter tires put on the car or renting an SUV with all wheel drive, adding to the cost.
Where to See the Northern Lights in Yellowknife
There are plenty of amazing aurora viewing locations right in Yellowknife, such as the Frame Lake trail, Bush Pilots Monument, Welcome to Yellowknife Sign, Dettah Ice Road, and Rotary Park. Taxis can take you to most of these spots or they are within a 20 minute walk from downtown. Taxis are also willing to take you out of the city, a popular location is the Giant Mine docks where you can escape the city lights a bit and take pictures with boats in the foreground. A ride to the Giant Mine docks costs about $12 one way and taxis run 24 hours a day. So if you’re not looking to go too far out of Yellowknife you can easily chase aurora without a car.
Another budget options for aurora viewing includes this reasonably-priced tour that’s Indigenous-owned and has great reviews. They recommend September and April as the best months for aurora-watching because they’re warmer than the dead of winter and have long enough nights to increase your odds of viewing this otherworldly phenomenon. We can certainly vouch for April being a good time to see the aurora!
What are the Chances of Seeing the Northern Lights?
The odds are pretty good in Yellowknife. According to NWT Tourism there is a 90%+ chance of seeing the northern lights if you stay in Yellowknife for 4 nights. We lucked out and saw them 3 out of 4 nights with increasing in intensity each time. By the last night, we stayed out until almost 4am watching the mystical swirls of green, white, and purple dominate the horizon. Although we have been entranced by aurora in Alberta, nothing we have ever seen before compared to this stunning display. The intensity of the storm illuminated the entire sky with undulating waves of solar wind.
When you’re aurora chasing in Yellowknife keep an eye out for the lighthouses around the city that forecast aurora activity. Each lighthouse is equipped with a light that flashes either blue for calm, green for “unsettled” or red for “storming.” We saw the most incredible displays on days that were classified as “unsettled” so we can only imagine what a true northern storm would look like. Another useful resource is the Astronomy North Aurora Forecast. More likely than not, it will tell you that there is a good chance of seeing aurora that night.
Where to Stay in Yellowknife
As for lodging, hotels in Yellowknife are you guessed it, rather expensive. We stayed at Jenny’s BnB in downtown Yellowknife the first night. It was clean and comfy and Jenny gave us some good pointers for seeing aurora and where to eat in town.
The second place we stayed was an AirBnB (click this link and get $50 off your first booking) close to the Frame Lake trail (another good place to view the aurora) which was the perfect place to call home for 3 nights. One of the best things about AirBnB lodging is that you can often stay at places where you can use the kitchen, thereby saving money on meals. We hit up the Independent Grocery store and cooked our way to some savings that way. Another hint, if you’re only there for a couple days, look for the products with a pink sticker. They are discounted up to 30% since they are meant to be eaten within a couple days.
Things to Do in Yellowknife
Besides aurora-chasing, there are a number of things to do in and around Yellowknife. One day we walked through Old Town, checked out the Bush Pilot’s Monument and sampled delicious beers at the NWT Brewery. The next day we rented skis and glided through the trails at the Yellowknife Ski Club and walked along the Frame Lake Trail. If you rent a car, head up the Ingraham Trail for hiking trails, lakes and amazing rocky bluffs in the Canadian Shield.
There is a good selection of restaurants and pubs in Yellowknife to satisfy everyone’s fancy. Standouts for us were the Twin Pines Diner, whose chef is friends with the owners of Calgary’s famed Charcut and Char Bar, The Fat Fox Cafe that serves up hearty and healthy breakfast and lunches, The Kilt and Castle for a good pour of Guiness and watching the hockey game, and the NWT Brewing Company for local craft brews.
One thing to remember is to dress for the cold, even in April temperatures dipped to an icy -20 degrees Celsius. Bring plenty of warm layers, gloves and something to cover your head, aka a “toque” in Canadian. If you don’t have winter clothes, it looked like it could be rented in town and Jenny’s BnB had warm jackets and boots for hire.
In the summer we’d love to check out the historic Wildcat Cafe but it was not yet open in April. There are also music festivals like Folk on the Rocks to enjoy during the summer and endless lakes to paddle and fish. There is even canoe parking in Old Town!
At home in Calgary when we see the aurora, while beautiful, it is only in the northern part of the sky. In Yellowknife, the whole sky lights up. The altitude, minimal light pollution, and wide open skies make it without a doubt, one of the best places to see the northern lights in Canada. As a bonus, Yellowknife has a distinct northern charm; we’d love to go back in the summer to do some paddling and enjoy their 24 hours of sunlight. Until then, we know there is midnight Zen to be found in watching the sky come alive with dancing light.
Here are some of our favourite pictures of the northern lights that we took in Yellowknife, we hope they inspire you to go out in search of dark skies and the northern lights either in Canada or abroad.