Elusive, gorgeous, often plays hard to get. No, this isn't the main character in a film, it's the aurora borealis. Also known as the Northern Lights, this natural phenomenon is so stunning and ethereal, people travel from across the globe for a chance to catch a glimpse of it.
Here’s your guide to the very best places to see the aurora borealis across Canada, how and when to catch a show, and tips on making the most of the experience — whether it’s from a cushy viewing capsule in a Northwest Territories teepee village or remote mountain base camp in Newfoundland and Labrador.
What causes it?
The aurora borealis happens in the Northern Hemisphere when the sun’s electrically charged particles, riding on a solar wind, enter the Earth’s atmosphere and collide with gases — namely oxygen and nitrogen. When the sun is at its most active is when you're most likely to catch a spectacular display. The name comes from Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. Much of Canada’s North lies beneath the Northern Hemisphere’s Auroral Oval, a hot spot for activity.
Why is it so special?
First of all, the aurora borealis is elusive — which makes it all the more attractive. It’s an awe-inspiring natural phenomenon and there’s no guarantee of a show. That said, your chances for sightings are good, especially in the North near the magnetic pole. The effect makes for fantastical hues, though the lights can take all kinds of forms — from arcs and rippling curtains, to misty wisps and translucent clouds. Sometimes it’s an eerie green, sometimes it’s shimmering purples, pinks, and yellows. Green is the most common, while red is rare. The colors zig, zag, and move surprisingly quickly — some say “dance” — across the inky, night sky.
Where and when is it seen?
It’s possible to see the Lights (almost) anywhere in Canada during all four seasons. But the North is the best place to see them, and the place where they are the most active. The best venues are remote communities with little or no light pollution. You can’t see the Lights through the clouds, so if you’re near the coast — say in British Columbia — steer clear of coastal clouds and head north. After that, you want to seek out higher ground. Winter (December to March) is often the luckiest season, thanks to more hours of darkness each day and frequent cold, clear nights. The best time? Around midnight. Ten pm to 2 am is the window, so get ready to stay up late. Though you may be able to see them in any Canadian city or province (if you’re lucky!) the following are the best spots for a sighting.
Autumn and winter
The very best place to see aurora borealis in Canada — if not the world — is the Northwest Territories, where they’re generally visible 240 nights a year. The optimal timeframe is either fall or winter (though summer is pretty good, too).
Autumn – If solitude is your thing, take a scenic bush plane ride from Yellowknife to elegantly rustic fly-in Blachford Lake Lodge & Wilderness Resort. Watch the aurora show from the deck hot tub or the dome-shaped rock out front overlooking the water. The best part? You can combine hiking, fishing, and paddling with the big show.
Winter – The Lights are especially dramatic in winter, contrasted against a frozen, white wonderland. The most convenient way to take in the show is in cozy comfort at Aurora Village, a teepee village just outside Yellowknife. Specially designed for aurora observation, the place is equipped with spacious wood-stove heated teepees, fur-lined sofas, and warmed viewing capsules that recline.
Autumn and winter
Northern Manitoba is in the sub-Arctic Circle bordering Hudson Bay. Up here, you'll find Churchill, which bills itself as “one of the top three places on the planet” to see the Lights. In fact, scientists from around the globe flock to the town of 850, famed for polar bears, to study the aurora. But the thing that makes a visit even more special is that you can combine it with bucket list wildlife viewing — think belugas, polar bears, Arctic foxes, and more. Via Winnipeg is the best route, pausing at the Manitoba Museum to learn more about the Lights and how best to photograph them.
Late winter – Aurora high season in Churchill is February and March because of the extreme cold, which can drop to 40 below zero. Go with experienced operator Frontiers North, heading out around midnight in a heated Tundra Buggy kitted out with a bar. Pack extra batteries, which can fizzle in the plunging temps, and rent clothing from the Polar Inn & Suites. Snap pics of the often explosive display or better yet, just take it in so you don’t miss a thing.
Fall – September to November is the second-best time to catch the Aurora. Combine trophy fishing until mid September with a lights show from the comfy deck at Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge, a two-hour flight from Winnipeg.
Autumn, winter, and spring
Since the Gold Rush days, the Wild West of the Yukon has been the spot for fabled adventure. Dabble in a few of them — dogsledding, fat biking, roughing it out in the open prospector-style — and catch the Lights while you’re there from September to April. In the summer, the night sky is not dark enough to see the aurora, thanks to the Midnight Sun, though this is also a great reason to visit!
Autumn – Take up residence in a prospector-style tent camp in the wilderness near Whitehorse with Northern Tales. The outfitter provides modern creature comforts like barrel stoves and steaming beverages to keep you warm while you wait to see the aurora.
Late winter and early spring – In winter, Northern Tales hosts a variety of aurora packages and tours with activities such as snowshoeing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, and dog mushing. Cozy up in Arctic Range Adventures’ AuroraCentre with your choice of a plush, insulated yurt or cozy First Nations-style teepee. Add wildlife viewing, dogsledding, and a soak in Takhini Hotsprings to round out the fun. Mountain biking pros Boréale Explorers lead guided snow biking-aurora packages, as well as snowmobiling or dogsledding-aurora combos out of their stylish eco-lodge and Yurtville basecamp near Whitehorse.
Autumn and winter
Open expanses of tundra and a far-north location make Nunavut prime aurora viewing country. Spring and summer in this territory is a time of seemingly endless daylight, with 16 hours of sun each day from May to August and 24 hours of sunshine daily in June and July. You'll want to visit between October and April when the dark days are long. December, for instance, has just four hours of daylight. This time of year is when locals enjoy frequent, rippling aurora displays.
Winter - Consider a journey to a remote traditional Inuit community like Kimmirut, where you can kayak and see icebergs. Or visit Whale Cove, where you can fish and spot beluga whales after a night of aurora viewing.
Early autumn – Follow traditional caribou routes by day, then catch the Lights by night at Arctic Haven Wilderness Lodge, which happens to be at the optimal latitude for Aurora viewing. Here, you're most likely to spot the Northern Lights on cool autumn evenings. Set on the Arctic Barren Lands on Ennadai Lake west of Hudson Bay, the lodge is just a short bush plane flight from Yellowknife, NWT. In addition to the light show, you get the fiery fall colour backdrop, plus wildlife like grizzlies and wolves. Pack layers, bring your sturdy hiking boots, and prepare for always-changing weather conditions.
Newfoundland and Labrador
Like solitude? Newfoundland and Labrador has swaths of beautiful, untouched wilderness especially in unspoiled Labrador. During the winter months, snowmobile nearly 1,500 kilometres of trails with the Northern Lights dancing above. Add snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hunting, and ice fishing, if you like.
Summer – Perhaps the most spectacular option is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure to Torngat Mountains National Park on the Labrador Peninsula. It’s a place of unusual, dramatic geology, four billion-year-old rock formations, and the traditional Inuit way of life. Established each summer, remote Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station connects you with the land, its Inuit elders, and the international researchers who study it — not to mention, a memorable aurora show in a wild natural setting.
It’s hard to beat the shimmering Lights juxtaposed against the towering Canadian Rockies, reflecting off glassy, glacier-fed lakes. Not surprisingly, northern Alberta is the base of the Geophysical Observatory at Athabasca University, which studies the Aurora’s magnetic impact on Earth. Non-scientists should head to Banff National Park for the best vantage points.
Autumn – Total nighttime darkness and scant light pollution make Banff National Park ideal for viewing the Lights. September to mid May is the most aurora-active. In the fall you can often see them comfortably, combining the trip with camping and other top Rockies activities, like hiking and paddling. Check Aurora Watch to see when chances are good for a sighting. Though you can often see the glow from Banff, you’ll want to get away from human activity. Easy-access Lake Minnewanka is one of the best places to see the aurora and it’s only 10 minutes outside town. Or try Castle Junction on route to Lake Louise, aqua-marine Peyto Lake, or ever-popular Herbert Lake. There’s also the world’s two biggest dark sky preserves: Wood Buffalo National Park, home to a herd of 5,000 free-roaming bison, and famously scenic Jasper National Park. Bring a warm sleeping bag, camp, and stay up late.
Even the most jaded can’t help but be affected by the moving spectacle of the aurora — as fleeting as it is mesmerizing and dazzling. Time to plan your trip.