The sky in northern Canada will thrill you. You can bask in summer’s midnight sun or stand in awe under the glow of the Northern Lights, which appear on average 240 nights a year across Yukon Territory, Northwest Territories and Churchill in Manitoba. But the action isn’t all above your head: from narwhal and polar bear safaris to Indigenous-owned camps and remote spas where you can bliss out amid autumn colours, this epic, diverse region is where some of the most magical experiences on earth come easy.
Here are just a few of the unique experiences you can have across the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northern Manitoba.
See the Northern Lights
Yellowknife, a few hours’ flight north of Calgary, is hailed as one of North America’s Aurora Capitals. Just outside this small city, teepees glow among coniferous trees before a quiet lake at the Indigenous-owned Aurora Village. Gazing up at the Aurora Borealis as it washes and swirls its green, yellow glow over the black infinity feels a little like space travel (but with your boots planted in the snow). Sip hot chocolate by the woodfire stove in your traditional tent accommodation and when not simply staring up, hike or sled through a winter dreamscape, strap on the snowshoes or craft a dreamcatcher with an Indigenous host.
In the Yukon, far from light pollution, ribbons of pink, green and purple sway vividly in black winter skies. On a tour with Northern Tales Travel Service, you’ll keep warm by the wood-fired barrel stove before venturing out into the snow to watch the aurora in all its glory. For a little more luxe, stay at the Northern Lights Resort and Spa, where you can catch the show from your glass-fronted chalet or while soaking in an outdoor hot tub.
Churchill in the Manitoba region is an aurora hotspot for science buffs. The Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which is dedicated to Northern studies, offers packages that make a holiday feel like a living documentary. You can watch the lights alongside astronomers and physicists inside a heated viewing dome and take cultural tours that give the magic extra meaning.
Spot polar bears, whales and even narwhals in the wild
Churchill is also the polar bear capital of the world. On expeditions with Frontiers North, you’ll be transported across icy plains to see polar bears in the wild, riding in a purpose-built Tundra Buggy® that even has an outdoor viewing platform.
For the perfect mix of adventure and human-creature comforts, take the Churchill Wild “walking polar bear safari”. On the only tour of its kind, you’ll walk alongside bears (at a safe and polite distance) with highly experienced guides before cosying up at atmospheric lodges (the bears sometimes snooze right outside your window!) where the chefs plate up the hearty flavours of the subarctic.
When you’re in Churchill, you dog sled. Wapusk Adventures runs exhilarating rides through snow-blanketed spruce and pines in a boreal forest. Indigenous owner and host Dave Daley is a local icon.
The floe edge (sinaaq in Inuktitut) – the place where ice that is still attached to the shoreline meets the open water in the late spring and early summer months – is where sea and land mammals mingle. Arctic Kingdom wildlife safaris track the floe edge in Nunavut, the vast territory that stretches across most of the Canadian Arctic. Spot tusked narwhals and polar bears as well as seals, walruses and whales.
Immerse yourself in rich autumn colours
Standing in a forest landscape as it slowly changes from golden yellow to claret red, its leaves floating on the wind, is a postcard experience. But seeing it on the awesome scale of Northern Canada’s wilderness is something else.
At Northern Lights Resort & Spa in the Yukon region’s Whitehorse, there’s a chance you’ll catch the aurora at the same time as the foliage. Book an Aurora Glass Chalet to take in the spectacle of nature from the comfort of your bed. Steam out the kinks in the spa’s saunas, soak it all up in an outdoor jacuzzi or relax into a hot stone massage.
At Weber Arctic’s Nunavut-based Arctic Haven Wilderness Lodge, you’ll witness the extraordinary autumn migration of a herd of hundreds of thousands (you read that correctly) of caribou as they roam and graze the vivid tundra.
Connect with First Nations culture around colourful Dawson City
In the Yukon's quirky Dawson City you can see the iconic colourful buildings of the Klondike era, visit an active gold mine and go to the First Nations-owned Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre to connect with local Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in culture. Nearby, the breathtaking Tombstone Territorial Park of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people has more than 70 ecological and archeological First Nations sites among its sharp mountain peaks.
Dawson City sits at one end of the Dempster Highway, a well-groomed gravel road that stretches over 740 kilometres up to Inuvik, Northwest Territories. On the road trip north you’ll pass through two dramatic mountain ranges and cross the Arctic Circle. In autumn you’ll drive through some of the most astonishing colour shows in the country.
Go on an outdoor adventure
Nature does quite enough to tick the bucket list but if you’re the type who needs to up the ante, there are ways to see the aurora with an edge.
On a late-night canoe tour from Yellowknife with Indigenous-owned Narwal Northern Adventures you can experience the phenomenon known as the “aurora sandwich”, when the light beams float above in the sky and at the same time reflect back on the river.
Want to really take on the Canadian wilds? On a Ruby Range Adventure canoeing trip along the Yukon River, paddle and camp for 13 days along a remote stretch between the village of Carmacks and Dawson City. Eyes open for wildlife like bear, moose, lynx and bison as you glide past.
If you prefer on-land action, Sky High Wilderness Ranch offers horseback expeditions in the mountains and meadows just outside of Whitehorse, The Yukon’s capital city. You’ll be staying in the lodge each night but the accommodation feels delightfully off-grid. Gravity-fed showers, propane-powered appliances and no wi-fi set the perfect scene.