Otherworldly, elusive and high on travel Bucket Lists, the Northern Lights phenomenon has long enchanted those chasing a glimpse of its mesmerising colours. And while the celestial display also known as Aurora Borealis is famously fickle, a trip to northern Canada offers a very good chance of witnessing it: nature’s most magnificent lightshow unfolds in the country’s north on an average of 240 nights a year.
So what exactly causes the vast glowing curtains of emerald green, yellow and purple that fills the night sky? The lights you see are charged particles from the sun that are colliding with atoms as they enter the earth’s magnetic field. This activity is always happening but there are factors that affect how bright the lights are and if you can even see them. Here’s everything you need to know about seeing the Northern Lights in Canada.
Where to see the lights
There are three key provinces and territories in Canada where catching sight of the elusive phenomena is almost guaranteed.
Churchill, in the far north of Manitoba, boasts ideal Northern Lights viewing conditions on almost 300 nights a year thanks to its location directly beneath the Aurora oval itself.
Stay in comfort at Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge or the Dymond Lake Eco Lodge where the friendly staff will make sure you don’t miss any chance to see the lights. For an adventure you’ll never forget, the Churchill Hotel will organise a night in an Aurora dome – a heated plexiglass bubble positioned away from the town’s light pollution to offer unfettered views of the dazzling show.
Or, try a Photo Adventure tour with Frontiers North, where a specialist team will take you to the best spots to see the lights and teach you how to capture the vivid scene on camera. For an adventure you'll never forget, Frontiers North also offer a unique Tundra Buggy Adventure that brings you up close with local wildlife before taking you far from Churchill to dine underneath the Aurora itself.
The most north westerly of Canada’s territories is sparsely populated and has minimal light pollution – stellar conditions for Aurora Borealis sightings. The show is at its best here in the beginning of winter, under the pitch-black sky and better still when you’re watching from an outdoor hottub.
At the Northern Lights Resort & Spa you can observe the northern lights from a hot tub or a cosy cabin with expansive glass walls. Alternatively, keep warm by a wood-fired barrel stove while you wait for the show to begin on a tour organised with Northern Tales Travel Service.
For the best photo opportunities, head to the Midnight Dome in Dawson City – a scenic spot that overlooks the Yukon River and epic Klondike Valley, Aurora blazing overhead.
A 2-hour direct flight from Vancouver or Calgary on the northern shores of Great Slave Lake, the capital of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife, lies inland so it’s usually free of haze and cloud – essential for the clearest view. In fact, the view is so clear that the Northwest Territories average 240 nights a year of ideal aurora viewing conditions.
Aurora seekers usually stay in hotels like The Explorer or Chateau Nova before venturing to a viewing hotspot such as the Aurora Village, a fire-heated teepee experience in the wilderness 20 minutes from downtown.
When to see the lights
Contrary to popular belief, Aurora Borealis is visible year round but you do have a better chance of catching a glimpse during those long northern winter months. There are two prime Aurora seasons in Canada: late August to October, when temperatures are relatively mild; and mid-November to early April, where the sky is clear – just make sure you rug up!
The best conditions to see the lights
It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that cloud cover and light pollution harm your chances of seeing the lights. As a general rule, the longer you can stay, the better your odds. To help make your Aurora experience truly special, many resorts geared towards seeing the Northern Lights offer packages for four to five days.
Image credits: Blachford Lake Lodge; Ryan Dickie/Northern BC Tourism (Fort Nelson)