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Where to see the northern lights

northern lights

Where to see the northern lights

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?

Vermillion Lakes in Banff National Park
Northern Lights over Vermillion Lakes in Banff National Park - Credit: Travel Alberta

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?

Aurora viewing at Blachford Lake Lodge in the Northwest Territories
The Lights show at fly-in Blachford Lake Lodge in the Northwest Territories - Credit: Tessa MacIntosh

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.

Northwest Territories

Autumn and winter

Aurora above Blachford Lake Lodge in the Northwest Territories
Northern Lights over Blachford Lake Lodge in the Northwest Territories – Credit: Blachford Lake Lodge/Martina Gebrovska

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 summerExternal Link Title 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 ResortExternal Link Title. 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 VillageExternal Link Title, 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.

Newfoundland and Labrador


Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station
Northern Lights over Torngat Mountains Base Camp and Research Station – Credit: Chris Sampson

Like solitude? Newfoundland and Labrador has swaths of beautiful, untouched wilderness especially in unspoiled Labrador. During the winter months, snowmobileExternal Link Title 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 ParkExternal Link Title 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 StationExternal Link Title 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.



Herbert Lake in Banff National Park
Northern Lights over Herbert Lake in Banff National Park – Credit: Travel Alberta

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 ObservatoryExternal Link Title at Athabasca University, which studies the Aurora's magnetic impact on Earth. Non-scientists should head to Banff National ParkExternal Link Title 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 WatchExternal Link Title 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 MinnewankaExternal Link Title is one of the best places to see the aurora and it's only 10 minutes outside town. Or try Castle JunctionExternal Link Title on route to Lake Louise, aqua-marine Peyto LakeExternal Link Title, or ever-popular Herbert LakeExternal Link Title. There's also the world's two biggest dark sky preserves: Wood Buffalo National ParkExternal Link Title, home to a herd of 3External Link Title,External Link Title000 free-roaming bisonExternal Link Title, and famously scenic Jasper National ParkExternal Link Title. Bring a warm sleeping bag, camp, and stay up late.



Northern Lights Red Lake, Ontario
Northern Lights over Red Lake, Ontario – Credit: Harlan Schwartz

It's true, you're more likely to see the effect further north and in the Arctic, but you can still catch the elusive aurora regularly in Canada's lower latitudes, and that includes Ontario.


Autumn - For Ontario, September and October are prime time for aurora viewing. You need to be somewhere outside the city, obviously, with little ambient light for the best conditions to see a dramatic aurora display. The best places for aurora viewing include Manitoulin IslandCree Village EcolodgeExternal Link Title, and Pukaskwa National ParkExternal Link Title. For a full experience, try one of Ontario's best aurora-equipped outfitters: Killarney Mountain LodgeExternal Link TitleGordon's Park Eco ResortExternal Link Title, or MoosoneeExternal Link Title. While you're up north waiting for aurora to show, take advantage of northern Ontario's other attractions and plentiful outdoor adventure options -- bordered by Hudson Bay and the Great Lakes, it's a wild and beautiful place not known to many, but well worth the trip.


Autumn and winter

Northern Lights over Churchill, Manitoba
Northern Lights over Churchill, Manitoba – Credit: Alex de Vries

Northern Manitoba is in the sub-Arctic Circle bordering Hudson Bay. Up here, you'll find ChurchillExternal Link Title, 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 nearly 900, 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 WinnipegExternal Link Title is the best route, pausing at the Manitoba MuseumExternal Link Title to learn more about the Lights and how best to photograph them.


Late winter - Aurora high season in ChurchillExternal Link Title is February and March because of the extreme cold, which can drop to 40 below zero. Go with experienced operator Frontiers NorthExternal Link Title, 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 & SuitesExternal Link Title. 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 LodgeExternal Link Title, a two-hour flight from Winnipeg.


Autumn, winter, and spring

Aurora viewing in Whitehorse, Northwest Territories
Combine aurora viewing, wildlife, and hot springs in Whitehorse – Credit: Arctic Range Adventure

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 TalesExternal Link Title. 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 toursExternal Link Title with activities such as snowshoeing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, and dog mushing. Cozy up in Arctic Range Adventures' AuroraCentreExternal Link Title with your choice of a plush, insulated yurt or cozy First Nations-style teepee. Add wildlife viewing, dogsledding, and a soak in Takhini HotspringsExternal Link Title to round out the fun. Mountain biking pros Bor?ale ExplorersExternal Link Title 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.



Arctic Haven Wilderness Adventures caribou migration trip
Northern Lights over Arctic Haven Wilderness Lodge, Nunavut

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 KimmirutExternal Link Title, where you can kayak and see icebergs. Or visit Whale CoveExternal Link Title, where you can fish and spot beluga whales after a night of aurora viewing.