People from all corners of the globe dream about one day catching a glimpse of the majestic beauty of the northern lights. Also known as the aurora borealis, the northern lights are breathtaking natural phenomena that illuminate the Earth’s sky in an array of mesmerizing lights and colours, and they are only visible from certain parts of the world. Luckily for Canadians, we have a prime vantage point of this elusive astronomical phenomenon from right here in our own magnificent backyard. Canada is full of strategic locations for spotting the spectacle of the northern lights due to the country’s northern latitudes and minimal light pollution.
What exactly are the northern lights? What causes them to appear?
The northern lights (or aurora borealis) are frequently seen lighting up Canada’s skies, and you don’t need any special equipment to see them! They appear as bright, dancing curtains of visible coloured light, most commonly displaying shades of green and yellow, although hues of pink and violet can be seen too. The northern lights are formed when electrically-charged solar particles collide with oxygen and nitrogen gas in the Earth’s atmosphere. The more active the sun, the more intense and stellar the appearance of the northern lights.
Did you know there are also ‘southern lights’ (aurora australis) in the southern hemisphere?
When is the best time of year to see the northern lights?
The northern lights can actually be seen all year round in Canada. That being said, they are way easier to see in the winter months (December to March in the Northern Hemisphere) when there is less light. The darker and clearer the night, the higher the likelihood of catching the northern lights in their full glory. The best time to spot them generally hovers between 10 pm and 2 am, but this can vary depending on where you are.
Where are the best places to see the northern lights in Canada?
The northern lights most frequently appear in a huge ring around the arctic called the auroral oval, where much of northern Canada lies. While it is possible to see the northern lights from anywhere in the country, you’ll have a better chance of seeing them from within or near this zone and in more remote cities with lower light pollution.
Without further ado, here are nine truly incredible places to see the northern lights in Canada:
1. Churchill, Manitoba
Also known as the polar bear capital of the world, Churchill gives visitors a great, relatively accessible taste of the Arctic and, of course, offers a high chance of catching sight of the stunning aurora borealis. According to Travel Manitoba, “the lights are visible for up to 300 nights of the year in Manitoba’s northern region.”
2. Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
The Northwest Territories is renowned for being one of the top destinations in the world to see the northern lights due to the area’s long and clear winter nights, flatness, and low precipitation. Yellowknife’s latitude and proximity to the north magnetic pole result in the aurora displays appearing directly above the city instead of in the horizon.
3. Whitehorse, Yukon
Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon, is the only city in the entire territory. This means that there is very limited light pollution in the area, which makes the bright dancing ribbons of the northern lights show up even more vibrantly. Many aurora chasers flock to this northern city to get a front-row seat to the natural light show.
4. Athabasca or Edmonton, Alberta
Athabasca County is home to one of the 18 facilities in North America dedicated to studying the aurora borealis, meaning that scientists agree Athabasca makes an optimal base for experiencing the awe-inspiring natural occurrence. The Athabasca University Geophysical Observatory isn’t open to the public, but, with a bit of luck, radiant views of the northern lights can be sighted from anywhere in the surrounding area, including nearby Edmonton, which has a website dedicated to tracking and predicting geomagnetic activity that can send you email or text alerts.
5. Prince Albert, Saskatchewan
Although not situated quite as north as some of the other places on this list, Prince Albert National Park is located right on the edge of the auroral oval and makes an excellent viewing spot for the northern lights given the right conditions. Saskatchewan didn’t become known as the “land of the living skies” for no reason!
6. Iqaluit, Nunavut
A bit separated from the rest of Canada, Iqaluit, Nunavut is a remote city that few visit due to its lack of tourism infrastructure. However, that is precisely why Iqaluit makes a fantastic destination for northern lights watching, given the region’s resulting lack of light pollution and pristine northern landscapes.
7. Manitoulin Island, Ontario
For an accessible place in the east to see the northern lights, Manitoulin Island is the go-to spot. Gordon Park, located on the island, is the only dark sky preserve in northern Ontario, providing an escape from city light pollution so you can increase your odds of seeing the northern lights, although they will likely be faint given the island’s distance from the auroral oval.
8. Muncho Lake Provincial Park, British Columbia
As for on Canada’s west coast, Muncho Lake Provincial Park is probably your best bet to view the northern lights clearly in B.C. The picturesque park is positioned at the very north of the province, and it’s easy to get to from the Alaska Highway. Watching the northern lights while being surrounded by the spectacular scenery at this park is bound to feel like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.