In the history of legendary quests, none perhaps is more famous than King Arthur and his pursuit of the Holy Grail. Many avid stargazers consider the aurora borealis, and in particular, the northern lights in Canada, to be on par with the legendary cup—greatly desired, but frustratingly elusive. But fear not, noble reader. While Arthur never succeeded in locating his grail, there are a number of helpful tips that can aid your quest to see nature’s spectacular theater in the sky.
So, if you’re ready to take up the gauntlet, read on to learn more about the borealis’ mythical history and the best times and places to spot it.
The Aurora Borealis Is A Natural Phenomenon
A natural phenomenon, the northern lights are a beautiful display of dancing colors arcing over the night skies in the northern hemisphere. Scientifically known as the aurora borealis, they have a counterpart in the southern hemisphere known as aurora australis. In either hemisphere, the event is a glorious spectacle to behold. But as beautiful as the event is when it occurs, it derives from the violent collision of particles into the Earth’s atmosphere. Fortunately, we don’t suffer any ill effects from this bombardment, protected by the Earth’s magnetic field. It’s the exchange of energy that occurs when the particles bounce along the magnetic field that causes the fireworks that have fascinated both amateur and professional stargazers alike.
When many people think of the northern lights, they call to mind undulating curtains of ephemeral green. Quite often, however, many of the spectrum’s colors are woven into the dazzling displays across Canada’s night skies. There’s no Instagram filters changing the colors in the sky, though. The variations in colors, ranging from pulsing clumps of blue violets or pulses of ruby red to sweeping curtains of the familiar green are affected by several factors. Depending on the particular type of ions and atoms that collide with the Earth’s atmosphere and at exactly what altitude the collision occurs, you will see a varied palette dance across the dark canvas. If an ion makes contact with the atmosphere under 60 miles up, you’re likely to spot colors at the violet end of the spectrum—deep blues and reds tinged with purple. More intense light glows green when the collisions occur from 60-150 miles. You’ll probably spot a jeweled red tone if it occurs above that. In any case, nature takes a cue from Jackson Pollock and splashes the sky in beautiful randomness that attracts thousands of visitors every year. But to increase your chances of spotting this beautiful phenomenon, there are certain times of year that make it a bit easier to spot.
Best Time To See the Northern Lights in Banff
It’s always a roll of the dice when it comes to being in the right spot at the right time to see the northern lights. The view can be marred by clouds or there may just not be enough activity to generate the awesome light show. With the right planning, however, you can dramatically increase your odds of seeing this natural wonder. One factor to keep in mind as you plan your next quest to see the northern lights in Canada is knowing the best time of year to see them.
While it does not have to be frigid to spot the aurora borealis—in fact, you can spy it throughout the entire year if you’re lucky—you DO increase your chances by visiting in the darker, chiller months. Plan a visit sometime from September to May if you want to heighten your prospects. One of the reasons for this concerns the geomagnetic activity on the planet which peaks in September and October, then again in March, at the equinoxes.
Top Spots in Banff National Park to See the Northern Lights
Just as important as knowing when to visit Canada to spot the Northern Lights is knowing where. While there are multiple locations in Alberta where the lights can be viewed, we’ve complied a short list of the best places to spot them.
Of course, it only makes sense—if you want to see the northern lights, point yourself toward the North Pole. But you don’t have to go as far as Santa’s fabled workshop to get the gift of seeing the northern lights. Many places in Alberta offer fantastic viewing opportunities to enjoy this natural wonder. Just make sure whichever you choose is as dark and free of light pollution as possible for the best experience. You can increase your odds of spotting them the further north you go. Plus, you get the added bonus of seeing the borealis at its most intense. No matter where you choose to witness the show, Alberta has a host of destinations available to make your experience memorable.
Let the Lights “Rock” Your World
Seeing the northern lights traipse through the mountaintops makes for a truly magical experience. If Banff, there is a fabulous opportunity to see the lights dance over the peaks of the Canadian Rockies at Lake Minnewanka. With the purchase of a National Parks Pass, Lake Minnewanka is free to visit, and there are many interesting winter activities, like ice bubble hunting, to entertain you during the day as you wait for darker skies to spy the borealis.
Fort McMurray’s Fantastic Feature
One of Fort McMurray’s best features is the sheer number of opportunities visitors are afforded to see the famous northern lights. If the weather is hospitable, the opportunities to see the borealis can number into the triple digits each year! The tourism industry in Fort McMurray also offers a number of tours to increase your odds of spotting them.
County of Northern Lights
Head west of Fort McMurray and you’ll find a whole county named after the atmospheric phenomenon. A bit off the beaten path, the County of Northern lights caters more to the visitor looking for a more back-to-nature experience.
Jasper National Park
Arguably one of the best spots to view the lights near Alberta, Jasper National Park is what’s known as a “dark sky preserve.” Special efforts have been made to keep the expanse of sky over this park as free from light pollution in all its forms as possible. This keeps the black canvas of sky free and for the aurora borealis to paint its spectacular colors without interference. From October 14-23, 2022, visitors can take part in the Jasper Dark Sky Festival. Speakers and artists take to the stage to share their thoughts on everything from space exploration to nature photography. In and about the park and town, there are activities like a geocaching dark sky treasure hunt, an dining in the dark experience, yoga under the stars, and much, much more!
Forecasting When the Northern Lights in Canada Will Appear
You can increase your chances even more by making use of some handy aurora apps for iOS and Android. Download one of these suggested apps to find out when the most favorable conditions for aurora viewing will be.
- My Aurora Forecast. If you’re gung-ho to complete a northern lights quest, this app for Android and iPhone will even stir you from a midnight snooze to let you know there is auroral activity in your neck of the woods. The great thing about this app is it takes the local weather and cloud conditions into consideration to ensure you have the best chance of spotting the northern lights.
- Aurora Alerts-Northern Lights. This app, available for iPhone and Android users monitors real-time aurora activity and can be set to alert you if northern lights may possibly be visible.
Tips When Venturing Out to See the Northern Lights
To make the most out of YOUR grail quest, there are some key tips to consider to help ensure you enjoy a fantastic Northern Lights experience. First, take the time to download a quality stargazing app like My Aurora Forecast or Aurora Alerts-Northern Lights. You’ll greatly increase your chances of spotting the Northern Lights with the aid of one of these helpful apps. They make predicting where and when the lights will appear a breeze—no astrophysics degree needed!
The darker the better. Do your research and find locations with as little light pollution cluttering the night sky as possible. Take advantage of nearby “dark sky preserves” which are specifically suited for viewing nature’s phenomenal light show.
Pick the proper time of year. The best months of the year to spot the Northern Lights are September, October, and March. These months traditionally see the most Northern Lights activity.
Plan for long hours. Catching a spectacular glimpse of the aurora borealis is not as simple as flipping a switch. Viewers need to be prepared to hunker down and wait for the waves of light to start their dance across the skies. Once they do, you’re sure to want to stay as long as possible to enjoy the show!
Bring lighted headgear. A great safety tip, particularly if you’ve chosen to watch the lights in one of the dark sky preserves, a lighted headlamp can help you find your path safely.
Bundle up, because it gets cold out there! Layered clothing and blankets are a definite must if you want to ensure a cozy, comfortable experience. Don’t forget the hot cocoa or coffee!
Exercise patience. Even with aurora forecast apps, sometimes you have to wait around a bit for the light show to start. Mother Nature keeps her own schedule.
Northern Lights Photography Tips
There are some great hints for capturing the northern lights on film and preserving the memory of your visit for years to come. If you want to catch a truly Insta-worthy photo, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, be certain you station yourself in a truly dark viewing area, like Jasper National Park. Be sure you set your camera on a tripod and use a wide-angle lens. You’ll achieve a much better photo if your camera is stationary. If you have the means to adjust your f-stop, set it to the lowest setting possible and shoot at 30-second exposure. Including a foreground will make your photos even more interesting—in case the northern lights weren’t enough!
Where in Canada can I watch the Northern Lights?
There are many spots to watch the Northern Lights in Canada. For places closest to Alberta, Lake Minnewanka, Fort McMurray, County of Northern Lights, and Jasper are most highly recommended. Further afield, you can experience the Northern Lights in places like Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Manitoba, and, while a bit more difficult to get to, Kuujjuaq is one of the best spots to watch the lights in Quebec.
What time can you see the Northern Lights in Canada?
There are opportunities throughout the entire year to spot the Northern Lights in Canada. Some areas have a higher occurrence of the natural phenomenon during certain parts of the year.
Can you see Northern Lights in Banff?
The Banff area offers one of the best spots to view the lights in Jasper’s Dark Skies Preserve. The strict limitations on light pollution help viewers get the clearest, unobstructed view of the aurora.
Can you see the Northern Lights in Banff in September?
You can spot the Northern Lights in Banff in September, but again, you better your chances at the dark sky preserve.
Can you see the northern lights in the Canadian Rockies?
With proper planning, it is possible to see the northern lights in the Canadian Rockies, but be advised. The lights are slightly more unpredictable in the mountains.
When can I see northern lights in Alberta?
September through March, sometimes trickling into May is the best time to spot the Northern Lights. Be advised, the darker, winter months often afford more opportunities.
What is the cheapest way to see the northern lights?
While the total cost of a Northern Lights vacation will vary greatly depending on your origin point, how you’re traveling, and how long you plan to vacation, generally speaking the most cost-efficient way to spot the Northern Lights is to book a tour.
Is a Northern Lights tour worth it?
Most tours can greatly increase your chances of witnessing the glorious Northern Lights. Tour operators are intimately familiar with borealis hotspots, and tours take a lot of the worry off your shoulders when planning a trip.