I think seeing the incredible North Lights is on every wanderlust’s bucket list. The lights are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. Scientific facts aside, the dancing multi-colored lights are just incredible – viewing them is truly an unforgettable experience that will leave an impression of a lifetime.
I was lucky enough to see the lights in Yellowknife last year. The northern light explosion was so great that felt almost unreal. If you are planning to view the lights in Europe, check out Chasing the Magic Lights in Lapland for more details about my trip to Finland and a northern light photo-taking guide. When you arrive at Yellowknife, get ready for the intense cold that yields pleasing light viewing as a reward.
Could you tell me a little bit about Yellowknife?
Yellowknife is the capital city of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Lies on the north shore of Great Slave Lake, less than 20,000 people call Yellowknife home currently. Mining was the major industry in the city; and today, it’s a famous destination of northern lights viewing in falls and winter, making Tourism the latest renewable industry in the region to substantiate the city’s development.
Yellowknife is not located within the arctic circle (yet), it has a continental subarctic climate that can go quite extreme from an average of -30°C in January, to an average of 20°C (and yes, it could get 30°C) in July.
How to get to Yellowknife?
Yellowknife airport is a 10 to 15-minute drive from the city center and operates regular domestic flights to all major cities in West Canada like Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver, connecting people to other towns in the Northwest Territories. So, I would say the above three cities are the easiest stopover for you to go to Yellowknife by flight.
Where to see the northern lights?
While the phenomenon could be observed above the northern and southern hemispheres of the earth, most of the viewing occurs close to the arctic circle due to geographical possibilities. Therefore, countries or regions that are closed to, or within the arctic circle have a great possibility of seeing the lights, including Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, Alaska, and Canada. On top of that, Finland’s Lapland, Norway’s Tromsø, Iceland’s Reykjavik, Alaska’s Anchorage, Canada’s Yellowknife are some of the best cities to visit with well-developed tourist services and connections. These cities are easier to get to (usually a direct flight away from a major European or American city), and they offer a wide range of choices for you to customize your light viewing experience: from hopping on a coach bus to an Aurora Village, hiring a private tour guide, renting your own car, sleeping in a glass-top igloo, to simply staying in a comfortable hotel lodge.
Many of these cities also have a lot of outdoor activities and excursions during the day: husky safari, snowmobile, dog sledding, reindeer farm, cultural villages, skiing, and so on, check out Inside the Arctic Circle: The Lapland Adventures for some activities that I did in Finland.
What are the chances to see the northern lights?
Somehow the viewing is hard to guarantee. After all, the chances of seeing the lights are random and that makes the experience so much more fascinating and unforgettable. I talked to so many people during my trip and some people saw the lights as soon as they get off the plane, some people didn’t see it the fourth time they visit. The truth is, northern lights are always here, and (hopefully) always will be.
What conditions increase the chance of viewing northern lights?
Well, whenever you do a search on the internet the most frequently asked question is probably “when is the best month to see northern lights?”. This question, while is not completely inappropriate, doesn’t quite directly address the issue. It sounds like the northern lights only occur within a certain period of the year and you could only see them within those months of the year. In fact, the lights may manifest any time of the year, but there are certain months that the weather condition of that place is favorable for you to view them. For example, it would be almost impossible to view the lights during summer (late April to early September) as the sun in the north almost never goes down. I have, though, a list of favorable conditions that will hugely increase your chances of explosive northern lights viewing.
- The month of the year: I have already explained that the chances of seeing the lights if not exactly because of when they occur. Anyway, taking all factors into concern, the best months of the year in Yellowknife is January to March. Yet, the entire season starts as early as late August until early April. I had a perfect viewing in early October; on the other hand, I was told November (and December) are not good months because it usually snows of which an overcast will diminish your chance of clear lights viewing. Besides, tour guides may take time off during the holidays.
- Solar Cycle: The intensity of the lights depends on the solar cycle, in layman’s terms, the more “active” the sun is, the more sunspots that flare energy into space and result in more “intense” northern lights activity. The solar cycle is an 11-year cycle and I was told that 2013 was the peak of its upswing. We are now entering a downswing of the cycle, which means the activeness of the sun would probably hit bottom in 2020 until it goes back up to its peak in 2025. Yes, in theory, more northern lights could be seen at the peak of the solar cycle, but still, the lights occur throughout the solar cycle, no matter which phase it’s in. Besides, the strength of the lights varies every day, if you would like to check out the intensity of lights, visit Aurora Forecast.
- Best time of the day: The best time to view the lights are between 11 pm and 2 am. These are the peak hours and usually when the northern lights hunting safari takes place. Yet the lights could be seen anytime from dusk to dawn, I personally see a dash of green light right on top of our hotel at 9 pm and I have heard people told me they had a great manifestation right before dawn in Finland (and I was sleeping…). So don’t give up, and look up!
- Weather: Northern lights occur 80 km high above the clouds, and so it is pretty obvious that clouds are not your friend during the nights of viewing. This is also why dry locations with a clear sky, like Yellowknife, guarantee a better chance. There were also discussions that a lower surface temperature (about -20°C) the lights are considerably more apparent. Hmmm, I am not sure there is a correlation between the surface temperature and the light activity; what I would say is, colder days usually come with a clear sky because the heat on the earth’s surface can freely escape, offering a better chance. The few days that I was in Yellowknife, the temperature dropped to -16°C (even in early October!), and the sky was completely clear.
- Moon phase: This is another much-asked question and my answer is, “it depends”. The moon has no impact on the northern lights’ activity, and a bright full moon has a weak impact on the northern lights unless it is directly behind an already weak display. Some might even welcome the presence of a full moon as it adds another dimension to their viewing experience. On the other hand, city lights might also affect your chance of viewing yet it has the same level of impact as the moon. I saw the green lights appeared above the city, and it’s just not as colorful and active as the one that I saw in the wilderness.
In summary, a clear sky, a highly active solar activity, warm clothing, and an optimistic mood are all that you need.
What’s the Draw?
By now, I don’t think I need to explain why everybody wants to see the dancing northern lights. Yellowknife is named “the best place” for northern lights viewing because of its weather, geographic locations, flat terrain with lots of open areas, minimal light pollution, and well-developed travel facilities. There are many other activities to do during the day and Canadians are just the nicest!
How to see the northern lights?
Quite simply, held your head up because the lights might appear anywhere anytime. There are three ways that you could consider and I tried all three of them.
A private tour or a small group tour is usually a bit more expensive yet it has more flexibility to explore different locations to ensure a better viewing. We joined Sean Norman’s tour and he did give us a good tour. He picked us up in his spacious van and offered us warm drinks and homemade cookies (much needed) for our tour. Once we find a spot with a clear sky, we stepped out of the van and he gave us an in-depth commentary of the lights, an explanation of some constellations, and shared with us his knowledge that made the trip so much more interesting.
He brought a professional camera and helped us take pictures with the lights, and he also taught me how to change my iPhone settings to capture the photos!
The village is about a 20-minute drive away from the city. They offer to pick up service right in front of the Nova Hotel, yet it is also possible to drive there in your own car (that’s what we did). Once we arrived at the village, we were assigned to a tent where we could warm-up, and then we had a few hours to walk around different viewpoints and observe the lights. The village has washrooms, hot drinks in the tent, folding chairs for us to sit outdoor, and souvenir shops, and a cafe. The guides were friendly and are able to assist us with any questions about viewing. The village is a fixed location and so the chance of lights viewing really depends on the weather condition – some people in our group visited the village for the third time and finally had an amazing view of the dancing lights.
There are three car rental service providers in Yellowknife: National, Budget, and Hertz. It was rather easy to drive around and look for the lights in Yellowknife. However, pay attention to where you park and I would recommend you take a private tour or visit the Aurora Village first to have an idea about light viewing before considering self-driving.
What should I wear?
Check the weather before going out because the diurnal temperature range may fluctuate. Even the temperature doesn’t seem so low (like in August), you will definitely feel the cold sitting outdoor in the wilderness for a few hours. So dress warmly and make sure you have enough layers before heading out. In case you didn’t pack enough clothing for your visit, or the temperature suddenly drops, it is possible to check with your hotel or tour guide for winter clothes rental, so that you don’t have to worry about staying outside.
What else to see and do in Yellowknife?
While you would probably stay out late at the light, it doesn’t mean you have nothing to do during the day if you have the energy. The city has a lot of activities to do, from skiing, dog sledding, to museum visiting. We explored the city’s old town and drive along the Ingraham Trail and had a short trek to Cameron Falls.
The Ingraham Trail extends from Yellowknife to Tibbitt Lake and it is about 70 km long. It is a highway originally intended to circulate the Great Slave Lake, aiming to connect to different sites in the area. The trail connects to the Territorial Park and there are several pit stops along the way, such as Pontoon Lake, and Hidden Lake. One of the most popular hiking trails in Cameron Falls, it takes about an hour to reach the fall from the entrance and it warmed me up during the cold!
Yellowknife’s Old Town is a small area yet it gave us a taste of the city’s past. Check out the wall painting, “Yellowknife Cultural Crossroads”, which is created by artists Sonny MacDonald in 1999, and is dedicated to all peoples of the North, like Metis, Dene, Inuvialuit, English Canadian, French Canadian, and Quebec. Walk through the Bush Pilots Monument where you could learn a little bit more about the exploration and trade history of Yellowknife from the signs, and have a great panoramic view of the city and the lake at the Rock’s Summit.
After that, stop by the Bullocks Bistro and have a taste of their “famous” King Fishers Haul, with a variety of choices from Whitefish, Great Slave Cod, Lake Trout, Pickerel, Arctic Char, and Inconnu. The big portion of deep-fried, pan-fried, or grilled fish is served with house salad, cut fries, or freshly baked buns. I personally like the Saturday cinnamon buns because of their softness and sweetness.