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Yellowknife, Canada is famous for being one of the best places in the world to see the Aurora Borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights. Clear skies, stable weather conditions, and proximity to the arctic circle make Yellowknife an ideal place to witness this incredible natural phenomenon. But does that mean you are guaranteed to see the northern lights in Yellowknife? As I quickly learned on my recent visit to Canada’s Northwest Territories, you need to go out and chase the aurora borealis to maximize your chances!
Yes, it’s possible that sometimes you can see the northern lights in Yellowknife by simply stepping out of your front porch and looking up at the sky. But this doesn’t happen every night, so if you really want to see them, it’s going to involve doing some northern lights chasing.
This post will go over everything you need to know to prepare for successful Yellowknife aurora chasing adventure, whether you do it yourself or join a guided Yellowknife aurora tour.
What makes Yellowknife an ideal place to see the Aurora Borealis?
There are a few factors that make Yellowknife an ideal location for viewing the aurora borealis. First, Yellowknife is just 512 km South of the arctic circle. Part of the territory actually lies within it! This means that there is almost constant geomagnetic activity in the skies around Yellowknife.
Yellowknife also has relatively stable weather conditions. There aren’t any mountains or ocean nearby, meaning the climate is dry and the skies are clear. Compared to other popular northern light destinations such as Iceland, which have very unstable weather conditions, you are going to have better chances simply because of the weather.
Another factor that makes Yellowknife an ideal location for viewing the Northern Lights is the cost. While it’s by no means a budget destination, if you compare it to other northern light destinations such as Scandinavia or Antarctica, it’s much cheaper. The price of food and lodging in Yellowknife are similar to what you would see in other Canadian cities. You can eat out for $20 CAD at a restaurant, whereas in Iceland you would pay $50 just for a pizza. Yes, really!
Combining all these factors, tour operators in Yellowknife say that you can see the Northern Lights 240 days a year. Those are good odds!
Best time to see the Northern Lights in Yellowknife
Even though you can see the aurora 240 days a year, there are some months that are better for northern lights viewing. If you want to see the aurora, then don’t visit Yellowknife from June to August. There will be almost constant daylight then, so the sky won’t get dark enough to see the northern lights. Around August 8th is when you can start to see the northern lights again.
Winter (mid-November to the beginning of April) is a good time to visit to see the northern lights, as there are long nights and clear skies. You’ll just need to bundle up because it’s very cold! I was told by locals that September is one of the best months to visit to see the lights because the geomagnetic activity is usually strong but you only need a light jacket to go outside at night.
What causes the Aurora Borealis (and how to forecast)
The aurora borealis is the result of collisions between electrically charged gas particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. Variations in the color of the lights are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding! The lights can appear many different colors although green and pink are the most commonly reported. How neat is science?
Essentially, more collisions = more crazy colors. During a geomagnetic storm, commonly known as a solar storm, you are going to see the most remarkable northern lights show. This is very rare!
The geomatic activity is measured by a KP index which goes from 1-8. All you need to know is that higher KP = better chance of seeing the lights. This, in combination with the cloud coverage, are what you can use to determine if it’s a good time to see the aurora borealis.
Your biggest battle to seeing the northern lights in Yellowknife is going to be the clouds. There is aurora activity almost every night, but if there are clouds, you won’t see anything. Tour companies say there’s a 98% chance of seeing the lights on a clear night, but recommend spending three nights trying to see the northern lights in Yellowknife to ensure you get a clear night.
Apparently, if you stay three nights you have a 95% chance of seeing the aurora in Yellowknife. Not sure of the science behind that data, but it was definitely the case for me! The first two nights I didn’t see them due to cloud coverage, but the next two nights I did.
No need for guessing the best time to see the aurora borealis! Yellowknife city actually has a website where you can see the Aurora forecast. There is also an app called ‘Aurora’ you can download that you will tell you the likelihood of seeing the aurora borealis in your current location. It can even send you push notifications when the activity is high! Generally, the best time to see the northern lights is from 10 pm – 2 am.
Do It Yourself (DIY) Northern Lights Adventure
If you know someone or rent a car in Yellowknife then you can simply go out on your own and try to chase the lights. You’ll want to get away from the light pollution which won’t take long. Take the Ingraham trail road out of the city and stop at one of the many lakes, which are a great place to view the lights. Prelude lake territorial park is a popular spot. The ice roads are another option for viewing the Aurora Borealis in the wintertime when they are frozen over and safe to drive on. Auroras are usually on the northern horizon, so the best place to see it is wide open areas.
I spent the first few nights of my trip to Yellowknife driving around trying to find the Northern Lights by myself. The first night was unsuccessful because it was too cloudly but on the second night, I finally saw them dance across the skies! It was so exciting!
If you don’t have your own car or just don’t want to drive around by yourself, then the other option is to join a northern lights tour. There are two different kinds of aurora borealis tours in Yellowknife. Those that drive around chasing the northern lights, and those that just take you to aurora village or their own private teepees.
DIY Vs. Yellowknife Aurora Tours
I was really against doing a tour when I first arrived in Yellowknife because I had the use of my friend’s car and figured I could save the money. However, I got a bit tired of driving around on my own and was curious about what a tour would offer visitors. After doing it, I can see the benefits of going with a group.
First, you don’t need to drive around by yourself late at night. The best place to see the northern lights are dark lakes, and frankly driving around by myself at midnight to a dark lake just sounds like the start of a horror movie. I’m also not a big fan of driving at night by myself after a horrible car accident I was in years ago. So having someone to do the driving alone was worth the money for me. They also know the best spots to take you!
Another benefit is that you can share the experience with others. As a solo traveler, it can be lonely sometimes. Joining a tour is a great way to meet other people.
Lastly, the help you take photos with the northern lights! On the tour, they provided me with information about the best settings to use on my camera to capture the aurora, and took some fun photos of me. As a bonus, you get delicious maple cookies and hot chocolate. Win!
What Yellowknife aurora tour should you join?
If you’ve decided to join a Northern Lights tour, then you still have quite a few options to choose from.
There are two main types of aurora tours you can go on in Yellowknife. Aurora hunting tours, in which you drive around to different locations in hopes of finding the best aurora. The other aurora tours are where you stay at one location, usually outside of the city in Teepee camps or cabins. The benefit of the latter tours is that they will have a constant fire, so you can stay warm. However, if the aurora is not strong in that area, then there’s not much you can do about.
There are also specific Aurora photography tours, which are focused more on helping you take amazing photos of the Northern lights.
As I mentioned earlier, you’ll want to give yourself a couple of nights to maximize your chances of seeing the northern lights. Many tour companies offer two-night Aurora hunting tours for this reason. You can also simply book a three-night fully inclusive Aurora tour and not have to worry about accommodation in Yellowknife!
Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights
To photograph the aurora borealis, you’ll need a camera with manual mode along with a sturdy tripod. This is because night photography requires a long shutter speed, usually 10-15 seconds for northern lights. If you hold the camera in your hands this long they will shake, which will make your photo blurry. I use and love the MeFoto Backpacker – it’s lightweight and compacts to a small size yet is sturdy enough for my Sony A7 + 24-240mm lens.
The exact settings of your camera will depend on the light around you, but here are some settings to start with. You’ll want to put your camera on manual mode and choose the lowest aperture. I was using the Sony 16mm wide-angle lens which has an aperture of 2.8. Set your ISO to 1600, and a shutter speed of around 15 seconds. Take a test photo from there and adjust your shutter speed to bring in more or less light. If the northern lights are dancing around then you may need a faster shutter speed to capture them. Remember, this takes patience!
What surprised me so much about photographing the Northern Lights is how much better they looked in photos then to my eyes. The first night I was out shooting them it actually looked white to my eyes, but when I took the photo, they appeared this vibrant green. Depending on the strength of the geomagnetic activity, they will appear different colors. It is possible to see the green color with just your eyes, but you’ll need a strong aurora!
What to wear while chasing the Aurora in Yellowknife in winter
Yellowknife has four seasons and if you’re visiting for the northern lights then it won’t be in the summertime (or you’ll be out of luck). If you’re visiting during the winter then you’ll want to wear the right clothing since this is an outdoor activity. If you get cold, it makes the experience miserable! The night we were out in February chasing the aurora, it was -44 outside!!! Here is what I recommend wearing during the winter in Yellowknife when you are heading out to see the Northern lights.
- thermal base layers over a shirt (I love merino wool)
- A Fleece Sweater
- Regular pants with snow pants over them
- Parka or equivalent snow jacket
- One or two pairs of wool socks. I love smart wool because it’s light to pack but keeps you warm! Just make sure your feet have enough room to move around to stay warm. I was incorrectly wearing too many pairs of socks one day in an attempt to stay warm and cut off my circulation!
- Good waterproof winter boots. I love Sorels!
- Warm gloves, hat, and a scarf. I highly recommend a buff which you can pull up to cover your face. It was my favorite accessory in Yellowknife!
If you don’t have all of this gear or can’t bring it with you, don’t worry. Most tour agencies in town will rent you the proper clothing.
I’ve been told during September that you can go out at night just wearing a light jacket, which is why they say it’s one of the best months to come and see the Northern lights!
How to get to Yellowknife
The easiest way to get to Yellowknife is to fly in. The airport is small but it has daily flights in and out. If you are flying internationally you will likely connect in either Vancouver, Calgary, or Edmonton. Search on Skyscanner to find the cheapest flights to Yellowknife.
While it’s possible to go on a road trip to Yellowknife this is going to take you a long time and weather conditions can be volatile. It’s 16 hours from Edmonton, which is already quite far North!
Other Activities and Yellowknife Tours
You’ll want to spend at least a few nights in Yellowknife to maximize your chances of seeing the northern lights. Don’t worry about getting bored during the day, there are plenty of other activities in Yellowknife to keep you occupied!
Yellowknife if the capital city of the Northwest Territories with a population of just under 20,000. Although it’s a small city, there’s a lot to do here in both the summer and winter months. The tourism industry is well-established, offering a variety of Yellowknife tours.
Best Winter Activities in Yellowknife:
- Kicksled Tour with Huskies Across Great Slave Lake
- Snow King Ice Cave Festival (Usually happens in March, but you can see them building it for months before)
- Winter Hiking (Tin Can Recreation Area, Cameron Falls, & Randie all have accessible trails during the winter)
- Snowmobile Wilderness Tour
- Snowshoeing Tours
- Ice Road Adventure
- Winter Biking Tours
- Dog Sledding
Yellowknife also has city sightseeing tours and a great museum which you can visit any time of year. My next post will be about the best things to do in Yellowknife, so stay tuned!
Seeing the northern lights has been on my bucket list for some time and I was glad that my home country was the place I could cross it off. I ended up loving my time in Yellowknife. It’s a wonderful destination with a lot to offer those who visit, especially if you love outdoor adventure!
Have you seen the northern lights before? Where was it? Let me know in the comments below!
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