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If seeing the northern lights in Canada is something you’ve always dreamed of, then you may want to think about planning a trip to Yellowknife! Clear skies, stable weather conditions, and proximity to the arctic circle make it easy to see the northern lights in Yellowknife.
While this northern city is famous for being one of the best places in the world to see the aurora, it doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to witness it. As I quickly learned on my visit, you need to go out and chase the lights to maximize your chances!
Yes, 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 want to see them, it’s going to involve a bit of (fun) work!
This post will go over everything you need to know for a successful Yellowknife northern lights adventure, whether you do it yourself or join a guided Yellowknife aurora tour. Plus tips for photographing the lights and other things to do in Yellowknife during the winter!
Why Yellowknife Is A Great Place to See The Northern Lights
There are a few factors that make Yellowknife an ideal destination for watching the northern lights. First, Yellowknife is just 512 km south of the arctic circle. Part of the territory lies within it!
Its northern location means there is constant geomagnetic activity in the skies around Yellowknife, which is what causes the aurora borealis.
Yellowknife also has relatively stable weather conditions. There aren’t any mountains or oceans nearby, which leads to a relatively dry climate and clear skies. Compared to other popular northern light destinations such as Iceland, which have volatile weather conditions, you will have better chances simply because of the weather.
Combining all these factors, tour operators in Yellowknife say that you can see the Northern Lights 240 days a year. Those are good odds!
Another factor that makes Yellowknife an ideal location for viewing the aurora is the cost. It’s not a budget destination, but it’s significantly less if you compare it to other popular northern light destinations such as Scandinavia or Antarctica.
Yellowknife’s price of food and lodging is similar to what you would see in other Canadian cities. You can eat out for $20 CAD at a restaurant, whereas you would pay $50 just for a pizza in Iceland. Yes, really! All these factors combined make Yellowknife one of the best destinations to visit in Canada during winter.
Best Time to See Northern Lights in Yellowknife
Wondering when the best time to see northern lights in Yellowknife is? While you can see the aurora 240 days a year, some months are better than others.
If you want to see the aurora, then don’t visit Yellowknife from June to August. There will be almost constant daylight then (which is a cool phenomenon), but it means the sky won’t get dark enough to see the lights. Around August 8th is when you can start to see the northern lights again.
Winter (mid-November to the beginning of April) is an excellent time to visit to see the aurora in Yellowknife, as these months have the longest nights and clearest skies. You’ll just need to bundle up because it’s freezing!
Locals told me 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.
How To Maximize Your Chances Of Seeing The Yellowknife Aurora
The aurora borealis is a 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 in 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, also known as a solar storm, you will see the most remarkable northern lights show. This is very rare, although apparently, we are overdue for one.
The geomatic activity is measured by a KP index which goes from 1-8. All you need to know is that higher KP = a higher chance of seeing the lights. In combination with the cloud coverage, the KP index is what you can use to determine if it’s a good chance 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 you won’t see anything if there are clouds.
Tour companies say there’s a 98% chance of seeing the lights on a clear night but recommend spending three nights in case of clouds.
I was told that 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 the case for me! I didn’t see them the first two nights due to cloud coverage, but the next two nights, I did.
Yellowknife has a website where you can see the Aurora forecast, making it much easier to plan.
You can also download an app called ‘Aurora’ that 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 speaking, the best time to see the northern lights is from 10 pm – 2 am.
Do It Yourself Vs. Yellowknife Northern Lights Tours
If you rent a car in Yellowknife, you can 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 Ingraham trail road out of the city and stop at one of the many lakes, 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 wide open areas are best to see them.
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 I finally saw them dance across the skies on the second night. It was so exciting!
If you don’t have access to a car or just don’t want to drive around by yourself, the other option is to join a northern lights tour.
There are two different kinds of Yellowknife aurora tours. Ones that drive you around chasing the northern lights, and ones that just take you to see the lights on their private property (usually in teepees).
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 tired of driving around on my own and was curious about what a tour would offer. After going on one, I can see the benefits of joining a Yellowknife aurora tour.
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 driving around by myself at midnight to a dark lake sounds like the start of a horror movie. 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, they help you take photos with the northern lights! The guide provided information about the best settings for my camera to capture the aurora and took some fun pictures of me.
And finally, you get delicious maple cookies and hot chocolate on a tour. Yum!
Best Yellowknife Aurora Tours
If you’ve decided to join a northern lights tour rather than do it yourself, there are a few options to choose from:
There are two main types of aurora tours you can go on in Yellowknife. The first type is an Aurora hunting tour, where you drive around to different locations to look for the lights.
This one picked you up directly from your hotel or the airport, stopping at three spectacular lakes along the Ingraham Trail for optimal viewing. Hot chocolate, cookies, and a photographer included!
The other aurora tours are where you stay at one location, usually outside of the city. The benefit of the latter tours is that they will have a fire so you can stay warm. But if the aurora is not strong in that area, then you’re out of luck.
This tour takes you to a cabin on a remote island. If the aurora is not visible, halfway through the evening the group will relocate to a secondary location, which no other tour group provides!
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.
Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights
To photograph the aurora borealis, you’ll need a camera with manual mode and 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 naturally move, making your photo blurry. I use and love the MeFoto Backpacker Air Tripod – it’s lightweight and compacts to a small size yet is sturdy enough for my Sony A7II.
The exact settings of your camera will depend on the light around you, but here are some to get you started:
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, 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 than to my eyes.
The first night I was out shooting it looked white to my eyes, but when I took the photo, they appeared green. Depending on the strength of the geomagnetic activity, they will appear in different colors. It is possible to see the green color with just your eyes, but you’ll need a strong aurora!
What To Pack for Yellowknife In Winter
Yellowknife has four seasons and if you’re visiting for the northern lights, it won’t be in the summertime (or you’ll be out of luck).
If you’re visiting during the winter, you’ll want to wear a lot of warm clothing since this is an outdoor activity. If you get cold, it makes the experience miserable! The night we were out in February, it was -44 outside!
Here is what I recommend wearing in Yellowknife during winter when you are heading outside at night. I have more detailed information about these items in my what to wear in Canada during winter guide.
- 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 you aren’t cutting off the circulation in your feet by wearing too many layers of socks – I did this accidently!
- 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!
Don’t worry if you don’t have all of this gear or can’t bring it with you. Most tour agencies in town will rent it to you!
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 in Yellowknife.
How to get to Yellowknife
The easiest way to get to Yellowknife is to fly. 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.
While it’s possible to go on a road trip to Yellowknife, this will take you a long time and weather conditions can be volatile. It’s 16 hours from Edmonton, Alberta which is already quite far north.
Other Things to do in Yellowknife
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 is 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.
Best Winter Activities in Yellowknife
- 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.
Where To Stay In Yellowknife In Winter
Explorer Hotel – One of the most popular options in Yellowknife. This hotel is in a great central location, just 5km away from the airport (with a free shuttle) and centrally located downtown. They have an on-site restaurant and bar and a lounge with a fireplace to relax after a day of exploring.
Chateau Nouveau Hotel – A new hotel offering 4-star accommodation in Yellowknife. They are located in a central location, just a 4-minute walk from Prince of Wales Northern Heritage, with access to walking trails.
You can also book a three-night fully inclusive Aurora tour and not have to worry about accommodation in Yellowknife at all!
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 loved my time in Yellowknife. It’s a beautiful destination with a lot to offer, 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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