Written by Dalene Heck
Last updated on September 20, 2021
Growing up in far northern Alberta, I saw bright green lights dance across dark night skies countless times. I saw them so often that I thought they were actually pretty unremarkable! It never occurred to me that they are a unique natural phenomenon that causes some people to travel from afar to see them. Now I realize that seeing the northern lights in Alberta is a pretty special experience. This is why I am eager to share these tips on how to best enjoy them.
About Northern Lights
Also known as aurora borealis, northern lights are created when energized particles from the sun meet the earth’s upper atmosphere. Or rather, they actually violently slam into it! The earth’s magnetic field then redirects them towards the north pole. That process creates the lights that streak across the sky, dazzling anyone who sees them.
The first suspected record of northern lights is a cave painting from 30,000 BC. They have since been integrated into many legends, folklore, and teachings. For the Cree, a significant Indigenous nation in northern Alberta, the translation from their language means the spirits are dancing. Without doubt, they have long fascinated humans.
Best Time to See Northern Lights in Alberta
The tricky thing about seeing northern lights in Alberta (or anywhere on Earth) is that they can truly be hit or miss. There is no guarantee that you will see them, no matter how badly you want to. Even if there are enough energetic electrons to light up the sky, clouds can also ruin a viewing. The key is to be patient, plan your trip in the right season, and hope for the best.
Northern lights can be visible all year round, but most likely in the colder, darker months from September to mid-May. Geomagnetic activity is highest during autumn and spring equinoxes, making September, October, and March the peak months.
When you’re here, there are two great, frequently updated options for finding out if the conditions are favourable to see them:
- My Aurora Forecast. Download this app to see the likelihood of viewing aurora borealis no matter where you are, taking into account the activity and cloud coverage. You can also set alerts to notify you when the lights are most active in your area. If you’re game for a 2am wake-up call to hustle you outside to see them, this app will give you a notification.
- Aurorawatch. The University of Alberta (based in Edmonton) set up a website to track northern lights activity in the area, and some other parts of Alberta. It’s not the most well-constructed website, but the information is up-to-date and helpful.
Where to See Northern Lights in Alberta
If you want the best chance, you guessed it…head north! (And out of town, as you want to the sky to be as dark and light-pollution-free as possible.)
While every region of the province will likely get at least one opportunity to view the lights in a year, the farther north you go, the better your chances are. And the more brilliant they will be! That said, there is also something pretty magical about seeing them dance around mountains, so even though the Rockies don’t extend very far north, we’ve included some central and southern Alberta options as well.
Northern Lights in Fort McMurray
This most populous city in northern Alberta is one of the best places to head to spot the lights, and there are even tours you can take to ensure you have the most optimal experience. Rumor has it that glass igloos are on the way too, which means that you can quite literally sleep under the lights as they dance. (Although, who’s really going to be sleeping?)
County of Northern Lights
It’s in the name! Starting just north of the town of Peace River, this county crosses the same latitude as Fort McMurray but is on the western side of the province. A little more difficult to get to (there are few, and expensive, flights to Peace River from Edmonton), a trip to this county will promise a more off-the-beaten-path experience.
Dark Sky Preserves
Alberta has a lot of wide-open spaces, and many regions have smartly protected their skies with a special commitment to preserve the night by minimizing light pollution in all its forms. Visiting any of these places will ensure that your aurora borealis viewing will be most optimal.
Jasper National Park
If you want to be in the mountains enjoying the northern lights in Jasper is your best bet. Note that, regardless of aurora-spotting, this also happens to be our personal favourite spot in Alberta for outdoor adventures (and lots of other great things to do in Jasper, including the Dark Sky Festival they hold every October).
Elk Island National Park – Beaver Hills
East of Edmonton, this dark sky preserve includes Elk Island National Park, and the Cooking Lake Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area. This where the Royal Astronomical Society of Edmonton often meets. There are plenty of spots to see the northern lights in Elk Island National Park if the forecast is good.
Wood Buffalo National Park
Almost as north as north can go – this large swatch of land is north of Fort McMurray. Catching the northern lights in Wood Buffalo National Park should be easy if the weather is good as it is the world’s largest dark sky preserve. It’s not the easiest to get too, but the effort is definitely worth it.
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park
Encompassing a parcel of land in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan, the gently rolling hills of Cypress can provide a pretty backdrop for aurora borealis photos.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Added just in 2021, this beauty of a park, along with Glacier National Park in the USA, became the first International Dark Sky Parks spanning both sides of an international border. And because Waterton Lakes National Park is up against Alberta’s southern border, there is a diminishing opportunity to see northern lights, but the night skies are stunning nonetheless. Operators have recently opened in the area to offer interpretive stargazing tours.
Lakeland Provincial Park
The newest of the provincial parks to be added, Lakeland is north of Edmonton and just east of Lac La Biche. They even hold a Dark Sky Celebration on the third weekend of September each year.
See the Northern Lights in the Canadian Rockies!
There are plenty of spots to see the northern lights in Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. To get that perfect backdrop, we suggest heading to Pyramid Lake (Jasper), Abraham Lake (David Thompson Country), and Lake Minnewanka (Banff). These spots are beautiful day or night, and in the absence of any light pollution, will offer excellent backdrops for viewing and photos.
Anywhere in Alberta!
As we have previously mentioned, if the forecast is strong for aurora and the weather forecast is clear, then your chances of seeing the northern lights will be very good. The key is finding a spot that is void of light pollution so that you can see them clearly in the sky.
There are a lot of open spaces with perfectly dark skies that will allow you to view and photograph northern lights with minimal light disruption. Use this dark sky finder to find the nearest spot. It is fairly intuitive – the black spots are those that are darkest – but note that it does not take current weather (cloudy skies) into account. Nor does it consider localized lights (i.e. a bright security light on a remote farmhouse) that could impede viewing.
From the hoodoos in drumheller, to the prairies, to the mountains, Alberta is one of the best spots for northern lights in Canada.
Photography Tips: How to Capture Northern Lights
Seeing the aurora borealis is a magical experience! But do you know what’s even better? When you can capture those special moments with a camera and relive them for years to come.
Photographers travel from around the world to capture the northern lights in Alberta and you don’t need to be a pro to get a good shot of the green lights dancing. There are certainly some key photography tips to employ to capture the perfect shot:
- As we’ve said above, a dark night with a clear sky is paramount. Use the apps and websites referenced above to seek out a good place to plant your tripod.
- While the cameras on phones are getting much better with every release, it is possible to get good aurora shots using their dark mode setting. Ideally using a DSLR camera is still better. And in either case, having a tripod is also important. Your camera needs to be perfectly still to avoid any blur in your photos.
- Using a wide-angle lens is ideal.
- You need a camera that has more than “auto” mode, as being able to control various settings is essential.
- Start with these manual settings: Turn your aperture as low as possible (f4, or f2.8 if you can) to let in as much light as possible. Adjust your ISO will starting with 3200-6400. Turn white balance to “daylight”, and shutter speed to a 5-15 second exposure. Take a couple of shots that way, and then adjust if necessary. If the aurora is very bright and active, then you’ll want to reduce your ISO and/or shutter speed.
- To add some dimension, focus your camera on the closest interesting element. Perhpas a person standing in front, or maybe a fence post or a tree. If that is not available or you want to get the sky on its own, then focus on the brightest star or planet in the sky.
- It helps to have a cable release for your camera in order to press the shutter remotely. Remember that any movement to your camera can cause blur, so try and keep your fingers off of it. Another options is to set your camera to a timer mode to reduce any vibration from hitting the shutter.
- As the optimal aurora viewing times are in the colder months, dress warmly! Bring a thermos filled with something warm to drink, and be prepared to spend time waiting. Photographing the northern lights in Alberta can require a lot of patience.
- Edmonton’s Chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Alberta has published “dark sky etiquette” to ensure that anyone who is out enjoying the lights is respectful of others who are as well.
- There is a very active “Alberta Aurora Chasers” Facebook group that lives up to its name. If you want to chase the northern lights in Alberta – get in there!
If you’re out chasing northern lights in Alberta during the darkness of night, you’re going to want a good hotel to rest your head in after! Here’s our advice on where to stay in the tourist hot spots: