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Travel Guide: Viewing the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights in Yellowknife, Canada

Seeing the aurora borealis, or northern lights, has been one of the top experiences to have on my bucket list for ages. Recently I was on the phone with my good friend / co-founder of Above & Below, Stan Moniz, chatting about an upcoming solar storm. We decided on a last minute whim to roll the dice and fly out to Yellowknife, Canada to shoot the aurora during the storm. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect as I had never seen them before and knew very little about the aurora. But Stan had me convinced it was worth a try – and wow, am I so grateful that I did. It was mind meltingly beautiful and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I basically forced myself to learn everything and anything I could in the coming 2 weeks before I hopped on the plane in hopes of not missing a shot. The more I learned, the more intrigued I became with not only the aurora, but Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories. Then when I got there it was like a wealth of new info and knowledge to soak up from Stan, and my awesome friend & Yellowknife native, Lindsay. 

Photographing the aurora borealis or Northern lights in Yellowknife Canada

Now I know, this a bit different than my normal ocean content. I love learning new things though and trying to shoot new subjects as it opens up this door to creativity where you can mix techniques and other bits from all your different experiences. Those that are familiar with my underwater work, will see my tell tale love of reflections & playing with light in the shots from this trip. Yellowknife was the perfect spot for it as there is almost more water than there is land with tons of beautiful lakes and rivers everywhere you look.

How to see & photograph the northern lights in Yellowknife, Canada

Why Should You Go?

Let’s start with a bold claim – Yellowknife is hands down the best aurora borealis destination in the world. And it’s actually backed up by facts. On average they see the aurora 240 nights per year! Let that sink in for a second…That’s more aurora chances than many places have days of sunshine. The majority of the Northwest Territories are located right inside the aurora belt – the oval that wraps around the arctic where the aurora borealis is primarily visible. But it’s not only that, Yellowknife has this almost bizarre climate where they see very little precipitation. One data source I found put it at about 30cm (12in) annually – to put that in perspective I live in what’s basically a desert with cactus and we see 25cm (10in) of precipitation annually. But what’s even better, is the months with the highest precipitation are also the ones you most likely wouldn’t be visiting for the aurora. There is literally no better place to experience the northern lights. 

Plus it’s super easy to get there, especially for anyone in the Americas as its right in the heart of Canada. Oh, and did I mention the area is also home to fluffy tanks?! The Wood Bison is the largest land animal in the Americas and some of the last herds left in the world are roaming free here in the Northwest Territories. 

When to Go? 

When it comes to deciding on when to book your trip you have essentially 2 time ranges you want to aim for. First off, we kind of need it to be dark. With being so far north Yellowknife is, in the land of the midnight sun. In other words, from mid April into mid August they do not experience true night. Don’t get me wrong, if you’ve never been somewhere that experiences the midnight sun it is incredibly beautiful and these can still be gorgeous months to visit. The area is packed with outdoor activities to get into; camping, hiking, kayaking, boating, and the list just goes on. And I’m told you can actually even see the aurora in the summer months during the midnight sun – which must be spectacular to see. 

But for those of us looking to shoot astro and see it ignite the sky we’re looking at going in the late winter into spring, or late summer into autumn. I’m personally going to write off the mid winter because reading things like an average daily temperature of -24 C (-11F) in January are numbers my Baja living brain does not even want to try to begin to comprehend. Fun fact- I learned on this trip that there is a temperature where Celsius and Fahrenheit are actually the same number. Want to guess where it is? It’s at -40 degrees. I’m not even going to go into why I know this now, but lets just say winters in Yellowknife can be a little bit chilly. 

When to photograph the aurora borealis or northern lights in Yellowknife, Canada
Leaves changing to autumn & fall colors in Yellowknife Canada

For those looking for warmer weather though, you should check out August & September. That’s when I was there and I was actually wearing shorts sometimes with day time temps reaching upwards of 24c (75F), and the lowest night temperature we seen was only 10c (50F) making it super comfortable to be out all night chasing the aurora. Plus you also get to see all the foliage turning bright ambers and reds making it especially beautiful during the day.

In late February the temperatures start to come up and in March I’m told the area starts to come to life as the sun begins to show its face again. They also have this incredible ice castle built on the lake and all sorts of fun stuff. Our friend at Northwest Territories Tourism tells me, “It may be a bit colder from January to March, but it is one of the best times to visit the NWT and to see the Northern Lights. The nights are longer making it perfect for more time to watch the dancing Aurora over the frozen lakes. Instead of a reflection of green off the lakes you have the crisp snow sparkling and lighting up everything around you. With the lakes frozen and the ice roads drivable, it also makes the NWT more accessible in the winter and opens the door to explore further. There are also numerous winter activities to try including dogsledding, ice fishing, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, and winter festivals.” So I think I’m definitely going to have to brave the spring chill and go check it out soon.

How do I get to Yellowknife?  

Yellowknife is located on the shores of Great Slave Lake (more on this later) about 400km (250 miles) south of the Arctic Circle. But as far away as that may sound, it’s surprisingly easy to get there. Even coming from Baja, I was able to get there the same day. You’ll want to fly into Yellowknife Airport (airport code YZF) which is serviced by a bunch of airlines with direct flights from major Canadian hubs including Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver. From these bigger hubs you can get to pretty much anywhere in the world. Spectacular NWT has some great travel info as well as a helpful flight plan map that shows which airlines fly which routes. 

Once you’re there, I’d highly recommend grabbing a rental car as it will allow you to explore more of the area and find great spots to watch the aurora at night. You have your normal rental car agencies like Budget, Hertz, and National. Then you have a couple other smaller rental shops. Personally I rented from Yellowknife Motors which is the local Chevrolet / GMC dealership. I randomly came across a film board provider list that listed them for car rentals so gave them a shout. I had a bit of a struggle trying to get in touch with the other agencies but when I called Yellowknife Motors the person I spoke with was so helpful and nice (Shout out to Kimberly, you rock!). It was actually easier than booking online with the normal rental agencies. I highly recommend checking them out, Make sure you tell them Jay Clue says hi! 

As for where to stay, there are a fair bit of hotels as well as AirBnb’s, bed & breakfasts and even  crazy lodges out in the middle of no where. There also campgrounds for those looking to enjoy a little bit more of the outdoors. For more details, the Spectacular NWT website also has a great directory of accommodations in Yellowknife and the surrounding areas. 

Traveling to Yellowknife Canada to see the aurora
photographing wood bison in Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories Canada

Any Yellowknife Recommendations?

Let’s start with the aurora. While you can easily see it in the city, you’ll want to find darker areas to truly see it dance across the sky. Just after landing, we hopped a taxi to our AirBnB and to my surprise the aurora was clearly visibly above us in the middle of the city. For photos, we wanted to get away from light pollution though. So on a quick tip from Lindsay we walked over to Tincan Hill Recreation Area and I was in awe! I couldn’t believe we walked not even 10 mins from the house and I was watching the aurora shapeshifting across the sky. I had only been in Yellowknife for maybe 30 minutes and I was already blown away. The next nights we took the car and scoped out a bunch of different spots. The Ingraham Trail (Highway 4) extends for about 70km out of Yellowknife and is packed with so many great places to just hang out and watch the aurora.  Plus for daytime it’s a great area for hikes and outdoor activities. Lindsay took us on this awesome little hike to catch the sunset one evening from the top of a hill and it was stunning. 

For more daytime activities I highly recommend contacting My Backyard Tours and doing a little city tour. The area has so much amazing indigenous culture, crazy history, and hidden gems with great backstories. We were super lucky, and Lindsay’s father, Peter, who happens to be a guide at My Backyard Tours took us around town one afternoon teaching us about the area, the people, and history. I learned so much in those few hours and seen so many cool spots I would have otherwise missed. The experience was amazing. I’d definitely recommend giving them a shout and trying to request Peter if he’s available. But if not, all the guides at there are longtime residents of the area filled with local knowledge. 

Weather & What to Pack 

The subarctic climate in Yellowknife is highly varied depending on when you are visiting. From polar cold winters to warm sunny summers you can find pretty much all four seasons.  In transition months like September daily high temperatures can go from 24c (75f) early in the month down to 10c (50f) by the beginning of October. So you’ll definitely want to check upcoming forecasts for you trip and pack accordingly. 

For the late summer/autumn aurora season pack light hiking / trekking pants as well as some base layers you can swap in and out throughout the day. You’ll definitely want some warmer layers for those long nights outside watching the aurora. For exploring outdoors, casual hiking boots are great, but I personally prefer trail running sneakers or hiking sneakers like those by Altra or Merrel. In early September I was fine with a t-shirt & light hiking pants or shorts during the day. Then in my pack I had a Smartwool base layer, my Dive Ninja hoodie, and Arc’teryx Beta AR shell rain jacket to swap in and out throughout the day as the temps shifted. Having a beanie in the late evenings helped a bit too on the chillier nights. The team over at Sunny Sports can def help out with picking out some great gear for the trip!

What to pack for a Beautiful warm autumn evening watching the aurora in Yellowknife Canada
How to photograph the aurora borealis in Yellowknife Canada

What Camera Gear Should I bring to Yellowknife?

For my photographers, you’re going to want a sturdy tripod that’s light and easy to hike around with. Stan recently turned me on to Slik Tripods and I can’t say enough of how great they are. The Silk Carbon Fiber PRO CF-635 with the Slik PBH-635AC Dual Action Ball Head is great for trips like this when you are hiking around and want something super light and easy to carry. The tripod is made from carbon fiber, folds down to 36cm (14in) and weighs only 0.9kg (1.9lbs). The ball head is lightweight and sturdily holds a full frame camera with wide angle lens without issue.

For this trip I brought the Sony Alpha 1 and the Sony a7S III. The Alpha 1 is a workhorse and could easily do everything, but for shooting timelapses the a7S III has a more manageable file size and is a beast in low light. Plus having two bodies allows me to have 2 different lenses & configurations ready to shoot at a moments notice. Lens wise, for the aurora you’re going to want something decently wide to get those nice comps with foreground elements and the aurora firing above. The main thing to consider is having a fast lens such as an f2.8 or below. Unlike when shooting the stars or Milky Way, the aurora is moving quite fast. So if your shutter speed is too slow you start to lose the beautiful details in it. You’ll notice as you get above 10 seconds the aurora starts to look like a blob, so try to stay under that. I used both the Sony FE 16-35 mm f2.8 GM  and the Sony FE 24-70 mm f2.8 GM II and couldn’t have been happier. For shooting timelapses, if you’re shooting Sony, then you are blessed with their awesome in-camera intervalometer. If your rig doesn’t have one, then you’ll want to grab a remote style intervalometer. For tips on shooting a timelapse of the aurora, make sure to check out my article on it here. 

If you’re going to check out the Wood Bison, eagles, or any other wildlife then you’ll want to pack a telephoto. I’d recommend something along the 100-400 mm range like the Sony FE 100-400mm GM lens. This will give you some solid reach while keeping a safe distance from those very large, and very wild, fluffy tanks. 

The Story of Great Slave Lake

Now some of you might have been scratching your head about the name of the massive lake Yellowknife is situated on. When I first seen ‘Great Slave Lake’ I was like, eh, did I read that correctly? I was told it’s pronounced more like ‘slavey’, but that didn’t really make it any better. I began doing a bit of digging as well as speaking with some friends that are of Cree and Dene heritage – two of the local indigenous communities found in Yellowknife. The story goes that many years ago when French explorers began moving through the area they worked with Cree traders. The Cree and Dene were at many times warring nations. During these battles the Cree would sometimes kidnap and enslave Dene people – so the Cree would refer to their enemies in this way when speaking to the explorers. In turn, the French explorers began to refer to the lake as ‘Grand lac des Esclaves’ which eventually translated into English as ‘Great Slave Lake’. 

Fast forward 200+ years and the name still exists today, to the obvious dismay of indigenous peoples on all sides. In recent years many have been fighting to rename the lake as well as other place names from their colonial names to their original ancestral names. To give you just a little idea of how culturally diverse this area is, the lake is known traditionally as Tıdeè in Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì (Tlicho), Tinde’e in Wıìlıìdeh Yatii / Tetsǫ́t’ıné Yatıé, Tu Nedhé in Dëne Sųłıné Yatıé, and Tucho in Dehcho Dene Zhatıé. If you’re like me, you are probably thinking ‘ummm… why wasn’t this changed decades ago’. And I really wish I could answer that. Especially considering the atrocities many indigenous cultures have faced all throughout North America since the arrival of europeans a few hundred years ago. What I have found in my research is that it seems like the process has been started to begin renaming the lake and other places throughout the Northwest Territories, but has yet to be completed. 

Sunset on Great Slave Lake in Yellowknife Canada
Aurora borealis reflecting off pontoon lake in Yellowknife, Canada

Rich in Local Cultures & History

Yellowknife and the surrounding areas are rich in indigenous culture and history. Over 50% of the population of the Northwest Territories is indigenous. The city’s name actually derives from the copper bladed knives a group of Dene were known for – with traders giving them the nickname Yellowknives. Yellowknife itself is a very young city, being less than 100 years old, but the local history here spans back thousands of years. The area was traditionally known as Sǫǫ̀mbak’è. I highly recommend learning more about the local cultures here when you visit as it is one of the things that truly makes this area incredibly beautiful. There are lots of opportunities and tours to learn about the beautiful heritage that has existed here for millennia. But if you can only fit in a couple hours, at least make time to stop at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center. Admission is free and it’s filled with exhibits documenting the history of the area. The small lake that it sits on also has a nice trail that wraps around it which makes for a beautiful walk after visiting the museum.

Any Insider Tips?

One of the coolest thing I’ve learned is how scientists can predict solar storms to some pretty close accuracy quite a ways out. So if you have some flexibility and can swing a last minute trip, you might want to check aurora forecasts and if a few weeks out it looks good jump on it. You’re looking for a few days at a kp3 or higher (it’s actually way more complicated than this, but I’ll save nerding out on that for a later article). Astronomy North has a great daily forecasts specific to Yellowknife and Space Weather Live has overall long term forecasts. 

When planning your trip, definitely put a day to the side to head out searching for Wood Bison. You can grab a tour or if you have a rental car you basically want to take Highway 3 heading towards Behchokǫ̀ & Edzo. Once you cross the Frank Channel Bridge by Edzo you’ll start seeing signs to slow down and watch out for Wood Bison. It’s a little over an hour drive from Yellowknife. Then from here just keep your eyes peeled for these awesome behemoths of creatures just hanging by the sides of the road. The further south you go towards Fort Providence the better chances you will have of seeing more of them.  Just keep in mind there are no gas stations out here, so fill up before leaving Yellowknife and make sure you have enough to return, or to get to the next fuel station in Fort Providence. 

While, these beautiful creatures might look quite chill, they can be quite dangerous. So please do not be an idiot and try to get close to them. It’s recommended to always keep at least 25m (80ft) away at all times. Even though they are gigantic, they are still prey animals and will not hesitate to ram you with those sharp horns if they feel even slightly threatened. You’ll also want to keep in mind that Wood Bison can run at 40kmh (25mph), jump high fences, swim, and quickly spin 180 degrees. Living up to my new nickname for them, fluffy tanks. 

Photographing Wood bison during autumn with fall colors in Yellowknife Canada
Photographing Wood bison during autumn with fall colors in Yellowknife Canada
Photographing the aurora borealis or northern lights in Yellowknife Canada on Ingraham Trail Road

Yellowknife Aurora Trip Quick Recap – TL:DR

When to go: March-April for winter shots, or August to October for warmer autumn shots. 

What to see: The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), Wood Bison, bald eagles, beautiful landscapes & more.

Temperatures: Highly dependent on the season. Can be polar frigid in winter, and comfortable warm in summer & early autumn

Photo/Lens Type:  Wide angle for aurora viewing & astro, and a telephoto for wildlife. 

Experience Level: Anyone. This is an easy trip.

More info: Spectacular NWT has a wealth of information on their website.