Imagine looking up to see neon green wisps spiralling slowly across the starlit sky. Soon, other colours join and together they grow into a bright, pulsating chorus of light. Dazzling dashes of red and blue streak across the sky, waving, melting away then regrouping. You’re not dreaming. You’re witnessing one of the world’s most surreal natural spectacles – the northern lights.
Indigenous Legends and Lore
Many legends surround the aurora. First Nations peoples explain the phenomenon very differently. Some Inuit believe the northern lights are spirits holding torches to guide the steps of newcomers. Others think the aurora represent the souls of the dead playing a game of soccer in the sky. The Cree believe northern lights occur when spirits are dancing.
Accessible Aurora Viewing
Because much of Canada is in the north, there are a lot of prime places to view the aurora borealis in the winter months. Many of the best are right here in Alberta. Home to the world's largest dark sky preserves – Wood Buffalo National Park to the north and Jasper National Park to the west – and an abundance of pristine wilderness areas, Alberta is ideal for observing and photographing this captivating cosmic ballet.
Plan on some early winter camping, pack the snowshoes or the cross-country skis and head to where the prime time viewing is at its best. Sometimes all you need to do is drive out of the city until you’re away from the ambient light.
Situated under the southern edge of the auroral oval in northern Alberta makes Fort McMurray – a short flight from Edmonton – one of the world’s most outstanding spots for viewing the northern lights. Because of the city’s position, it’s not unusual to see the aurora year round. Northern Lights Outdoor Excursions offers a three-day/two-night tour including airport transfers, accommodation, two nights of viewing, expert guides and an onsite photographer who will show how to capture dark sky and aurora images. Try it on a snowshoe tour. Hot drinks and hot meals both nights will keep you cozy. You can also book tours through Brewster Vacations Canada and Alberta Sky Aurora Tours. And Lens on Nature offers the aurora experience as part of its Winter Road to Canadian Adventure tour.
The world's second largest dark sky preserve at 10,878 sq km (4,200 sq mi), Jasper National Park is unique in that it has a town in the centre of it. But you don't have to go far from town for fabulous stargazing spots where the northern lights often make a surprise appearance. If you’re planning to be in the neighbourhood in mid-October, stick around for the annual Dark Sky Festival.
Just 45 minutes east of Edmonton, Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Recreational Area and Elk Island National Park play host to a combined dark sky preserve of 293 sq km (113 sq mi). Against the darkest sky, you’ll get the brightest colours. Ribbons of rippling green, shoots of hot pink and neon yellow will tango with the twinkling stars. Take part in the annual Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve Star Party in early September.
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park
Alberta lies far enough north that the aurora can sometimes be seen all the way down to the southeastern end of the province in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. It sits on a plateau that rises to 1,465 m (4,806 ft) above the surrounding prairie, making the park the highest spot in the country east of the Canadian Rockies. Given the elevation and lack of urban light pollution, the 400 sq km (154 sq mi) area has also been designated a dark sky preserve. They hold their own star party in August.