It was well after dark when Jack Fusco and I drove south into Wood Buffalo National Park, in the northern reaches of Alberta. We were on a mission to photograph all of Alberta’s dark sky preserves, and Wood Buffalo was our holy grail—an awesomely huge and wild national park that is larger than Switzerland and so untouched it sees only about 4,000 visitors a year. And on a cold mid-January night, that number dwindled to two, if we counted ourselves.
We were determined to photograph its clear dark skies and, with luck, the northern lights. Our plan was simple and prioritized staying warm. We’d photograph the night sky near Pine Lake. Not only was it a beautiful location with clear views towards the north, but it was a short walk from where we’d have to leave the car. We also had access to a log cabin and a nearly unlimited supply of firewood.
We sipped our coffees and drove in silence. Our eyes were glued to the dashboard thermometer, which plummeted to -34 C. No sooner had we crossed the park boundary than I’d noticed a bright glow in the rear-view mirror. We parked the car and jumped outside. The northern lights soared overhead in an awe-inspiring sight.
Location: North-eastern Alberta
Nearest City: Fort McMurray, Alberta
How to get there: Drive north from Fort McMurray along the seasonal ice-road that links Fort Chipewyan and the national park, or drive northeast from Edmonton to Hay River, NWT, before turning southeast towards Fort Smith.
Winter Highlight: Traveling to Wood Buffalo National Park is the adventure. The paved road ends in Fort Hills, just north of Fort McMurray, and the ice road begins. It’s just over 500-km of temporary winter-road, which crosses the Peace and Athabasca Rivers, and passes through the hamlet of Fort Chipewyan.
The next several hours were a blur. We rushed from the Salt River Day Use Area to Pine Lake and stopped at many locations in between. We composed some images quickly, and left our cameras elsewhere to capture time lapses of the northern lights, which danced across the northern horizon. We alternated between standing outside to watch the stunning displays and staying warm inside the car.
When the northern lights dropped off in the early morning, we had captured more than we’d imagined possible in such a short visit. It was good luck, too, as we didn’t have time to spare. We were just halfway through our road trip to photograph Alberta’s six dark sky preserves, which had begun a month earlier and nearly 1,500 km to the south.
There two critical elements to viewing and photographing the night sky: clear weather and the absence of light pollution. Alberta is naturally suited to both. Outside of the province’s two major cities, vast swathes of wilderness remain undeveloped. And Canadian Rockies slow weather systems that arrive from the west, giving storms time to dissipate before hitting the prairies. Because of this unique geography, Calgary and Edmonton are Canada’s two sunniest cities and much of the province sees clear skies more than 300 days each year. This is a skywatcher’s paradise.
Jasper National Park, located in the Canadian Rockies just west of Edmonton, was the first to receive the designation of dark sky preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Others soon followed and there are now six official dark sky preserves scattered across the province. Cypress Hills Provincial Park and Waterton National Park lie on opposing sides of the province, close to its southern border with the U.S.A.. Beaver Hills is located just east of Edmonton, while Lakeland Provincial Park and Wood Buffalo are both found in the northeast.
When we first started planning our road trip to photograph the six different areas, we soon realized it was too ambitious to photograph in a single trip. Not only would we need to drive more than 6,000 kilometres to visit them all, we also needed ideal conditions to photograph the night sky.
Looking beyond the need for clear weather, we also needed true darkness to clearly see stars and, with luck, the northern lights. We had to plan our shoots alongside the moon phases, taking photographs between the waning crescent and waxing crescent cycle. Beyond those key days, the moon’s brightness would obstruct our attempt to capture these skies at their best. So we divided the province in half, electing to photograph the three southernmost preserves in December and the three northern preserves in January.
Location: Southeast corner of Alberta
Nearest City: Medicine Hat, Alberta
How to get there: Travel southeast of Calgary along the TransCanada highway to Medicine Hat, then highway 41 south to the park.
Winter Highlight: Clear skies are the rule, rather than the exception, in the southeast corner of Alberta. The lack of light pollution is immediately clear when looking towards the eastern horizon where the Orion constellation is vivid.
Location: Southwest corner of Alberta
Nearest City: Lethbridge, Alberta
How to get there: Drive 275 km southwest from Calgary to Pincher Creek and south to the national park entrance.
Winter Highlight: Solitude. Throughout the winter, two hotels and two restaurants remain open in the town of Waterton, but the number of visitors shrinks, leaving those who make the trek able to have much of this mountain paradise to themselves.
Location: Northeast Alberta, in the lakes district.
Nearest City: Lac La Biche, Alberta
How to get there: Travel 215 km northeast of Edmonton, following signs for Fort MacMurray/Lac La Biche.
Winter Highlight: Cross-country skiing on machine-groomed trail near Shaw Lake isn’t just a daytime activity. The local Lac La Biche ski club organizes night ski programs throughout the winter to take in the trails and the stunning dark skies.
Location: Central Alberta, just east of Edmonton.
Nearest City: Edmonton, Alberta
How to get there: Drive 45 km east of Edmonton along Highway 16.
Winter Highlight: Elk Island National Park, which marks the northern boundary of the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, is home to the densest population of hoofed animals in Canada. Bison, elk, moose, and both mule and white-tailed deer are common sights throughout the winter.
Location: West-central Alberta, in the Canadian Rockies
Nearest City: Edmonton, Alberta
How to get there: From Banff, follow the TransCanada highway to Lake Louise and the famous Icefields Parkway north. From Edmonton, drive west on Highway 16.
Winter Highlight: The Maligne Canyon icewalk tours, which are a Canadian Signature Experience, guides hikers along a canyon floor. Frozen waterfalls tower overhead.
After two 10-day road trips, we’d visited and photographed five dark sky preserves and an international dark sky park. While visiting during the winter brought its own challenges, it was the ultimate season to visit. Longer nights gave us more opportunity to see and photograph the night sky. The lack of crowds made it easier, too, as we felt we had each area to ourselves.
Along our journey, we were asked which destination was our favourite and we did not know how to answer. We had discovered each area had its own unique highlights, from clear views of distinct constellations to prime northern lights viewing. The truth is, we’d welcome any opportunity to return to each location and suggest they’re all worth visiting.