Why Go to Yellowknife to see the Northern Lights?
When people think of places where they can see the Northern Lights, they usually think of Norway, Sweden, Finland or Iceland. Not as many people think of going to Canada to see the Northern Lights! However, Yellowknife is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights due to its northern latitude and high amount of clear dark nights! According to the Aurora Village website, the Northern Lights are visible around 240 nights per year. Yellowknife has been a very popular aurora hunting destination among Japanese tourists for many years and is now beginning to see an increase of tourists from other countries.
I had never thought of Yellowknife as a tourist destination until one day when I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and saw a classmate’s photos of the Northern Lights in Yellowknife. I was immediately intrigued and started researching the destination. A few days later, I booked a four night trip there for the end of January/early February.
When is the Best Time to See the Northern Lights in Yellowknife?
The best time to go is from mid-August to the end of September and from mid-November to mid-April. However, the best Northern Lights tend to appear during winter when it is very cold! Plan to stay at least three nights in order to maximize your chances of seeing the lights
How to Get to Yellowknife
Daily flights are available from Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary.
How Can I See the Northern Lights in Yellowknife?
In Yellowknife, there are three main ways to see the Northern Lights.
1. Aurora Village
Aurora Village is the most popular choice among tourists who visit Yellowknife. Located in the wilderness about a 40-minute drive from Yellowknife, it is famous for its traditional teepees where visitors can take shelter while waiting for the lights to appear. We booked two nights of aurora viewing at Aurora Village. On the first night, we were picked up at our hotel by a large bus. On the bus, there were three guides: one who spoke Japanese, one who spoke Chinese and one who spoke English. They each gave an explanation about what would happen once we arrived at the village. The vast majority of the tourists on the bus were Japanese.
Once we arrived at the village, we were sorted into groups by language and assigned to teepees. All the English-speaking people (less than 20) were assigned to one teepee. Our guide, who was from Japan, gave us a tour of Aurora Village, showing us the restaurant, gift shop, washrooms, and the best aurora viewing spots. When we got back to the teepee, the guide explained how to use the hot chocolate machine and the warm wood-burning stove. There were several tables with chairs to sit on. After enjoying some hot chocolate, we decided to explore the Village. The sight of the glowing teepees against the dark sky was very beautiful. Some Japanese tourists were sitting outside in lawn chairs, gazing up at the sky. Unfortunately, the sky was very cloudy and there was no sign of the aurora.
It was very cold (below -20C) so we went inside the teepee to sit down and have some hot chocolate. We spent the next few hours sipping hot chocolate and intermittently going outside to check the sky, but the aurora did not appear. The guide said that since it was too cloudy for the aurora to show up that night, the photographer would take a free photo by the teepees for anyone who wanted one. Usually, you would have to pay extra for any photos taken by the Village photographer.
Around 12:45 am, it was time to get on the bus and head back to Yellowknife. A couple of hours prior, the guide had offered guests the option of purchasing an extension to stay longer, but no one from the English speaking group chose to do so. A group of Japanese did, though. They were still sitting in their lawn chairs, bundled up in their thick coats and snow pants, staring at the sky when we left. It is amazing that they could endure the cold for so long!
The next night at Aurora Village was very similar to the first- a lot of sitting around in the teepee drinking hot chocolate and hoping that the aurora would come out. Unfortunately, it was way too cloudy to see them.
I think that Aurora Village is a beautiful place to photograph the Northern Lights because of the teepees. Because of the glowing teepees and the pure white snow, it also has a very romantic atmosphere. As well, it has clean washrooms and warm shelters. However, if the lights do not come out, you will probably feel very bored there. I think Aurora Village can improve by providing some complimentary baked treats (like cookies or muffins) for visitors in the teepees. There is a restaurant at Aurora Village, but it is rather pricey. I also think that a postcard or small magnet should be offered to visitors who did not see the Northern Lights.
If you need to find things to do in Yellowknife during the daytime, Aurora Village has lots of fun winter activities.
2. Aurora Chasing Tours
Another way to see the Northern Lights in Yellowknife is to book an aurora chasing tour. This means that a tour guide drives you and a small group of people to different locations outside the city to search for the lights.
For our third and fourth nights, we booked an aurora chasing tour with Aurora Ninja Photo Tour because of their excellent reviews on TripAdvisor. On the third night, we were picked up at our hotel by Wynne, one of the owners of Aurora Ninja Photo Tour. She was driving a black van with a cute ninja character logo on it. We were driven out of the city to a forested area where Wynne parked the van. Already, we could see some aurora dancing in the sky!
I set up my tripod and Wynne helped me adjust my camera settings. After a few minutes David, her husband, arrived in another van. He was driving a large family of 8 people. The aurora faded away after some time so David and Wynne decided to take us to another location to look for more lights. They found a place where the Northern Lights was strong. David took photos of us with the aurora in the background. We also set a timer on our camera and took pictures of ourselves.
Later, the Northern Lights disappeared and Wynne drove us around looking for more. Since it had become cloudier, we stopped somewhere and Wynne gave us delicious congee and hot chocolate!
On the fourth night, the Northern Lights were very strong! It was just the two of us in the van again with Wynne and the same family in the other van with David. We stopped at several locations. One of my favourites was at Great Slave Lake near town- there were several boats on the snow which made great foreground for photos. It was -30C and my fingers were trembling, even inside my gloves, from cold and excitement but I still managed to get some nice photos.
Since it was so cold we took breaks inside the van to sip hot chocolate. This time, we were served hot dogs. Later we were taken to another lake surrounded by forest. David set up his camera and was taken some time lapse shots. The aurora was dancing and pulsing in the sky like moving curtains, surrounded by many stars. It was truly an amazing feeling to stand there and watch the aurora. It was just so beautiful!
Overall, I highly recommend the Aurora Ninja Photo Tour with David and Wynne! It was great having aurora photography experts around to ask for advice on camera settings. Even though it was so cold, they both had so much energy and were not afraid to come out of the van and chat about the aurora or help with camera settings. The congee and hot dogs were also very much appreciated. We were even given a small souvenir. On my second night with them, I rented boots from Wynne because my own were not warm enough.
Personally, I enjoyed the Aurora Ninja Photo Tour more than my experience at Aurora Village because we were able to move around to different locations. When I needed help with camera settings, help was readily available. I thought the snacks and surprise souvenir was a very nice touch too. The only downside is having no access to a toilet for several hours. At Aurora Village, you are pretty much on your own if you need help with camera settings. There are so many tourists there and not enough staff who specialize in photography to help them with photography questions. Also, no complimentary souvenir or food is included in the price (probably to encourage people to eat at the restaurant). I would recommend Aurora Village to people who are already confident with their aurora photography skills, or to people who want to view the aurora in a nice, comfortable atmosphere.
3. Driving on Your Own
If you know how to drive and already have a lot of winter driving experience, you might like to rent a car and drive around looking for the Northern Lights on your own. However, it would be difficult to locate the best viewing spots in the dark (there are many heavily forested areas), especially if you are not familiar with the Yellowknife area. We drove off the road sometimes during the aurora hunting tour in order to access some great viewing spots.
What to Pack to See the Northern Lights
-A thick winter coat. You can either rent one (many tour companies in Yellowknife rent winter clothing) or bring your own. I wore my own Moose Knuckles coat.
-A scarf or ski mask (may not be necessary depending on how cold it is)
-Thermal underwear (top and bottom)
-Extra camera batteries
How to Photograph the Northern Lights
– You need a camera that can shoot in manual mode. I used a Canon EOS Rebel T6i.
-You will need a tripod in order to keep the camera steady while shooting the lights. Without one, your photos will probably turn out blurry, like the photos I took of the Northern Lights in Vik, Iceland when I forgot to bring my tripod. If the temperature is very cold, use gloves to handle the tripod.
-Batteries tend to drain very quickly on extremely cold nights, so bring along an extra camera battery (or two) and keep them in the inner pocket of your coat. That way, they will stay warm from your body heat.
-Before your trip, familiarize yourself with your equipment and settings. Practice setting up and dismantling your tripod. There’s nothing worse than fumbling around on a cold, dark night trying to figure out which button to press.
-Set your camera to manual mode, then set the aperture to the widest setting (the smallest f-number). The smaller the f-number the more light the camera lens lets in.
–Set the exposure between 8-15 seconds. The best settings will vary depending on how quickly the lights are moving across the sky. If the lights are bright and moving fast, you will need a shorter time, but if they are faint and slow then you will need a longer time.
-At first, set your ISO speed somewhere between 800 and 3200. ISO is the level of sensitivity of your camera to available light. A high ISO speed can result in a grainy image, The settings you need will vary depending on the level of light in the sky, so before the Northern Lights appear, take a few test shots and experiment with your settings. For example, the settings needed on a dark night with no moonlight would be different from the ones needed on a moonlit night.
–Shoot in RAW mode instead of JPEG to improve the quality of your pictures. You will also have more freedom when editing your photos (particularly the white balance).
-Use a flashlight or headlamp to illuminate people or objects that you want to appear in the photo so that they won’t appear dark or shadowy. However, if there are other photographers nearby, be careful of where you shine your light or you may ruin their shots.
-If you want to take photos of yourself easily, buy a remote shutter release. You can also use the self-timer setting on your camera (like I did for a few photos).
-If you are taking photos during cold weather, wear a pair of fleece gloves with removable fingertips so that you won’t have to keep taking your gloves on and off.
Other Things You Should Know about Seeing the Northern Lights
-Seeing the Northern Lights is a fantastic experience, but they won’t appear as vivid as they do in photos. To the human eye, they are a pale shade of green. The camera lens is more powerful than the human eye and can pick up colours and shades that we cannot see.
-The Northern Lights will be different shades of green depending on your camera brand. For example, in the photos above, the aurora in the photos taken on my camera (Canon) are a paler shade of green than the photos taken by David’s camera (Nikon).
-The lights could appear for only a few minutes, or they could dance for several hours! It really varies.