Anticipation hangs in the air like the fog from your breath cutting through the night. You wait eagerly beneath a blanket of starry skies that stretches from peak to peak, Suddenly, a curtain of brilliant green billows above, illuminating the night sky. Light dances across the landscape in a rare and surreal scene that not all are lucky to witness. This natural phenomenon known as the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights, is never a guarantee - but this makes her arrival all the more special.
Viewing the northern lights in Canada’s first national park is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With patience, preparation, and a little luck, you may be able to capture this rare natural phenomenon in your memories.
When the night lights do come out, it helps to be prepared with some local knowledge in your back pocket to make the most of the evening. Check out our tips below on how to have the best aurora experience in Banff National Park.
Top Aurora Viewing Locations
The first step to an unforgettable show is knowing where to go. Each of the locations below has its perks and considerations.
The most accessible location from the town of Banff for viewing the northern lights is Vermillion Lakes. Although they don’t provide as direct of a northerly view, the lights are often bright enough to dance over the Rundle range. Accessible by bike, car, and even on foot, you’ll have three lakes to take your pick from.
This location tucked away in the forest is often overlooked, but with a clear view to the North, it’s a great location for taking in the show. Ample parking makes this a great option for those looking for a straightforward experience. From here - it’s just a short walk to the open picnic area near the ponds.
Lake Minnewanka is perhaps the most popular aurora viewing location, and for good reason. Being the largest body of water in Banff National Park allows for wide-open skies to fully appreciate the aurora display. Anticipate sharing the space with several other aurora watchers (and their headlights), and only park in designated spots - parking on the road crossing the dam is not permitted.
For those willing to drive a little further to get away from the crowds, Bow Lake is an excellent option. Located 30 minutes from Lake Louise up the Highway 93N, Bow Lake is conveniently located just off the road and offers ample shoreline to share with others.
Tips For a Great Night Out
Now that you know where to go, here are a few extra tips to make the night a seamless success.
Know When to Go
While aurora “forecasting” is often hit and miss, there are a few ways to stay tuned in to the next big show. Signing up for alerts on Aurorawatch.ca is one great way to be in the know! Local Facebook groups often keep real-time tabs on the hot spots for aurora watching. And be sure to check with your local hotel concierge - many offer “Aurora Calls” for their guests.
Nights in the Canadian Rockies tend to be on the chilly side, even in the middle of summer. To pack for a great night under the lights, be sure to dress in warm layers including toques and gloves. Bringing along a chair, an extra blanket, and a thermos with a warm drink will ensure a comfortable experience. And don’t forget a headlamp or flashlight to help with navigating to your aurora watching spot of choice. If you have one with a red light, even better – as red light doesn’t affect your night vision.
Don’t Forget Your Camera
While there’s something special about simply sitting back to embrace the experience, the northern lights also offer the opportunity for fantastic photos. These days even the newest phones can take reasonable night photos, although a basic DSLR will be your best bet. With a lower shutter speed, wide aperture, and ISO set as high as it can go without compromising quality, your camera will be set for success. Making use of a tripod and automatic timer function will ensure crisp images. Take a few rough test shots to frame the photo and fine-tune the settings from there.
Things to Consider
And finally, making note of a couple of considerations on what to expect will help avoid any unpleasant surprises (or disappointments).
Patience is Key
Even on the nights with ample interest and high chances of the Aurora showing, oftentimes the night sky stays dormant. It’s also difficult to pinpoint the time and length that they will appear which means it’s a waiting game - it could take hours or a matter of minutes for them to show - sometimes with no results. But that makes their arrival truly appreciated.
Etiquette + Safety
Aurora viewing has surged in popularity in recent years, and you’ll often be sharing space with others. To ensure a peaceful viewing experience, be mindful of turning off lights whenever possible - whether a personal headlamp or headlights from your car - to keep the light pollution low. Parking jams can become a problem at popular spots. For everyone’s safety, stick to designated parking spots or well off the shoulder, and heed any signage to avoid blocking roads.
Aurora hunting can be hungry work, so make sure you bring along calorie-dense foods that will help you stay moving and warm. This is especially critical in winter when temperatures are well below freezing, and your body uses more energy to stay warm. Bringing along a thermos with a warm drink is also a great idea. A local favourite is hot chocolate, which just fits the coziness of curling up and watching the aurora. If you know you're going aurora hunting, it's a good idea to pick up your picnic supplies before the shops close. In Banff, check out Nesters Market or IGA for your supplies or in Lake Louise head to The Village Market.
Even if you aren't currently visiting Banff National Park - you can still enjoy this natural phenomenon from the comfort of your own home. Be sure to check the live webcams offered at Sunshine Village Ski Resort as well as the Banff Gondola to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis live.