How To View The Aurora In Yellowknife – The Ultimate Guide

Yellowknife Northern Lights

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories is one of the best places in the world to see the Aurora, due to its proximity to the Magnetic North Pole, and its clear subarctic nights.

The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights can be seen dancing across the sky over 200 nights a year.

You can view the Aurora in Yellowknife in 7 easy steps:

  1. Choose your method of travel to Yellowknife (car or plane).
  2. Decide on a tour or DIY aurora hunting adventure
  3. Visit during the Aurora season (mid August to October & early December to mid-April.
  4. Pick at least a 3-4 night stay to maximize your odds.
  5. Check out the aurora forecast / weather (clear skies) for the night.
  6. Visit one of the many popular aurora viewing spots in or outside the city.
  7. Look up! Observe the whirls of emerald green, and sometimes violet, float across the night sky.

I’ve put together a guide for all you need to know to experience this cosmic phenomena of colours, as well as a listing of popular viewing spots in, and outside the city.

The Northern Lights 101

Northern Lights Yellowknife over a lake
Photo credit: SeanXu

What is the Aurora Borealis?

Celestial magic in action.

The aurora happens when charged particles hit the Earth’s atmosphere producing billions of tiny flashes of light. As these lights flash they appear to dance across the sky. The different colours are caused by gas particles (oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen or helium) colliding at certain altitudes.

Aurora Borealis is thought to be derived from “Aurora”, the Roman Goddess of Dawn and “Boreas” the Greek god of the north wind. There are many myths about the Aurora across the world and in the North.

What colours will I see?

The most common colour of the aurora is a pale yellowish green. Shades of pink, red and purple are more rare, but can sometimes be seen along the fringes.

When is the best time to see the Aurora in Yellowknife?

The best time to see the aurora in Yellowknife is either fall, from mid-August to October or winter, from early December to mid-April.

September and April are ideal months for aurora viewing if you want to skip the extreme cold. Nights are longer, increasing your chances.

Solar activity and frequency of auroras will be slowly ramping up over the next few years, and are expected to peak in 2024/25. Now would be a good time time to start planning your northern vacation.

In order to maximize your chances of seeing the northern lights stay at least 3-4 nights. You don’t want to come all this way to have your only night obstructed by clouds.

Look for the etheral lights in the hours just before and after midnight. We most often see them between 11pm and 1am. However, I have seen them as early as 8pm.

Tip: If you plan on coming to Yellowknife in September book well in advance. Vacancy rates for accommodations are typically near zero for this popular time of year.

If you are planning on visiting, I have a list of fun things to do in Yellowknife you’ll want to check out, for when you are not aurora viewing.

Where Can I Find The Yellowknife Aurora Forecast?

Check out the daily aurora forecast on astronomynorth.com, to see the probability of active auroras in the skies. They provide forecasts up to six days in advance from mid August until April.

Or if you are wandering around town, look for the tiny rooftop lighthouses. These flashing beacons alert tourists and locals to the aurora forecast for the evening, telling their story through colour:

  • Red (STORMY) – look out for active and colourful auroras
  • Green (UNSETTLED – Normal), auroras will be seen
  • Blue (CALM) – gentle auroras possible
Aurora Lighthouse Beacon by the Gallery of the Midnight Sun

These Lighthouses are part of the Northern Lighthouse Project and are located throughout the city, as noted on their website at:

  • Old Town – Gallery of the Midnight Sun
  • Downtown – Sushi North
  • Old Airport Road – Aurora Ford
  • Range Lake Road – Northland Utilities

What to Wear Aurora Viewing?

What to wear for Aurora viewing depends on the time of year you visit.

Winter

Winter temperatures average -15C to -30C, and can dip down to -40C or lower. It is cold, so you will need to be prepared.

In winter you will need a thick parka, heavy duty winter boots ( rated for -30C or lower), a toque, scarf/neck warmer, winter mitts, warm wool socks, long underwear and snow pants. Layers are good, especially wool and fleece. Avoid wearing cotton.

Winter gear is available to rent, or buy in Yellowknife. If you are taking a package tour, the clothing rental will likely be included.

I found in a quick google search that My Backyard Tours and Northstar Adventures offer non-tour clothing rentals. There are likely others. As I live in the North, I haven’t yet had the need to try these services out.

Fall

Fall starts early in Yellowknife, so expect cool weather. Temperatures at night can get down to almost zero. Dress in layers that can be removed if necessary. You will need a fall jacket, sweater, toque, mittens, wool socks and fleece lined pants or long underwear.

Aurora Tour Versus Self-Guided Aurora Hunting

Aurora Hunting in Yellowknife, NT Photo credit: SeanXu

First off you do not need to take a tour to see the Aurora in Yellowknife. Step outside your hotel on any given night, and you are just as likely to see northern lights as on a tour. Although light pollution from the city will dull the colours.

Walking, biking, renting a car, or hiring a taxi are all options for a self-guided tour to popular viewing spots.

That said, there are reasons you may want to consider taking a tour.

Aurora Tours offer personalized service and other experiences such as bannock making, story telling, ice fishing and dog sledding to name a few.

If you prefer to have someone else take care of all the little details, or want a chance to stay in a lodge outside the city, then a tour provides the perfect opportunity.

Aurora Tours

Tours out of Yellowknife can be a one stop destination or aurora “hunting” adventures.

Aurora hunting experiences have you “chasing” the not so elusive aurora in a bus, van or car. These tours can be small groups to large van loads of tourists. Multiple locations provide opportunities for photographing the aurora from different perspectives.

If you don’t mind getting in and out of a vehicle multiple times, and have a limited time to see the aurora, this may be for you.

Destinations are a one-stop visit, where you stay for your entire tour. Destinations offer prime spots for aurora viewing while visiting their cozy lodge, cabin, tent or village. These can be one day to multi day adventures, where cultural and other winter activities are offered during the day.

I haven’t experienced an aurora tour yet, so can’t personally recommend one. I hope to remedy this soon. However, if you check out the Extraordinary Yellowknife website, they provide a list of tour operators.

Self-Guided Aurora Hunting

Self-guided aurora viewing is a great option if you prefer a quieter, less crowded experience, and don’t mind the extra effort to make it happen. Aurora viewing can take place in the city within walking distance, or a short car or taxi ride outside the city lights.

You may also like hiking the Cameron Falls Trail in Yellowknife

Where To View The Aurora In Yellowknife?

While the aurora is often visible within the city, the further away from city lights the more vibrant the display.

There are many popular viewing spots from the Dettah Ice Road and Pilots Monument in Yellowknife, to the Territorial Day Parks along the Ingraham Trail.

If you want to hunt for the Aurora on your own, here’s a handy list of popular spots:

  • Step outside your hotel or AirBnB and look up!
  • Pilots Monument
  • Dettah Ice Road
  • Frame Lake / Somba K’e Park
  • Parker Park
  • Giant Mine Boat Launch
  • Fred Henne
  • Sand Pits
  • Yellowknife River Day Use Area
  • Prosperous Lake
  • Madeline Lake
  • Pontoon Lake
  • Prelude Lake

Read on for more tips on where and how to view the aurora in Yellowknife.

Where To View the Aurora – Within Yellowknife

1. Step Outside Your Hotel or AirBnB

As noted earlier, you don’t have to go anywhere to find the Northern Lights. With the aurora active over 200 nights a year, you are likely to see them on any dark, clear night.

2. Pilot’s Monument

Located in Old Town perched on top of a rocky hill, Pilot’s Monument offers a panoramic view of Yellowknife, Great Slave Lake and the surrounding area.

The view is also stunning in the day time especially at sunrise or sunset.

How to get there:

Follow Franklin Ave down the hill towards Old Town. Turn left onto Wiley Road, then take a right onto Ingraham Drive. If you are driving, park in the parking lot part way up the hill. Take the many stairs (80) to the top of the monument.

Daylight view from Pilots Monument towards Yellowknife

3. Dettah Ice Road

The Dettah Ice Road runs across Yellowknife Bay and is only open in the winter months from January to March.

Take a slight detour off the road to visit the iconic Ice Castle, in March. If you are lucky, you may even be able to photograph the aurora and Ice Castle together. One unforgettable northern experience.

How to get there:

The Yellowknife entrance is off School Draw Road, by Rotary Park. A quick 5-10 minute drive from dowtown, or Old Town.

4. Frame Lake / Somba K’e Park

Frame Lake is a small lake in the heart of downtown Yellowknife. In winter, walk to the middle of the frozen lake for a near unobstructed view of the aurora. Make sure you watch out for snowmobiles.

Frame Lake Trail forms a seven kilometre (4.4 mile) loop around the lake. Stick to the urban side running between the Legislative Assembly and the new Stanton Territorial Hospital for a gentler pathway. The western half is a rugged wilderness trail that is not maintained in the winter months.

Somba K’e Park sits on the edge of Frame Lake by City Hall.

How to get there:

Frame Lake is accessible behind city hall located at 4910 – 52nd Street. It’s a 5 to 10 minute walk from anywhere downtown, or a 30 minute trek from Old Town.

5. Parker Park

This urban park has a little bit for everyone. Parker Park features open baseball fields, a small lake ( watch out for snowmobiles), trails, a playground and a sledding hill. Watch the aurora from the fields or middle of lake for the best views.

How to get there:

Parker Park is located on Banke Crescent, off Finlayson Drive North, in the Range Lake neighbourhood.

It is a 4km (2.5mile) / 50 minute hike from dowtown, or a quick 10 minute taxi ride if you aren’t staying in the area.

6. Giant Mine Boat Launch

The Giant Mine Boat Launch is popular viewing spot close to town, where you can escape the city lights.

How to get there:

From Franklin Avenue in downtown Yellowknife, turn onto 48th street towards the Explorer Hotel. Follow 48th as it turns into Highway 4, straight past the intersection and the Yellowknife Ski Club on your right. Turn right on the unmarked road before the road closed sign and look out for the boat launch ahead.

The drive takes under 10 minutes from downtown, or almost an hour to walk, which is not recommended, especially at night.

Note: Starting in late 2021 this site is scheduled to be closed to the public for several years due to remediation at the mine.

7. Fred Henne

Fred Henne Territorial Park is situated on Long Lake with a campground, beach and day use area. The park is open in the winter time for walking, and is a great spot to see the aurora close to the city.

How to get there:

For Aurora viewing, use the day use parking lot, located on Highway 3, just past Old Airport Road. The parking lot is across from the airport.

8. Sand Pits

The Sand Pits are a popular recreation area made out of…you guessed it sand. Snowmobiling, dog walking, campfires and aurora viewing are popular activities here.

The Sand Pits are close to the airport, so their lights may affect how strongly the aurora appears.

How to get there:

You can easily reach it by car by taking Highway 3 past the airport. You will see an entrance just past Dehcho Boulevard on your left hand side.

Watching the Aurora – Along The Ingraham Trail

The Ingraham Trail (Highway 4) runs from Yellowknife, 70kms east to Tibbett Lake which is the end of the road.

There are no services on the Ingraham Trail, and no reliable cell reception past Prelude Lake.

I’ve only listed the viewing spots within a 45 minute drive of Yellowknife.

However if you are feeling more adventurous, the NWT puts out a a great map of all the “Safe Aurora Viewing and Parking Locations” . It is a must read before you head out on your own. The end of the road Tibett Lake is a great place to see the Northern Lights.

1. Yellowknife River Day Use Area

The Yellowknife River Day Area is a popular campfire spot (bring your marshmallows and some wood), as well as an aurora viewing area. This day use area is accessible year round.

How to get there:

The Yellowknife River Day Use Area is located along the Ingraham Trail, a 20 minute drive out of town. Look out for the Yellowknife River signs. You will see the turn off on your right, just over the river.

2. Prosperous Lake

Prosperous Lake is mainly known for its boat launch, the jumping off point for this 16km lake. Walk out onto the lake for the best views and photos of the aurora.

How to get there:

Prosperous Lake Territorial Park is a 25 minute drive from Yellowknife, along the Ingraham Trail.

3. Madeline Lake

Madeline Lake is a small park with picnic tables, fire pits and a playground for the kidlets. This is a popular tour spot, so it may be crowded.

How to get there:

Madeline Lake Territorial park is about a 30 minute drive from Yellowknife, along the Ingraham Trail.

4. Pontoon Lake

This day use area sits on a scenic peninsula, jutting out onto Pontoon Lake. There are picnic areas, campfires and a series of short trails.

How to get there:

Pontoon Lake Territorial Park is about a 40 minute drive outside of Yellowknife, along the Ingraham Trail.

5. Prelude Lake

Prelude Lake is said to be one of the best spots for aurora viewing and photography. Prelude operates as a campground in the summer months.

Sit at the picnic tables on the beach, or climb the lookout for better aurora views.

How to get there:

Prelude Lake Territorial Park is a 45 minute drive from Yellowknife along the Ingraham Trail. Unless you stop at all the other amazing aurora viewing spots first, then it could take all night.

Drive through the campground and park at the boat launch jutting out into the lake.

Aurora Borealis over a frozen lake in Yellowknife, NT
“istock/NZSteve”

Quick Tips To Make The Most Of Your Northern Lights Experience

Try these tips to make the most of your aurora experience:

  • Check out the forecast to see if the aurora is likely to be visible
  • Choose a night without moonlight. Moonlight will light up the sky and the aurora will be faint or invisible
  • Watch the weather forecast. Cloudy nights = no sights
  • Dress warmly and in layers
  • Bring your camera, snacks, and a hot drink (for cold nights)
  • Get away from light pollution. Choose a spot outside the city where the skies are dark.
  • Choose a spot with fewer cars, people, or distractions
  • Choose a spot with an unobstructed view
  • Park only in pull outs or parking lots for safety

Travelling to Yellowknife

Where is Yellowknife?

Yellowknife sits on the north shore of Great Slave Lake, 400km (250 miles) south of the Arctic Circle, as the raven flies.

The Yellowknife area is home to about 20,000 people and the Indigenous communities of Ndilǫ and Dettah. Ndilǫ and Dettah are represented by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and are part of the Akaitcho Territory Government. You can learn more here.

Of the eleven official languages of the Northwest Territories, five are spoken in Yellowknife: Dene Suline, Dogrib, South and North Slavey, English, and French.

How do I get to Yellowknife?

Yellowknife can be reached by air or by road.

By Air

Southern locations that typically service Yellowknife are Calgary (2 hrs), Edmonton (1.5hrs), Ottawa (4hrs), Vancouver (2.5hrs), as well as Whitehorse (1.5hrs) seasonally.

As flight schedules have recently been reduced, it would be best to check in with airlines for their most up to date info:

By Car

Yellowknife can also be reached by car from Alberta or British Columbia. Driving through the boreal forest of this sparsely populated area lends itself to contemplating the mysteries of the north. You really do feel the vast remoteness of the area.

Watch out for bison and potholes, especially from Fort Providence onwards. While roads are paved, the last 100km into Yellowknife is a twisting, pot holed adventure on rolling pavement due to frost heave.

  • Alberta – Take Highway 35 north to NT Highway 1
  • British Columbia – Take Highway 77 to the Liard Trail (NT Highway 7) through Fort Simpson

Driving times can vary depending on road conditions and time of year. It takes at least two days to drive from the closest big cities.

  • Grande Prairie – 14 hours
  • Edmonton – 18 hours
  • Calgary – 19 hours
  • Vancouver – 26 hours

Whether you are seeing the Aurora Borealis up close for the first time or the 100th, the wild beauty of everchanging ribbons of light, weaving across the sky, will stay with you long after you return home.

Related articles on family friendly destinations:

How To View The Aurora In Yellowknife – The Ultimate Guide

Featured Image: “istock/NZSteve”

6 thoughts on “How To View The Aurora In Yellowknife – The Ultimate Guide”

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  3. Actually this is a very, very good and informative guide! You said so many things I didn’t know and gave many useful tips! The Northern Lights is something that everyone wants to see in their lifetime, but due to a cold climate zone, not everyone is so brave to go there! But for me, it only makes this trip more adventurous! Hope to visit Yellowknife one day!

    1. If you aren’t used to the cold, it can seem daunting, But the beauty of the northern lights, and the winter experience is worth it, in my opnion.

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