By Canada specialist Lucy
The first time I ever saw the northern lights was in the back of a pick-up truck, in Banff National Park. I’d spent almost six months living in Banff trying to catch a glimpse, but it wasn’t until nearly the end of my first visit there that I lucked out. I spent an hour tucked under a warm duvet watching a celestial green glow creep up behind Cascade Mountain.
For me, the aurora borealis is one of the literal highlights of a trip to Canada or Alaska during the winter. A sighting is never assured, but here’s a guide to improving your chances.
What are the northern lights?
The northern lights
The aurora borealis occurs when electrically charged particles from the solar wind collide with gaseous molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere. They most often appear as a greenish-yellow, but you might also see blue, red and violet hues. Their form is also changeable, from rippling curtains or waving streamers to fast-moving dots, like a spotlight.
Seeing the lights requires a certain level of dedication and energy. Not only are they unpredictable, they’re most easily seen during North America’s coldest months, blooming across the sky in the frigid hours between midnight and 3 am.
Some hotels in Canada offer special wake-up calls or provide walkie-talkies so guests can alert each other in the event of a sighting. If your hotel doesn’t offer this service, I suggest you set your alarm to go off periodically throughout the night, to improve your chances of seeing them.
The lights have inspired legends in all the people who saw them regularly, including the indigenous people of the region. The Algonquin believed that the northern lights came from a fire made by their creator, Nanabozho. And, some North American Inuit have tales that explain the lights as the spirits of their ancestors playing a ball game with a walrus skull.
Seeing the northern lights in Canada
Much of Canada’s Yukon territory extends into the Arctic Circle, which, alongside its low population densities and swathes of pristine wilderness, makes it one of the best places to see the aurora. That said, you’ll need to be willing to brave the cold — night-time temperatures in the Yukon can drop below -30 C (-22 F).
The four lodges I recommend in the Yukon below are all at least 25 minutes from the nearest city, Whitehorse, so they all enjoy night skies free from light pollution.
Snowmobiling at the Inn on the Lake
Snowmobiling, Inn on the Lake, Canada
Set in an area that was a major transportation route for the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, Inn on the Lake is a log-cabin-style hotel right on the shore of Marsh Lake. Daytime activities here include dog-sledding and snowmobiling tours to a secluded part of the lake, where you can warm up by the campfire.
You can also take out the hotel’s snowmobiles. Last time I visited, I spent a morning zipping along trails that wind through the piney woods. Then, I took it out on the frozen lake to see just how fast I was willing to go. My heart pounding, I tore across the ice at top speed, the big machine rumbling underneath me as the frigid wind stung my face and I kicked up a rooster tail of fresh snow behind me.
After an active day in the winter air, you can relax by the fire in the living room, or watch the sun go down behind the mountains from the outdoor hot tub. If your hair dips into the water, it won’t take long to freeze solid, which I found alarming and amusing in equal measure.
Dinner is served family-style at a large wooden dining table in the snugly warm dining room, which gives you the opportunity to meet the other guests. This made it easier to set up plans with my new friends to ensure that we’d wake each other up if the northern lights came out. Even though they didn’t appear that night, it was lovely to have a common dream with people from all over the world.
Off-the-grid viewing at Southern Lakes Resort
Southern Lakes Resort, Tagish, Canada
Set amid the rugged landscape of the Yukon’s north, on the shore of Tagish Lake, this off-the-grid hotel is made up of traditional-but-comfortable log cabins, as well as some newer, more luxurious cabins. In addition to en-suite bathrooms, sitting areas and heating stoves, they all have large windows to make the most of the lake views, and, if you’re lucky, the northern lights.
You can spend your days here on dog-sledding, snowshoeing and snowmobiling tours. In the evening, after dinner in the property’s restaurant and a few drinks in the bar and lounge, you can retire to your cabin to relax and maybe see the northern lights.
Glass-fronted viewing chalets at Northern Lights Resort & Spa
Set in the open countryside of the Yukon River Valley, Northern Lights Resort and Spa is surrounded by pine forests that rise against the backdrop of the snowy McClintock Mountains. The log cabins and newer glass-fronted chalets are built from locally grown Douglas fir timber, and all boast snug seating areas and fireplaces.
During the day, guests can join a guide for dog-sledding and snowshoeing outings, before coming back to the main lodge to unwind in the saunas, take in the view from the hot tub or enjoy a massage in the treatment room. Meals are prepared by the resort’s chef using locally sourced ingredients wherever possible and served in the main lodge at a family-style table.
At night, if the northern lights come out, you’re encouraged to join other guests on the large deck, but you can, of course, watch them from the comfort and warmth of your own cabin.
Northern Lights Resort & Spa, Whitehorse, Canada
Gourmet meals at Boréale Ranch
A modern adventure lodge with a youthful energy and excellent cuisine, Boréale Ranch is nestled amid mountain peaks just a 20-minute drive to the quirky village of Carcross. The details here are comfortable, with tubs of handmade slippers by the door, a library, a large family-style dining table and snow reports and dinner menus written on giant chalkboards.
The guest rooms boast a spare, contemporary decor and each comes outfitted with a walkie-talkie, so you can contact other guests in the middle of the night if the lights come out.
During the day, you can hit the toboggan hill and sledding trails, go on a snowshoe hike around the property, or ride fat-wheeled bikes along designated routes. In the evenings, relax in the mountain-facing outdoor hot tub or recharge by the campfire, which is lit every night at 9pm.
The gourmet meals at Boréale Ranch spotlight traditional northern ingredients, such as wild cranberries, elk, salmon and Arctic char. The chef can also pack you a lunch if you’re embarking on a day tour. In the evening and early hours of the morning, guests are encouraged to view the lights from their balcony or a specially designed aurora-viewing platform.
How to see the northern lights in Alaska
The lights in Alaska tend to be most intense in the equinox months of September and March, but they’re often visible throughout winter. That said, it’s almost impossible to predict their activity, making it all the more exciting when they do appear.
A transparent dome to view the lights at Borealis Basecamp
Borealis Basecamp, Alaska
Nestled within pristine boreal forest just 40 km (25 miles) from the city of Fairbanks, Borealis Basecamp enjoys an authentically remote wilderness atmosphere. The complete lack of light pollution means that the northern lights shine very brightly if you see them here.
The camp’s cabins have beds set under a transparent geodesic dome. The skylight domes are almost 5 m (16 ft) across, giving you a panoramic view of the star-studded night sky, even when the lights don’t come out to play. You also have the option to join others on the viewing deck when the lights do appear, to enjoy the full Alaskan experience in the cold night air.
Daytime offerings include a dog-sledding adventure, a photography class, or a race across the Last Frontier wilderness on a snowmobile.
Mushing lessons at Winterlake Lodge
Winterlake Lodge, Alaska
This remote wilderness lodge sits on the western edge of the Alaska Range, along the historic Iditarod Trail and surrounded by mountains and glaciers. Winterlake combines winter activities and wellness with hearty Alaskan cuisine and exemplary northern lights viewing.
Located off the road system, 318 km (198 miles) northwest of Anchorage, this lodge is only accessible in the winter by ski-plane. The lodge overlooks Winter Lake and boasts views of the wintry Alaskan backcountry. The secluded location means there’s zero light pollution here at night.
During the day, you can go snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and even learn to mush your own dog-sled team. At night, after a dinner that spotlights ingredients from the Alaskan wilderness, you can keep warm inside waiting for the northern lights to come out — I suggest watching them from the hot tub on the main deck.