Finding the Northern Lights in Yellowknife, Canada

See the aurora, go dog sledding and more with these tips on things to do in Yellowknife. Pro photographer Marta Kulesza shares her photography and road-tripping advice for the Northwest Territories.


The Northern Lights dance above the Northwest Territories, Canada. Photo © Marta Kulesza

With long winter nights, dry crisp air, and close proximity to the magnetic north pole, Canada’s Northwest Territories are one of the best places in the world to witness the northern lights.

Making up Canada’s second-largest Province, the Northwest Territories start above the 60th parallel. To give you a sense of perspective, part of the territory lies inside the Arctic Circle.

How to get to Canada’s Northwest Territories

The capital city of the Northwest Territories is Yellowknife and, for a place that only has a population of just under 20,000 people, there’s a lot to see and do here, making it a perfect winter destination.

But first, you need to decide on how you’re going to get there. No matter where you start your Canadian adventure from, it’s a long way to Yellowknife. A couple of days driving – at the very least – and to be truthful, although there are lots of activities in and around the city, the drive up north is uneventful in terms of attractions. Yellowknife has a domestic airport, so catching a flight might be more worth your while.

Welcome sign outside the city of Yellowknife, located above the 60th Parallel.
Yellowknife is above the 60th Parallel, a circle of latitude in the Northern Hemisphere – 60 degrees north of the earth’s equatorial plane. Photo credit: Marta Kulesza

Tips for road-tripping to Yellowknife

If you do decide to drive, make sure your vehicle is equipped with winter tires. Keep your eyes out for herds of bison or caribou on the side or in the middle of the road. Plus, it’s a good idea to make sure both your headlights are working before you set off.

Don’t leave without extra supplies of food and water, emergency blankets, and a decent car battery. You don’t want to be stranded anywhere for too long in the fickle temperatures (often reaching -40°), because it might be a while before you see another car driving by.  

The Northern Lights dancing above the Northwest Territories in Canada.
Seeing the Northern Lights dance above the Northwest Territories is pretty rewarding if you do choose to take the lengthy drive. Photo credit: Marta Kulesza

Best things to do in Yellowknife

Consider spending at least three days in Yellowknife to maximize your chances of seeing the northern lights. Thanks to its close proximity to the Arctic Circle, they are out on most nights. You don’t need a big aurora storm for the greens, pinks and red hues to be visible, just cloudless skies! I spent three nights in Yellowknife and saw the aurora every single time I ventured out at night.

Apart from the chance of seeing aurora borealis, Yellowknife is known as the adventure capital of the north, providing a multitude of attractions from snowmobiling and kite skiing to dog sledding and the world-famous ice castle.

The ice castle in Yellowknife is erected every year for the Snowking’s Winter Festival in March. Everything is made out of ice: ice bars, ice dancefloors, ice slides, ice sculptures, and even an ironic ice fireplace. A fun place for people of every age.

A traveler rides down an ice slide at the Ice Castle in Yellowknife, Canada.
Sliding around Yellowknife’s Ice Castle. Photo credit: Marta Kulesza

Chasing the aurora around Yellowknife

The northern lights are visible from Yellowknife, but for the best experience, it’s a good idea to venture further north, away from the city lights. To get there, you’ll drive on top of a frozen lake.

The lakes around Yellowknife freeze a few meters thick in the extremely low temperatures, and for the duration of winter ice roads are constructed and speed limit signs are erected, shortening travel time for many locals who live on the shorelines.

A woman walks on an ice road acoss a frozen lake in the Northwest Territories, Canada.
Would you dare drive across this frozen lake in Yellowknife? Photo credit: iStock

The earliest open in December and remain in use until April, which is perfect, because this time of the year is also best for aurora viewings. The nights are long and the air is dry, so you don’t have to worry about cloud coverage. 

If seeing the northern lights is high up on your bucket list, then a visit to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada during the winter will almost guarantee memories that will last a lifetime.

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  • Paul Pav said

    We live in Los Angeles and don't plan to drive that far, even the driving on the frozen lake could be an experience. Do you have any other suggestion how to get there and see the Northern Lights? What is the best month ( and second best!)? What accommodation do you recommend? When there -- how do we get to the place where we can see the Lights?

    Paul Pav

  • Anna said

    1) fly in. I checked prices for a random day in mid-Jan (since Dec is too soon until Xmas/New Year's) & it was about $390 round trip. Domestically, I've heard Fairbanks AK is a great spot to see them, but beyond snowmobiling/hitting the tavern, there is noooothing to do. Yellowknife might be much the same, I've never known anyone who went there. Airfare is slightly less, about $315 for same dates.

    2) I've always heard Oct was a good month, because it was dark enough to see clearly but there were less potential snowstorms that would block the view. Others say Dec/Jan. Whatever you decide, check a lunar calendar & go during no moon days.

    3) Can't help you with recommendations :) You might have good luck picking your destination/month. I personally like TripAdvisor. Check the lowest reviews - things like "didn't have a pool/dated decor" might not make a difference, whereas "horrible uncomfortable beds" might. Then I follow up with Oyster to see real pics of the hotel, not the polished & manicured stuff hotels put on their websites. I also prefer vacation rentals to hotels, and I was surprised at how many results there were for both places - since they're small/less frequented cities, I expected pickings to be slim but that wasn't the case

  • Carol Patterson said

    I visited in September and it was a good time to see northern lights but our guide (from North Star Adventures) said August was the best time because the lights are good and it's not so cold. You might have to stay up later to see the lights but perhaps shivering less might be compensation.

    If you go to Yellowknife make sure to stop at the Legislative Building of the NWT. Government works differently in NWT (consensus decision making, selection of leader, etc) and the architecture reflects this.

    Also go to Buffalo Airways at the airport - this is the company featured in the show Ice Pilots and they have a great collection of old planes and aviation items.

    The visitor centre has some of the best ambassadors I've met in a visitor centre and take time to give you useful suggestions on where to visit when you're not chasing northern lights.

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