HOW TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN BANFF NATIONAL PARK

Northern Lights in Banff National Park from the Pedestrian bridge.

One of the many wonders of the world are the dancing lights of the night, the Aurora Borealis, and contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to go to Europe to see them. With fresh mountain air and little light pollution, you can see the Northern Lights in Banff National Park.

The Northern Lights can be seen the strongest during the winter months, but it is also possible to see them in the summer. I was fortunate enough to see them at the beginning of October at 10pm.

This guide will help you plan your aurora chasing mission, show you the best places in Banff to see the lights, and prepare you for the magical moment with some smartphone night photography.

What are the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) are a magnificent display of colour dancing in the night sky. This is predominantly in the northern hemisphere, but they also have the southern lights known as Aurora Australis.

The science behind this performance is the result of the sun blasting charged particles into the atmosphere, also known as solar wind. The earth’s magnetic field makes a shield that redirects the wind, causing this incredible light show.

Small sliver of the Northern Lights over the Bow river in Banff National Park.

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The Aurora Borealis can be seen all year round from Banff but, to see the colours at their most vibrant, you want to visit in the winter months between October and April. This is when the sky is at its darkest.

In what months can you see the Northern Lights in Banff National Park? 

As this is a natural phenomenon, there is no guarantee you will see the lights when you visit. 

When is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Banff? 

As mentioned above, the best times to see the Northern Lights are during the winter months between October and April. 

The brightest months are between December and February. These are the perfect months because the days are darker for longer.    

The Aurora Borealis is most active between 11pm and 2am. The best conditions to see the lights are when the sky is clear and when you are away from light pollution.     

During the new moon phase, the Northern Lights are more visible due to less light pollution from the moon. 

Did you know that 2024 is considered the best year to watch the Northern Lights in a decade? This is because of the high and increasing solar activity.

Can you see the Northern Lights in Banff Town? 

Another reason why Banff is so special is because you can see the Northern Lights from the town centre. Banff National Park is located in the middle of the rocky mountains, making it the perfect ski town to see the Aurora Borealis. The light pollution is minimal compared to big cities, making it the perfect place. 

However, if you are lucky, you can see the Northern Lights from Calgary! My friend sent me this beautiful picture from her balcony. 

Northern Lights over Calgary city.

How to see the Northern Lights in Banff National Park

There are several ways to find out when the Northern Lights are making an appearance in Banff.

Join the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group.

The Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group was created for Aurora photographers to share information about the upcoming solar wind activity and post their photos of the experience they had.  

This group has learning guides on how to increase the chances of seeing the Northern Lights. 

They keep a close eye on the conditions and tell you when the best opportunity to see the lights is. On days when there is a high possibility of Northern Light activity, they will post and pin discussion threads, giving members a chance to share their information and tips.

Northern lights over Lake Louise from Alberta Aurora Chasers group.

Best Apps for the Northern Lights Alberta Forecast 

Some reliable apps to try are: 

Spaceweatherlive

Spaceweatherlive is a free app that sends you solar wind notifications with the timing and the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights, i.e. moderate. This app shows the KP index, real-time solar wind, the aurora oval, and magnetometers. This can all be found in the aurora activity tab.      

KP index screen from Spaceweatherlive app.

Auroraalerts 

Auoraalerts is another free app that shows the short and long forecasts with KP index solar wind data and the weather. This app has a lot of paid features that unlock more data if you want a more analytical app. 

Best websites for the Northern Lights Alberta Forecast

Aurorawatch.ca is a website created by the University of Alberta to monitor the Aurora activity in the Edmonton area. You can sign up for free to receive red alerts only or red and yellow alerts.

Red means get your slippers off; you are going to a light show; and yellow means there’s a good chance.

Understanding the charts and graphs

What is a KP index?

In basic terms, it is a scale between 0 and 9, showing how far south the lights will be visible. 9 being a full-on light fest if it is a clear night, and 5 indicating there is a chance of seeing the Northern Lights if the conditions allow, but they will not be as bright.

Check the webcams at the ski resorts.

Sunshine Village has set up an Aurora camera at the top of the Wawa chairlift, overlooking Wawa Ridge. As there is little to no light pollution up there, it makes for the perfect viewing platform.

The below image was caught on the webcam in October and was the reason I went outside to check out the Northern Lights. This is an amazing tool that helps Aurora chasers know it’s go time.

Northern lights pink and green from the Sunshine Village webcam.

The best places to see the Northern Lights in Banff 

As Banff is a National Park, it has plenty of Northern Light sighting spots with little to no light pollution. You can see the Aurora Borealis in the centre of town, but to have more of a “wow” experience, you want to choose somewhere a little further out. 

If you don’t have a car, I recommend: 

In Banff town:

The Pedestrian Bridges:

There are two pedestrian bridges over the Bow River that make for a great viewing platform. It is far enough out of town to have minimal light pollution. The old bridge gave us a better view when we last watched the Northern Lights.

Northern lights in Banff National Park

Vermilion Lakes:

Just a short walk out of town is the beautiful Vermilion Lakes. With the stunning backdrop of Mount Rundle, it makes for an excellent viewing place. The lake is long, giving you and other Aurora chasers the chance to spread out and feel like you are having a private showing. 

There are roam buses going out of town, but most of their services stop at 11pm meaning if the Aurora Borealis is showing early in the evening, it’s great, but anytime after that, you may be stranded. 

If you have access to a car:

Lake Minnewanka:

This is probably the most popular spot for Northern Lights, due to it being the largest lake in Banff National Park. It offers a gorgeous backdrop and a huge open area, showing the scale of how big the night sky is.  

Cascade Ponds:

This site isn’t as popular, making it more of a hidden gem. It is surrounded by forestry, but just a short walk from the car park, you will be greeted with the ponds and the mountain backdrop.

Northern lights at Cascade ponds

Lake Louise:

Located a 45 minute drive from Banff, this secluded area would be an unbelievable place to watch the Northern Lights. As it is far out of town, you would want to be sure that the Aurora Borealis is happening. With nearly no light pollution, it would be a dream location.

Aurora Photography Tips with a Smartphone If this is your first time capturing the Northern Lights, then be prepared for some photography trial and error. It’s all about playing around with the settings and seeing which mode works best for you.

Aurora Photography Tips with a Smartphone 

If this is your first time capturing the Northern Lights, then be prepared for some photography trial and error. It’s all about playing around with the settings and seeing which mode works best for you. 

Tripod:

I recommend getting a tripod; this is a good tool to have on all your adventures. For the Northern Lights, you want to have your phone steady to capture the moment. 

Having a tripod will minimise the risk of blurry photos. 

If you do not have a tripod, I recommend putting your phone on a flat surface and holding it still to avoid any general shaking that might affect the photo. 

Even pressing the button to take the photo can cause the phone to shake, which isn’t ideal. That is why a timer comes in handy.

Focus: 

If you are trying to focus on the darkness, it may not work out how you want it to. This is because the phone has nothing specific to focus on, which may result in a semi-blurry image. If there are mountains or a tree, let the camera focus on that, and the Aurora Borealis will be picked up in the background.

Night Mode:

For a super easy way, make sure night mode is on and adjust the setting to the longest possible timer. Most phones are automatically set to 3 seconds, but try and get longer if the settings allow. This means the phone will let more light in and create more detail.

A longer timer will allow any shaking in the beginning to stabilise.

Pro Mode:

Timer: 

If your phone has a pro mode, then play around with the settings to see what version captures the Aurora Borealis the best. I recommend setting a timer for 10 seconds, but again, try 3 seconds and 5 seconds to establish the differences. 

ISO:

The ISO setting is the camera’s sensitivity to light. A lower number gives less sensitivity to light, whereas a higher number means more sensitivity. Normally, a low ISO picture will be more crisp in regards to the quality but will have less detailing.

For the Northern Lights in Banff National Park, you want the ISO to be between 800 and 1600, depending on the light pollution around you. 

Again, this will be trial and error in the beginning. 

Shutter speed: 

This is pretty self explanatory, but this is the speed at which the camera shutter closes. What this does is allow you to take in different amounts of light. A fast shutter speed creates a short exposure and only allows in a little light.

Whereas a longer shutter speed gives longer exposure to the light. This is another reason why less light pollution is so important. You will want to set your shutter speed between 5 and 10 seconds. 

Northern Lights Banff Tour 

As the Northern Lights in Banff National Park are not a regular occurence there isn’t a specific tour designed to see them.

However, there is a stargazing tour between Banff and Canmore. The tour guides will pick you up from your hotel, drive you to a secret, dark, and secluded place, provide a telescope, some chairs, blankets, drinks, and information on the stars.

📍Book your Banff Stargazing Tour here. ⏳Duration 2 hours 💰 $149.50 CAD (£86.97)

If you want to spend your tour moving then try the 2 hour sunset and stars walking tour. On this 5.5km (3.5 mile) journey your guide will help you spot nocturnal wildlife, look out for constellations, and will share stories about Banff’s history and ecology.The tour also provides headlamps and cleats.

📍Book your Banff Sunset and Stars walking tour here ⏳ Duration 2 hours 💰 $74 CAD (£43.05)

Starry night sky.
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Tips for a great viewing experience 

Know when to go. 

To avoid disappointment, make sure you have checked the apps and websites for the Aurora activity. The Alberta Aurora chasers will have a pinned thread if they believe the Northern Lights are coming out.

Packing list 

Banff can get cold! And as you will be sitting for potentially long periods of time, you want to make sure you are prepared for this Northern Lights show. Here is what I recommend taking: 

Abraham Lakes covered in snow. Back of a girl in the foreground

Be patient and prepared.

There are no set times for the Banff National Park Northern Lights show. The key is to be patient and prepare for a couple of hours in the cold. Make sure you have checked for a high KP index and that the Alberta Aurora Chasers chat is buzzing enough to know it is not a drill.

 If they appear, the wait will be worth it.

Keep the light to a minimum. 

In order to get the best viewing opportunity, try and use as little light as possible. If you have a headlamp, change the settings to red, as this colour is less damaging to light.

Be respectful of other viewers around you. 

Like most activities that take place in nature, be respectful of your environment and the other people around you. Make sure you take your trash with you and leave no trace. Try talking in soft, quiet tones to avoid disrupting the peace, and no loud music.

Where to stay in Banff 

Samesun Hostel:

The Samesun Hostel is one of the best hostels in Banff. This is due to its central location and its social environment. The Samesun has friendly staff that puts on group activities to help you get to know your fellow explorers. The Beaver bar that is linked to the hostel offers trivia nights and cheap food and drinks. There’s also a free breakfast

International Hostel:

The International hostel is one of the fancier hostels with curtains and private plug sockets. It is the ideal hostel for digital nomads needing to get some work done. They have several little spots to sit and work, as well as a free breakfast. 

Hi Hostel:

Hi Hostel is further out of town and requires a bus to get into Banff Centre. The hostel does provide a free bus pass. The hostel is all about cosy cabin ibes with hammocks outside in summer and bars on site to socialize.    

Moose Hotel:

If you are looking for an upgrade from a hostel, then I recommend the Hotel The Moose. This hotel has the rocky mountain charm, with the backdrop of Mount Norquay behind. The hotel is a short walk from the town centre, has a spa, two hot tub roof pools, and an indoor pool. This is the perfect place after a day of skiing to sit back and relax. 

Moose hotels rooftop pool with mountains in the background.
PC: Moose Hotel

Fox Hotel and Suites:

The Fox Hotel and Suites is a little further out of town, but a 10-15 minute walk and you are in the centre. Everything in Banff is very close. This hotel has heated underground parking (which is a big deal in the Rockies), a pool, a sauna, and a free roam bus pass to get you around Banff. 

Final thoughts 

Seeing the Northern Lights is a bucket list item that needs to be checked off your list. It is an incredible experience to see a natural phenomenon. And another reason to visit the beautiful town of Banff.

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2 Comments

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