Seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in Banff National Park (2023 update)
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to fly all the way to Yellowknife or Iceland to catch the Northern Lights. You can catch them in Banff too!… These photos of the aurora were taken in beautiful Banff National Park (a 70 minute drive from Calgary).
We get so many questions about how to find the northern lights in Banff, so we decided to write this post to help you track them down!
Here are the FAQs and the best answers I could come up with:
How do you know when the Northern Lights will happen? Is it just chance?
Although it’s hard to forecast, the site we use to best predict whether the Aurora will happen is Soft Serve News. We’ve been using Soft Serve for years and years and it’s easily the best resource we’ve come across.
This site uses GPS to detect your location so that the information you receive is best suited to you. Obviously you must enable the location detector when the site prompts you or if this doesn’t work you can drop a pin on the map.
You can check this on a daily basis OR if you’re lazy like me, you can just subscribe to notifications on Twitter from them at @Aurora_Alerts , which will send you a message every time there’s an aurora storm watch.
You can also join the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group which is where most people go these days for live updates!
How strong does the Aurora need to be in order to see them?
The strength of the Aurora is measured on a scale from 1-7(kp). This varies randomly from day to day, and increases in the presence of a cosmic ray storm or solar flare
In certain places, like Kakslauttanen in Finland, you can see the aurora even when the strength is as low as 1.6kp.
In Banff, however, you really need the strength to be 4kp (ideally 5kp) and above to have a hope in seeing them. This is partly because the strength of the storm affects how far south the lights will be. In order for us to be able to see the lights in Banff, they have to be strong enough to clear the mountains and be directly overhead.
If you’re in the Prairies, you can easily look north and see the lights when they’re much weaker, but when you have towering peaks around you on all sides, the storm need to be strong!
We’re right at the southern tip of the aurora range, so they have to be absolutely blasting to see them properly. It’s important to know this and check the alerts, so that you don’t waste your time trying to see the aurora in Banff when they’re too weak.
First of all, the aurora is only visible at night. The aurora alerts will still ping your phone at all hours of the day, but you’ll only see them under the cover of darkness.
(sounds obvious, but I’ve actually had emails about this)
Here are three other important things you need to know about aurora hunting at night:
- The less moonlight, the better (new moon is ideal, unless you want to photograph mountains in the foreground too)
- The later you go out, the better (typically ‘real’ darkness only begins a while after the sun has set – I recommend the Photopills app to check this) – with that being said, this year we have seen aurora before 10pm.
- Winter is the best time to see the northern lights, because the nights are much longer. Summer is awful because there’s almost no complete darkness.
Generally speaking, we’ve found that the window between 12am and 3am is best for Banff/Calgary area. That being said, I’ve seen amazing photos at all times of night. If you’re committed, just bring a sleeping bag, warm clothes and stay up all night!
If it’s too cold to camp out for the night and you just want to wait until you get notifications for a storm warning (5 Kp or higher), here are some of our top hotel recommendations in Banff.
I got an Aurora Alert but I didn’t see anything – why?
Unfortunately, darkness and a storm are not the only factors in seeing the northern lights. Here are some more things to take into account:
For Aurora viewing, the less light pollution, the better. This is why you should drive as far away from the city as possible.
Aside from the town, Banff is generally completely dark which makes it prime Aurora-viewing territory. (Also, if you’ve got time to spare, Banff’s neighbor Jasper National Park is the world’s largest dark sky preserve!)
Cloud Cover and bad weather
Can you see the northern lights if it’s cloudy? NO.
The Northern Lights happen above the clouds (in space) so always always, always make sure you check for cloud cover because it won’t be worth it’s not a clear sky. Even a hazy evening can be enough to scupper your chances. Here’s a great site we use to check Banff for astrophotography shooting conditions. or simply check Environment Canada’s forecast.
What kind of equipment do I need to take photos of the Northern Lights?
Ideally you want a DSLR, a tripod and either a release switch or countdown timer release.
The gear we use for astrophotography and highly recommend for taking photos of the Northern Lights is:
– Canon 5D Mark III DSLR (The best camera we’ve ever owned. I am absolutely in love with the photo quality.)
– Fixed Rokinon 14mm lens (This is a super-wide fixed lens which is great for capturing the night sky) – extremely cheap too.
– MeFoto Aluminium travel tripod (All great Northern Lights photos are long exposures, which means a tripod is required so that the photo doesn’t end up being blurry)
– Canon Remote Switch RS60 E3 (The best way to set a long exposure without shaking the camera so your shot is crystal clear)
BUT – I have captured images on my GoPro Hero 4 before and they didn’t turn out half bad! (See below)
What setting was your GoPro on to take photos of the Aurora?
Night mode, ISO 800, 30 second exposure
These photos of the Northern Lights were all taken with a GoPro Hero 3!
Where should I go to see the Northern Lights in Banff?
To see the Northern Lights in Banff, you need to be pointing in a northerly direction (unless the storm is strong enough to pass overhead). There are only a few places that are positioned correctly, especially for photography, so don’t expect to be alone!
- Lake Minnewanka
- Peyto Lake
- Castle Junction
- Banff Ave, facing Cascade Mountain (or anywhere facing Cascade Mountain)
If the lights are blasting and the storm is strong, you might be able to look South and see them from Vermillion Lakes as well.
Other resources for tracking the Aurora in Banff
This is another website for tracking the aurora in North America. In this case, it has real time updates from people in the area, so it’s quite accurate.
If you have any questions about the Aurora or you’re planning a trip to Banff feel free to shoot me an email – we specialize in the Canadian Rockies. Have fun!