Viewing the Northern Lights along the Alaska Highway

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The Northern Lights are one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular sights and here in the Northeast, you have one of the best chances of seeing them in British Columbia.

The rolling plains around Fort St. John and Dawson Creek offer a generous horizon and wide, open views of the night sky while the mountains around Tumbler Ridge and Hudson’s Hope provide excellent vantage points for taking in the show.

Minimal light pollution and clear, crisp weather with little precipitation from November to March make your chances of viewing them in the area excellent. 

Here’s what you need to know about Northern Lights in BC’s Northeast, how and when to catch a show, and tips on making the most of your experience.

What Are the Northern Lights?

Seeing ethereal wisps of light dance across an inky night sky often feels like the product of some otherworldly magic but there’s a very good explanation as to why we see aurora borealis. 

Aurora borealis happens in the Northern Hemisphere when the sun’s electrically charged particles, riding on a solar wind, enter the Earth’s atmosphere and collide with gases, resulting in glowing emissions. 

Auroras can take on various shapes, movements, colours and brightness. This depends on the composition of gases in Earth’s atmosphere, the altitude where the aurora occurs, and the intensity of the solar activity. The most common colour of northern lights is green, though — more rarely — shimmering violet or stark red hues can also be seen. 

Aurora Borealis on the Sikanni River near Fort Nelson, BC. Photo: Ryan Dickie

When is The Best Time to See the Northern LIghts?

Winter in the Northeast when the skies are dark and clear is the best time to see this famous light show. Peak viewing season is between November. and March, although the Northern Lights can intensify around equinox months (September and March) thanks to Earth’s tilt in relation to the sun.

You’ll want to seek out rural areas (or higher ground) where there is minimal light pollution. The best time to spot the show? Around midnight, give or take two hours. Ten p.m. to 2 a.m. is the ideal window, so get ready to stay up late.

Northern lights in Fort Nelson, BC. Photo: Ryan Dickie

What’s With All Those Epic Photos?

We’ve all seen those images posted to Instagram of glowing aurora activity with brilliant flashes of green and white. And while aurora activity can be strong, keep in mind that many photos like these are a result of composite long exposure photos that can make them appear more intense than they really are. 

While nothing beats seeing Aurora in person, if you’re a photo enthusiast, there’s some tips to help you get the shot.

  • Bring a digital SLR camera with a manual focus. 
  • To capture a long exposure, you’ll need a sturdy tripod.
  • For even steadier shots, get a remote shutter release so you don’t have to touch the camera at all.
  • Batteries tend to deplete more quickly in the cold so make sure to have a few fully charged spares ready to go.
  • Bring a headlamp or flashlight to help you adjust your settings in the dark.

Aurora Borealis in Fort Nelson, BC. Photo: Ryan Dickie

Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights in BC’s Northeast

Seeing the Northern Lights requires that magic combination of timing, location and meteorological conditions, as well as a good dose of patience and luck. Here are some tips to keep in mind to increase your chances of seeing them.

  1. Choose the right time to go.

You’ll want to visit between November and March.

  1. Pick a good spot.

You want clear and dark skies as much as possible. While BC’s Northeast doesn’t see a lot of light pollution compared to other areas of the province, make sure you look for places that are away from city or residential lights. A remote stay in the area will improve your chances of seeing them and reduces your commute time. 

  1. Check the forecast.

Location means nothing if you don’t have the right combination of solar activity and cloudless skies. First, you want dark and clear skies. Aim for a week that doesn’t have strong moonlight (typically this is waning crescent moon) and a night that doesn’t have cloud cover.

  1. Stay up late!

Set an alarm and have a pre-midnight nap — or cup of coffee — to make sure you’re ready to go.

  1. Practice patience.

You’re never guaranteed to see aurora borealis, but that’s what makes them so special. Part of the thrill of spotting a light show is in the chase — be patient and enjoy the process. 

  1. Make sure to bundle up.

The temperature in BC’s Northeast drops below freezing in winter, which means warm clothes and gear is essential. Make sure to pack thermal layers, insulated outerwear and accessories like gloves, toques, and scarves. Tip: bring a pair of touch-screen gloves so you can use your phone and camera. 

  1. Bring snacks and activities to help you pass the time.

Looking for the Northern Lights means you’ll spend a fair bit of time waiting. To help make a night of it, pack some snacks, warm beverages,and games to help keep you fed, warm and entertained while you wait for a glimpse of green. 

  1. Don’t go for the Northern Lights; go for the destination.

There’s no one “best” spot to view the aurora here — you can see them across the entire Northeast region. Instead, plan around the destination. Each community in Northeast BC offers something different, whether that’s snowmobiling through a UNESCO Global Geopark, soaking in a winter wonderland at a natural hot spring, trying your hand at ice-fishing, or making revelry with festival go-ers at a winter carnival. Your trip will be more memorable when you have activities planned, and if you do happen to spot the Northern Lights, that’s just an added bonus.

  1. Check Aurora Borealis Forecast and Alerts.

There are apps and websites dedicated to forecasting the aurora borealis. My Aurora Forecast App tracks all aurora activity showing where the best viewing locations are in real time and offers a local forecast (one hour, a few hours, a week) based on weather and predicted solar conditions. NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center‘s site offers a 30-minute Aurora-probability forecast for both the northern and southern hemispheres with simple-to-read, colour-coded heat maps. 

  1. Have fun! 

There’s no knowing whether Aurora will show, and that’s what makes it all the more special when it happens.

Aurora Borealis in Fort Nelson, BC. Photo: Ryan Dickie

Where to See the Northern Lights in BC’s Northeast Region

The wide-open skies around Dawson Creek and Fort St. John offers ample space for taking in the aurora borealis and both communities make an excellent home base for a winter adventure. Dawson Creek is home to numerous historic sites (including Mile 0 of the famous Alaska Highway), restaurants and cafes where you can warm up, a 20-kilometre network of nordic trails and T-bar-accessed ski hill with night skiing. If it’s a winter event you’re after, plan to visit Fort St. John in February when the High on Ice Festival kicks off. This popular festival that celebrates all things winter features an ice sculpture competition, ice fishing derby, snow slo-pitch league, sleigh rides, curling bonspiel, toboggan races, and more. 

Fort Nelson in the Northern Rockies is an excellent place to spot the Northern Lights as evidenced by local travel and wildlife photographer Ryan Dickie’s Instagram feed who captures stunning images of these ghostly light shows in various places around his hometown. 

Nearby Muncho Lake Provincial Park is another hot-spot for aurora spotting where the area’s unique “folded mountains” create a stunning backdrop for aurora to dance overhead. Spend a few nights at the Northern Rockies Lodge, a log-hewn cabin on the shores of Muncho Lake, where you can watch for the first glimpse of aurora to appear from the comfort of the lodge’s dining room.

Other communities in the region — that’s Tumbler Ridge, Chetwynd, Hudon’s Hope, Mackenzie, Pouce Coupe, Taylor — all report seeing the aurora borealis dance from within and nearby their respective communities. 

But the ultimate bucket-list worthy place to watch the aurora borealis might just be from Liard River Hot Springs. A lucky few have reported seeing aurora’s fantastical hues appear overhead during a late-night soak in Canada’s second-largest natural hot springs. If you do go, remember to check current weather conditions and to bring snowshoes and proper outdoor and safety gear. 

Northern Lights on Summit Peak Trail. Photo: Andrew Strain

How to Get to Northeast BC

Direct flights are available into Fort St. John and Dawson Creek from Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. Vehicle rentals are available from local airports; make sure to reserve in advance. 

By road, there are multiple points of entry to Northeast BC. From Vancouver and the Okanagan, expect a two-day drive via Highway 1 and 97. Coming from Edmonton and Grande Prairie? Highway 43 is an easy one-day straight shot; from Calgary, Highways 2 and 22 will connect you to the main artery heading west in a longer but scenic route. 

Highway 16 in Northern BC will connect you to Prince George, then onto Highway 97 north. Make sure you have all-season tires and check road conditions before you embark. 

Know Before You Go

Some operators and accommodators close for the season in mid-September. Make sure to check availability in advance. The weather at this time of year is below freezing; pack seasonally appropriate clothing and make sure to plan well for outdoor adventures. 

Whenever heading into the outdoors, it’s best to be prepared. Visit Adventure Smart BC for some helpful tips and always leave a trip plan.