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Bonanza in the Sky: Yukon’s Astonishing Aurora Borealis

It’s hard to describe what the Aurora Borealis does to you. 

Of course the aurora is both beautiful and magical and will stir your soul in a way few things can. Likely you will thank the universe or perhaps even God for intervening and showing you the beauty of a dancing night sky. If you see them you might clap, scream or even cry. Descriptions and photos will never capture what you see – or what you feel. You have to experience the northern lights in their full glory to get it.

Bonanza in the Sky: Yukon's Astonishing Aurora Borealis

We were lucky to get swirls of pink and purple

I had horseshoes on my recent trip to the Yukon. But if you travel only to see the aurora borealis you must also be prepared for disappointment. They cannot be summoned. You need Lady Luck and a great weather and aurora forecast on your side.

I had both – and in fact I heard it was one of the best displays in weeks.

Here’s a look at what it’s like to spend a night in the Yukon waiting for the aurora borealis.

Our group of three women were picked up at 9:45 PM, about the time I would have liked to go to bed. Especially when it’s cold outside. In total, three school-buses, including one filled only with Japanese tourists, drove from Whitehorse to a meadow – in the middle of what felt like nowhere – about 30 minutes away.

In the meadow are a number of warming cabins. Each busload of tourists is assigned a cabin. You can spend as much or as little time in the cabin as you want. On cold nights with no aurora they’re going to be full of people, though there’s a second cabin for each group for the overflow. Outside, there are roaring bonfires.

While you’re waiting for the aurora to show up you can sip on hot drinks, munch on cookies and chat with your friends or fellow guests. When the aurora does make an appearance you’ll know it. Word will go out and in an instant everyone will be outside.

For the first hour, a couple of us hung about in the cabin. Then the rumour mill started and we heard there were some lights visible so out we ran. On the horizon my camera could pick up the green of the aurora but my naked eye could not. But since I was outside and my camera was all set up, I figured at the very least I could practice my night photography. (Northern Tales, the tour company we used provides heavy duty tripods with a universal screw to attach to your camera.)

Bonanza in the Sky: Yukon's Astonishing Aurora Borealis

My camera caught this but not my naked eye

The next hour I had fun playing around with my camera, though I kicked myself for forgetting a headlamp.

Bonanza in the Sky: Yukon's Astonishing Aurora Borealis

Practicing night photography while waiting for the northern lights

At some point I saw a star and felt a light wind in my face. I took that as a good sign for up until then the sky was completely cloud covered. Over the next hour more stars would show – but by 1 AM I was numb with cold and ventured back inside the cabin to warm up. I was ready to give up. Sleep was calling but the buses don’t usually return to Whitehorse until 1:30 or 2 AM.

Then suddenly everything changed and sleep was the furthest thing from my mind.

Stepping outside – wondering when the bus would leave – the northern lights were just beginning their dance. In a mad panic I grabbed a tripod, got set up again and then took a deep breath – and just watched. Floating, dancing, swirling – the display was breathtaking; pictures capture the colours but not the feeling. Time disappears. An hour floats by. I try to capture a little of what I was see.

And then they’re all but gone. I feel a deep sense of gratitude inside. I’m riding a high.

Bonanza in the Sky: Yukon's Astonishing Aurora Borealis

Our group of three – plus my phantom head

Bonanza in the Sky: Yukon's Astonishing Aurora Borealis

In awe of the Northern Lights display

• Bonanza in the Sky: Yukon's Astonishing Aurora Borealis

Raising my hands to the heavens

If you want to see the Aurora Borealis in the Yukon

  • Be prepared to stay up until at least 1 AM. The display we caught didn’t get going until 1:30 AM.
  • There were many people on the tour who were attempting to see the lights for the third night running. Sleep deprivation comes with the territory.
  • Tours are run from the third week of August until mid-April. From mid-April until late in August there is too much daylight to see the lights.
  • Check the aurora forecast.

For aurora photography the following are useful or necessary though I’m certainly no expert. It takes a lot of practice.

  • Tripod
  • Headlamp
  • Fully charged battery
  • Wide angle lens
  • A shutter release is helpful to avoid any movement.
  • Shoot in manual
  • ISO between 800 – 1600
  • Set shutter speed to infinity.
  • Set the aperture to about 3 – but play around depending on moonlight.
  • At ISO 800 with an aperture of 4, I exposed for 30 seconds.
  • Have fun. Stop and look up or you’ll miss the full experience.

Bonanza in the Sky: Yukon's Astonishing Aurora Borealis - just be prepared to stay up half the night to catch it!

Thank you to Travel Yukon for hosting my trip. I feel privileged to have experienced the northern lights.

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Christina says:

    The Yukon is a fabulous place to see the Northern Lights, even though it might mean staying up till the wee hours! One night, we stayed up to 3am. It’s not that difficult to get good photos too as most of the guided tours provide tripods and photography tips.

  • Cindy says:

    Oh, that looks so great! I haven’t seen a wonderful display since I was in high school and they were so weird and amazing (and so far south!) that none of us even realized what they were for a very, very long time. I keep watching the forecasts, but it seems like it’s always cloudy. :-( Glad they showed for you!

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