Fort McMurray gets a lot of press but almost never for Northern Lights – yet. While the lights have been around since time immemorial, a Northern Lights viewing experience for tourists is a newer thing – and all part of diversifying the local economy.

Fort McMurray has lots going for it. It’s a short easy flight from both Calgary and Edmonton, the viewing season is longer than in other Northern Lights hotspots like the Yukon and there are plenty of fun activities to do in Fort McMurray during the day; cue the snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowmobiling and even dog-sledding.

Northern Lights Viewing: The Fort McMurray Experience

Dazzled for 3 hours by non-stop Northern Lights

I was part of a group of adventure travel writers and bloggers that landed up in Fort McMurray as part of a conference pre-tour in March. I was delighted for I’d never been up to this part of Alberta and it’s always a thrill to see the Northern Lights, though I appreciate sightings are never guaranteed. Mother Nature can be fickle.

Northern Lights Viewing: The Fort McMurray Experience

Bring several batteries when you’re taking photos and keep one warm as you’ll chew through them if its cold

When is the best time for Northern Lights viewing in Fort McMurray?

While Northern Lights are present every month of the year they are hard to see in the summer months when days are long. Prime time Northern Lights viewing in Fort McMurray is from the last two weeks of August until the first two weeks of May. Really cold weather enhances the clarity of the sky but a clear sky doesn’t necessarily equal great Northern Lights. There also needs to be solar flares on the sun sending gusts of charged solar particles that strike atoms and molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, causing them to light up. There are apps and websites devoted to predicting the Northern Lights but if you’ve made plans far in advance to travel, they won’t be of much use.

The bottom line when it comes to seeing a spectacular Northern Lights display – Lady Luck needs to be on your side!

Northern Lights Viewing: The Fort McMurray Experience

We were lucky to see pinks (caused by nitrogen) and purples in the Northern Lights

Lady Luck was there in spades for our group. We had THREE HOURS of non-stop magic as the Northern Lights danced, shimmered and glowed around and overhead on our first night out, starting within minutes of our 10:15 PM arrival. According to Bill Rockwell – our astronomer guide and photographer, that kind of lengthy display only occurs 10-20 times in a year. Hour long displays are more typical. On the second night we had them again but to a much lesser degree.

Northern Lights Viewing: The Fort McMurray Experience

Despite feeling like you could reach out and touch them the Northern Lights are about 300 kms away

Northern Lights Viewing: The Fort McMurray Experience

It was a warm night so were lucky to be able to spend hours at a time outside without needing to warm up

Northern Lights Viewing: The Fort McMurray Experience

The speed at which the Northern Lights move is astonishing

The Fort McMurray Northern Lights Experience

Northern Lights Outdoor Excursions Alberta offers a two night, three day package so you get two chances to see the Aurora Borealis while in Fort McMurray. Included in the package are the services of a professional photographer so if you’re new to taking photos of the Northern Lights and the night sky you’ll be able to get some help. And on one night a presentation by a professional astronomer is included.

The temporary quarters for viewing the Northern Lights is at a game and fishing lodge, about 20 minutes outside of Fort McMurray. (The former site burned in the fire but there are plans to rebuild.) The lodge offers a warm environment, bathrooms, hot drinks and as many Timbits as you can eat.

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Northern Lights Viewing: The Fort McMurray Experience

Thank you to Travel Alberta and Fort McMurray Tourism for hosting my stay.

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
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