Yes, you can see the northern lights in Banff. The Aurora Borealis makes an appearance several times throughout the year. Visitors have the best chance to spot the lights during the winter months from October to May. However, thanks to little light pollution and crisp mountain air it is possible to see them during the summer months.
Witnessing the Aurora Borealis is always an extraordinary experience, and only more so over the craggy peaks of the Canadian Rockies. We’ve witnessed the northern lights in a number of dream-worthy destinations like Iceland, Norway, and Yukon. However, it was a surprise to us when we first learned you can witness the Aurora Borealis in the Canadian Rockies.
Here is where you can see the northern lights in Banff. With a bit of patience and an eye on the aurora forecast, you can spot them too!
How To See The Northern Lights in Banff
The Dark Skies of the Canadian Rockies
Alberta happens to be home to some of the world’s largest dark sky preserves with Wood Buffalo and Jasper National Park. This means there are strict laws and regulations to minimize any form of light pollution. It ensures amazing night sky viewing experiences even if you aren’t lucky enough to spot the northern lights.
As locals, we’re spoiled by the night skies and often forget that most don’t enjoy a sky littered with more stars than we could ever hope to count. It doesn’t matter if the northern lights make an appearance as it’s still wonderful observing the night sky on a clear night.
When Can You See the Northern Lights in Banff?
It’s impossible to predict exactly what day the aurora borealis will make an appearance. The aurora borealis can shine any time of year, but they are at their brightest from the months of October to April when the night sky is at its darkest. Generally, the northern lights in Banff shine their brightest during the winter months of December to February.
Your best chance to see them is on clear nights with a new moon. Keep in mind they are geomagnetic activity and have their own set of circumstances, just because it’s a clear night does not mean they are visible or active.
Don’t count out the summer months as it is possible to see them any time of the year. Word of warning, if they do appear in the summer months it will likely be around 2:00 to 3:00 in the morning as nights are quite short. It may be helpful to learn more about the best time to visit Banff.
The Aurora Forecast
I would not advise out-of-province visitors to plan a trip around spotting the northern lights in Banff. The lights are too unpredictable in the Canadian Rockies and the forecast is accurate only a few days if not a few hours in advance.
However, it may be worth it for Albertan residents to set an aurora alert and to keep the occasional eye on the weather. Visitors and locals should keep an eye on the forecast if they have hopes to witness the lights. Luckily there are several institutes that put out a forecast for the northern lights.
The University of Alberta manages an Aurora Watch that provides email alerts. Their updates are for the Edmonton region, but if they’re visible over Edmonton they’ll likely make an appearance in Jasper and Banff too!
Another useful site is the University of Alaska at Fairbanks as they run the Geophysical Institute and provide an aurora forecast for North America.
Weather & Lunar Cycle
It should go without saying, but weather plays a large role in your ability to see the lights. Cloud coverage can have a massive impact on your ability to see the lights. A bit of flexibility and a long night can help with your chance as a drive-up or down the Icefields Parkway can help find a clear sky.
Clouds might be an easy consideration, but another important factor is the lunar cycle. The moon is the brightest object in the night sky and can really reduce your ability to see the stars and northern lights in Banff. The best chances are a moonless sky when the moon sets or rises late.
Of course, a new moon is the most ideal condition, but getting that to line up with a cloudless night with the Northern Lights is pure luck. Keep an eye on the weather and lunar cycle before you venture out.
Where To See the Northern Lights in Banff
If you want to see the lights you’ll need to get away from any form of light pollution. Although, it is possible to see a faint glow over above town on very active nights. We have several recommendations for areas that are good to see the lights.
Lake Minnewanka is the best location to spot the lights near town as it is only a short drive. It’s about a ten-minute drive from the town center and offers an expansive night sky from the dam walls.
While they’re still pretty close to town the third Vermilion Lake offers some great vistas with the least amount of light pollution.
This junction is halfway between Banff and Lake Louise and offers some nice vantage points along the Bow River with Castle Mountain in the foreground.
The Peyto Lake overlook offers an exceptional vantage point to see the night sky. It also happens to be one our favorite photo locations that can be easily accessed.
The Icefields Parkway is far from any sort of light pollution and offers plenty of photography locations. Just be prepared for a long night as it’s far from town and the lights often make late night appearances.
Naturally Jasper is an exceptional place to photograph the night thanks to its designation as a dark sky preserve.
How To Photograph Northern Lights in Banff
If you see the lights it’s only natural that you’ll want to take a few photos. If you plan to photograph the northern lights or do any night photography you’ll need a tripod and a camera that allows for manual controls.
A typical northern lights shot is around 30 seconds and requires the camera to be stationary. Before your trip, head out on your own to a quiet and light-free place and practice some nighttime photography to get the basics down. Learn about different ISO settings, aperture, and shutter speed.
Tips to Catch the Northern Lights
Learn the KP Index
Kp refers to a scale of numbers between 0 – 9 that is known as the planetary index. A 9 on a clear night in will be a full-blown show, though even a 3-4 will can be visible, as the scale refers to how far south the lights will be visible. Download an app to help you watch the Kp index.
This goes without saying, but you’ll want some warm clothes to brave the nights here. You’ll want a bit more than a ski jacket since you’ll be stationary and staring at the sky in the winter.
A Thermos Is Key
No one will ever complain about bringing along a hot drink whilst standing in the cold staring at the sky. I love to bring some decaf tea in a thermos, but hot chocolate is a classic! Our favorite brand for keeping our drinks warm is Stanley.
Plan to Lose Some Sleep
The northern lights aren’t on a nice and convenient schedule where you can expect to see them every night at 9:00 pm. Some nights they’ll make an appearance in the early morning hours, while others it may be just after nightfall.
You won’t need to stay up all night, but you should be prepared to be woken after falling asleep up in the middle of the night by a member of the expedition team.
**Author’s note: The cover image of this post is heavily edited. It’s highly unlikely you’ll see the northern lights over the town of Banff and Cascade mountain due to the light pollution.