Aurora Borealis Spotting in the Yukon (Northern Lights)

The Northern Lights might be the biggest tourist draw to the Yukon, but the wildlife, history and friendly locals really cap off the experience

Credit: Ariane Colenbrander

The third try was a charm when setting out to see the Aurora Borealis. And the wait was well worth it

Persistence pays off when you’re scanning the Northern skies for nature’s homemade laser light show, The Northern Lights, but there’s lots to do in and around Whitehorse while you’re waiting for Aurora Borealis to show her true colours

Seeing the Northern Lights is an experience of a lifetime, but it’s also an exercise in managing expectations. There is no set schedule, despite what local websites try to predict based on solar activity, so it’s a gamble as to whether or not you’ll even see them.

Nonetheless, the Aurora Borealis is one of the biggest draws to the Yukon. Visitors from as far away as Japan and Australia make the trip for a few hopeful nights of colourful heavenly magic.

I trekked away from Whitehorse’s big city glow three times in hopes of seeing the magnificent lightshow, and to my delight, the third try was a charm.
Northern Tales Travel Services operates a camp about half an hour north of the city and picks up guests from several downtown Whitehorse hotels. In the spring, the tour begins at about 11 pm and lasts until around 2 am or so, depending on the conditions and the group’s stamina.

A heated tent, outdoor fire pit for roasting marshmallows, and hot drinks make for a cozy environment in the middle of nature. But it’s still cold in the spring. The mercury might inch toward 0 in the daytime, but nights are considerably chillier.

At 12:15 am, the sky lit up.

Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights appear bright in the night sky.

It’s hard to describe the mixture of feelings that results from seeing this miraculous display of light against a star-filled sky. Exquisite, stellar, and other-worldly are a few descriptions that come to mind.

Mostly though, it was awe that I felt as I watched the forms twist, turn, shoot upward, and head east. I snapped away every time a new composition formed on the dark canvas. It was truly a magnificent experience.

Where to Stay in the Yukon

If you’d prefer to be close-by when the light show begins, stay at the Northern Lights Resort & Spa, which offers starry sky and Aurora Borealis viewing on its large wooden deck.

This peaceful lodge and two adjacent cabins (with a third on its way later this spring) is owned by Renate and Wolfgang Bublitz, who go out of their way to socialize with guests, answer questions, and make everyone feel at home.

The rooms are modern with European-style shower fixtures and heating, and super comfortable bedding.

There’s nothing to do here but relax and wait, preferably in the outdoor Jacuzzi nestled between the main lodge and the cabins. Staying here offers the advantage of setting your clock at intervals, peeking out the large windows, and heading back for another hour of shut eye if Nature isn’t up for a show.

“Aurora” season runs from September to April, after which the resort shuts down for a month in preparation for summer activities including canoeing, hiking and cycling.

There are also several hotels clustered in downtown Whitehorse as well, and I stayed at the Westmark Whitehorse Hotel and Conference Centre, a comfortable business class hotel owned by the Holland America Line.

Meals can be had in the attached restaurant, Steele Street, and in high season, the Frantic Follies put on a vaudeville act in one of the hotel’s ballrooms.

What to See in the Daytime Hours

While you’re waiting for the evening show, there’s plenty to see and do around Whitehorse.

The compact, easily walkable downtown offers restaurants, tourist shops, a few cafés and banks. It’s also where you’ll come across the MacBride Museum of Yukon History, the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway Station, not to mention the largest nugget in the Yukon, a 1,175 kg (2,590 pound) slab of native copper resting comfortably on a city corner. It took six men to bring the prized copper to town through the wilderness, a five-day adventure back in 1958.

Grab a coffee and snack at Baked. Its organic whole wheat scones are marvelous. Or, take a tour at Yukon Brewing, the Yukon’s most celebrated (and only) brewery, which attracts a continual flow of growler-toting locals.

For a more substantial meal, head to Cork and Bull, a casual Main Street eatery specializing in steaks, seafood, and pasta dishes. Owners Katja and Christine have recently opened a public house next door, the Dirty Northern Bastard, a modern spot for pub fare and drinks.

Giorgio’s Cuccina is anchored on the other side of town. This Mediterranean restaurant has been a fixture on the Whitehorse dining scene for about 20 years, and it’s one of the few eateries open on Sundays.

Venture 30 minutes outside of town and you’ll find the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, which offers guided tours of its 700 acres, where you can expect to see woodland caribou, wood bison, muskox, bighorn sheep, thinhorn sheep, mule deer and mountain goats. Formal tours can be taken in a van, or self-guided tours can be done on foot, by bicycle, or even on cross-country skis.

Relax afterward at the nearby Takhini Hot Springs, where a rejuvenating dip into the hot, clear mineral water coupled with the fresh mountain air is just what the doctor ordered. Takhini is open year-round, and between mid-May and mid-September stays open seven days a week.

A combined afternoon tour including both the Wildlife Preserve and Takhini Hot Springs is offered by Northern Tales Travel Services for $95 per person.

My Yukon trip included a visit to Sky High Wilderness Ranch, about half an hour outside Whitehorse, where you can try dog-mushing, guided snow machine tours and adventures, wilderness camping, horseback riding, hiking, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and relaxing in a gorgeous natural setting. The lodge and cabins are rustic and phone/TV-free for ultimate enjoyment of nature.

All images by Ariane Colenbrander.