Where, When and How to See Northern Lights in Churchill, Manitoba

Posted November 09, 2023

What does it feel like to see the northern lights dance above you in the remote subarctic? Many have described the experience as a humbling one; an awe-inspiring event that leaves one feeling so, so small in the grand scheme of our magnificent universe. And yet, in that moment of humility, there may also be an overwhelming sense of significance. Therein lies the magic of the aurora borealis.

What are the northern lights?

The aurora borealis has long been a phenomenon shrouded in mystery and intrigue. As a wonder of the natural world, the northern lights have been the subject of many poems and stories, while Inuit mythology says that the flickering, moving lights are the spirits of the deceased, playing a game of ball using a walrus skull.

There are still several aspects of the aurora borealis that have yet to be explained, but science tells us that the phenomenon is caused by geomagnetic storms that cause solar wind from the sun to move toward the earth. Luckily, our magnetic field protects the planet and in turn, causes a collision of atoms and molecules into the atmosphere. These tiny light sources, protons, then make up the aurora that can be seen with the naked eye in the zone called the "Auroral Oval".

When can you see the northern lights?

Churchill has on average, over 300 nights of aurora activity throughout the year. And while they can be viewed in any season, the the northern lights tend to be most strong and visible during the depths of winter - particularly in February and March when the skies are clear (most precipitation has fallen)) and dark. To see the northern lights, the following criteria must be met:

  1. Increase in activity and solar storms on the sun

  2. No cloud cover

  3. Location in Auroral Oval, or a high KP index

  4. Absence of the moon and other light sources
So why is Churchill, Manitoba one of the best places to see the lights? Situated just right in the Auroral Oval, the KP index need only be a "1" or higher in order to see the aurora.

How can you view the northern lights in Churchill?

One of the best ways to view the northern lights in Churchill is to book a tour package with a local operator. Packages typically cover everything from accommodation to activities to flights, but be sure to check the fine details of each option to be sure of inclusions.

At the Churchill Northern Studies Centre

This operational research station provides an affordable, fully-guided option for those travellers seeking northern lights. Being 30 minutes outside of the town of Churchill, it also provides ideal conditions for viewing the night sky.

When the northern lights come out, the lights in the centre are shut off to prevent any light pollution. There are a few locations for viewing the aurora borealis, from the heated dome at the top of the centre to the outdoor observation deck. Photographers may prefer to shoot from the ground level to get foreground subjects in their photos.

By Tundra Buggy with Frontiers North

Frontiers North Adventures offers a Northern Lights and Winter Nights package that departs from Winnipeg, where most northern lights viewing happens from their oh-so-cozy Thanadelthur Lounge, which is situated away from town on the other side of the frozen Churchill River. Included in the itinerary is a visit to Dan's Diner, a pop-up Tundra Buggy dining hall hidden in the wilderness and under the northern lights, where guests enjoy a multi-course, world-class meal prepared by Canadian Chef Jared Fossen that features regional and local fare. Round out your days with a guided snowshoeing adventure and tours at some of the museums and interpretive centres in town.

From the Aurora Pod and Aurora Dome

Book your northern lights trip with Natural Habitat Adventures and get exclusive access to the warm and comfortable Aurora Pod®, which has been specially designed for viewing the aurora borealis with 360-degree views of the sky via innovative glass construction and cushioned seats. The fully guided group trip also brings you to the Aurora Domes, where you can spend the night relaxing in the lounge or heading up to one of two plexiglass-topped viewing domes to see the lights. Natural Habitat also takes guests on an adventure aboard a custom-built snow coach deep into the woods to a secluded cabin for viewing.

Mike Gere

From a yurt

A person is standing under the Northern Lights in the night sky. There's a cozy place to stay behind them, like a cabin.

Photo by Nanuk Operations

Nanuk Operations offers Nights Under Lights, a multi-day, guided tour that features the chance to shoot the aurora with the backdrop of a yurt tucked deep in the boreal forest. All guests get a clear view of the lights from the yurt's large, wrap-around deck, and can head indoors to warm up near the fire with a night cap in hand. The package also includes dog sledding tours, snow shoeing, visits to local historic sites, museums and cultural presentations.

Through a camera lens

Photo by Alex de Vries

Discover Churchill offers a variety of formats for northern lights viewing with an emphasis on small group sizes and photography instruction from lead guide Alex DiVries. Join Discover Churchill on a multi-night, guided tour that'll take you to a variety of locations to shoot the aurora, including a tipi in the boreal forest. There are four and seven day options available.

For the independent or budget traveller

Want to go see the northern lights on a budget? The best way to is to plan a DIY trip.

How to get there

Flights: A flight with Calm Air from Winnipeg to Churchill takes approximately 2 hours. Some flights stop in Rankin Inlet, which adds a few hours onto the trip total.

Train: Via Rail offers train service from Winnipeg to Churchill, leaving every Sunday and Tuesday from the VIA Rail Station in Winnipeg and arriving in Churchill 48 hours later. From Churchill, the train departs every Thursday and Saturday. Multiple cabin levels are available.

Another option is to combine a train trip and flight with one-way trips!

For getting around town: Tamarack Car Rentals

Where to eat during aurora season in Churchill

Book a ticket at Dan's Diner, or dine at local options like: Seaport Hotel, Dancing Bear and The Ptarmigan.

Where to stay

Tundra Inn
Churchill Hotel & Guesthouse
Iceberg Inn
Polar Inn & Suites

Seaport Hotel
Bear Country Inn
Paradise Aurora Bed & Breakfast
Polar Bear Bed & Breakfast
Aurora Inn

DIY tour options

Discover Churchill offers a nightly call list, where you can sign up to be informed that the northern lights are out and join a quick viewing tour. This is a great option for those not looking for a full packaged tour.

Tipi under the northern lights in Churchill.

In addition to full tour packages, Nanuk Operations also offers both single night excursions at their yurt location as well as a call list for if the aurora comes out.

Beyond Boreal Expeditions is a female-owned, Indigenous tour company that takes guests around Churchill on night-only excursions to photograph the lights from owner Tiffany Spence's favourite locations.

Dene Routes offers an educational and cultural experience year-round: choose between A Taste of Sayisi Dene History or the Caribou Hair Tufting Experience.

What to pack

When visiting Churchill during northern lights season, it’s important to pack appropriately for the weather. Churchill can get cold in the winter, with temperatures as low as -30 degrees celsius. Winds can also make it feel even colder - you will often hear about the actual temperature and then the temperature with the ‘windchill’. In these conditions, it’s best to wear many layers as well as a high-quality winter parka, ski pants and winter boots.

Here are some of the clothing items you should pack for Churchill in northern lights season:

Winter parka with hood
Long underwear and thermal long-sleeve
Ski pants
Wool items help keep your body dry and warm - think socks and sweaters
Sweat pants
Sweat shirts

(winter hat)
Scarves, snoods or balaclava
Winter boots

Other items to bring include lip balm and moisturizer (the winter wind can dry out your face), hand warmers, sunglasses and a reusable water bottle. Don’t forget extra batteries for your camera - the cold air drains batteries rapidly!