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Northern Lights Ontario: Your Guide to When and Where to Witness the Celestial Marvel

Updated: May 14

Aurora and Northern Lights in Algonquin Ontario
Photo by Steve Dunsford: Impressions of Algonquin

Who hasn’t felt awe when looking up at the night sky? 

From our earliest memories when we learned that stars are giant balls of gas, to our middling years when we started wondering just what else is out there beyond the dark and distant edges of space – the night sky has captivated just about everyone. 

Between all the satellites zooming around and the shooting stars we’re lucky enough to see, there’s plenty to look at when we tilt our heads back in a location free of light pollution and really look up. 

Among the most captivating displays of natural splendour is the elusive phenomenon we all know as the northern lights, or aurora borealis.

While witnessing this ethereal spectacle is actually pretty rare in Ontario, anticipation has been building recently for the upcoming peak visibility predicted in 2025, which promises a preview of the celestial unlike anything we may have seen before. 

In this blog, we’ll tell you what you have to look forward to in this year of astrotourism, how you can get the best views of the northern lights in Ontario by view or by app – and where you should book your stay to get as far from city light pollution as possible for your best chance at seeing something amazing. 

Keep reading to discover: 

  1. What are the northern lights or aurora borealis?

  2. How to see the northern lights in Ontario

  3. Photographing aurora borealis in Ontario 

  4. Northern lights Ontario and beyond: the best apps for starry skies

  5. South Algonquin and the northern lights Ontario 

What are the northern lights or aurora borealis?

The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are strips of colour that weave and ripple throughout the skies at night. 

According to the Canadian Space Agency, the northern lights are light effects that take place in the northern hemisphere of the globe. There are actually light events called southern lights, which take place (you guessed it!) in the southern hemisphere of the globe. They take place near Earth’s magnetic poles (the north pole and south pole) and radiate outward toward areas that we’re more likely to be able to see. 

But apart from the geographic location in which they occur, what exactly are these lights? 

Borrowing heavily from the Canadian Space Agency, we’ll do our best to walk you through it: 

  • The sun blasts charged particles into space. This is called the solar wind. Earth’s magnetic field forms an invisible shield that redirects the solar wind around our planet.

  • This invisible shield protects us from the solar wind, and magnetic field lines are dragged and stretched, sending those lines of energy across that invisible dome.

  • Auroras occur when these particles collide with gases in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, producing tiny flashes that fill the sky with colourful lights. As these lights burst in sequence, they appear to move across the sky, creating that rippling effect that we can see. 

Take a look at the Canadian Space Agency’s video explaining the northern lights in much more detail! 

The white clouds surrounding the ring of light just visible during the solar eclipse
The 2024 solar eclipse - image by Samantha Terry

How to see the northern lights Ontario

Actually seeing true northern lights in Ontario is actually pretty rare – but they are cyclical to some degree. Every 10 years or so in Ontario and other regions of the world, aurora events actually become more frequent. And we’re fortunate enough that this might just be our year! 

National Geographic thinks that 2024 is going to be a pretty spectacular year for astrotourism in general. Not only did we have the solar eclipse – which wowed thousands of people this past April – but Nat Geo predicts that the auroras visible in 2024 may be the best seen in 20 years! 

Astrotourism (which means, hitting the road for an adventure that revolves around astrological events) is going to be big this year and into 2025, according to Nat Geo. 

The Canadian Space Agency says that as a rule, auroras are most common around the spring and fall equinoxes (March and September), and are easier to see in the winter than the summer because the sky is usually darker. 

The more active the sun is, the more stunning the auroras will appear. According to Nat Geo, the sun is going to be particularly active in 2025, which is why they believe the auroras will be especially incredible!

Also Read: Stargazing in Ontario. 

How to see the aurora borealis in Ontario

If you’re actively looking for an aurora, there is seldom more than 24-hours notice that something might happen, so you have to be ready to move fast.

It’s harder to plan to see auroras in advance than other astrological events (no one could miss that eclipse unless they tried) – but there are some tips to improve your chances of seeing an aurora! 

  • Visit less popular dark skies. For instance, instead of trying to see the northern lights in Toronto or surrounding semi-rural areas, truly head away from the urban centres by venturing into the heart of Ontario’s hinterlands where city light pollution and traffic are less likely.

  • New moons vs full moons. The full moon is like a nightlight – it could impede your views of the northern lights in Ontario. When possible, plan a visit around the lunar schedule that allows you views of the night skies during the new moon.

  • Look up when the sky is darkest. This is going to mean either staying up late, or setting an alarm clock. The skies are usually darkest around midnight, so that’s the best time to plan to tilt your head back.

  • Open areas are best. Many of our visitors book tents with us during the peak of various astronomical events. You could get lucky and see something amazing from your tent flap or doorway, but the best way to see the night skies is to find a place without tree congestion. We have open spaces at Four Corners Algonquin for night sky viewing, but you can also visit other places throughout Algonquin Park or South Algonquin for unobstructed views.

  • Pro tip: find a lake. It’s one thing to view the aurora borealis… it’s quite another to view the aurora borealis over a lake. Lakes are open areas that provide unobstructed views, but they also reflect what the sky is doing. Some of the most beautiful pictures we’ve seen of the aurora borealis Ontario were taken over lakes by South Algonquin’s Steve Dunsford

For some amazing astro-opportunities, look at our calendar of night sky activities which include stargazing tours and introductory classes to astrophotography with our astronomer in residence, Caroline El-Khoury!

Photographing the aurora borealis in Ontario

In our community, we have plenty of astrological resources (we’ll list these at the bottom of the blog!) – but one of the best features of our community is Steve Dunsford, owner of the MadMusher Restaurant in Whitney, Ontario (yum!) and night sky, nature and wildlife photographer extraordinaire. 

You can take a look at some of Steve’s uncredible work on his website – Impressions of Algonquin – and, even better, you could actually have the opportunity to meet him in-person when you travel to starry South Algonquin during the next year or two to celebrate the astrological events taking place in 2024 and 2025! 

Northern lights Ontario and beyond: the best apps for starry skies 

There are some truly incredible apps out there these days that can provide you with tips, tools and information about the night sky and beyond. 

Wherever you are in Ontario, even if you’re trying to see the northern lights from Toronto, these apps can help you make those plans happen! 

Top 5 stargazing apps to track the constellations

There’s also an app that sends you alerts specifically for updates on northern lights occurrences called AuroraNow, and another that will tell you all about meteor activity called MeteorActive. Any or all of them are definitely worth taking a look! 

If you visit the Canadian Space Agency’s Zonal Review and Forecast you can see a visual of the 24-hour aurora forecast. Four Corners Algonquin is in the “Sub-Auroral” zone. Look for the colour that corresponds with a K5 or higher. If it’s light or dark orange, the chances of seeing the aurora increase.

Do you have a favourite that’s not on this list? Let us know in the comments on our social media pages! 

Also Read: There are some great hidden gems along the Highway 60 corridor that you might want to visit for your night sky viewing!

South Algonquin and the northern lights Ontario 

In the heart of Ontario lies South Algonquin, a haven for starry sky photographers and stargazers alike.

How so? Well, we’ve created a hub of astrotourism right here in our little township that sits at the doorstep of Algonquin Provincial Park

We offer grand tours of the night sky, opportunities for dark sky photographs, and events throughout the year that will help you immerse yourself in the astrological events that take place – like the Perseid Meteor Shower in August each year! 

Astrological resources in South Algonquin

Algonquin Park is one of the best spots for night sky viewing, because it’s so immense and far from city lights that it offers exceptional sky visibility – at least when the weather’s clear. 

Since the weather can be a bit uncooperative at times, we created the Four Corners stargazing calendar and weather forecasting tool that you can use to plan around the times when the skies will be clearest if you’ve travelled this way for some night sky viewing. 

You can also step outdoors onto the Algonquin Park Visitor Centre Observation Deck (during their operating hours) to get great views of Algonquin Park at large. We highly recommend making the time to add this hotspot to your to-do list while you’re in the neighbourhood. 

This year, we’ve got something extra-special going on for night sky lovers. 

Four Corners Algonquin has an astrophysicist in residence: Caroline El-Khoury! You can book a time that she’s providing tours of the night sky and talking her audience through the astronomical events they’ve come to see! We will be focusing events around full moons and the perseids meteor shower this year.

You can find more information about our events throughout the year. 

Make sure you book your trip around one of these celestial highlights – you don’t want to miss the show! 

Also Read: Is stargazing a form of forest bathing? We’ll let you decide! 

A woman standing in the tall grass looking up at the sky
Stargazing is always best in open areas unaffected by light pollution

Common Questions

What time is best to see northern lights tonight?

When visible, the northern lights can typically be seen between 9 PM and 2 AM, with the peak visibility usually around 11 PM to midnight when the sky is at its darkest.

Where can I see the northern lights tonight in Ontario?

For a stunning display of the northern lights in Ontario, head to Manitoulin Island, a Dark Sky Preserve in northern Ontario, or Cree Village Ecolodge near James Bay, and the vast shores of Lake Superior, particularly around Pukaskwa National Park. Algonquin Park also occasionally offers glimpses of the northern lights, combining dark skies with natural beauty. These locations boast minimal light pollution and offer a mix of natural and cultural richness, enhancing the viewing experience.

Can you see the northern lights from Toronto?

While catching the northern lights directly from Toronto can be challenging due to light pollution, Algonquin Park, just four hours north, provides a much better viewing experience. The park's dark skies and serene natural surroundings make it an ideal spot for witnessing this mesmerizing natural phenomenon.

Take a trip to Whitney Ontario for less light pollution.

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