It was well after dark when Jack Fusco and I drove south into Wood Buffalo National Park, in the northern reaches of Alberta. We were on a mission to photograph all of Alberta’s dark sky preserves, and Wood Buffalo was our holy grail—an awesomely huge and wild national park that is larger than Switzerland and so untouched it sees only about 4,000 visitors a year. And on a cold mid-January night, that number dwindled to two, if we counted ourselves.
We were determined to photograph its clear dark skies and, with luck, the northern lights. Our plan was simple and prioritized staying warm. We’d photograph the night sky near Pine Lake. Not only was it a beautiful location with clear views towards the north, but it was a short walk from where we’d have to leave the car. We also had access to a log cabin and a nearly unlimited supply of firewood.
We sipped our coffees and drove in silence. Our eyes were glued to the dashboard thermometer, which plummeted to -34 C. No sooner had we crossed the park boundary than I’d noticed a bright glow in the rear-view mirror. We parked the car and jumped outside. The northern lights soared overhead in an awe-inspiring sight.
WOOD BUFFALO NATIONAL PARK
Location: North-eastern Alberta
Nearest City: Fort McMurray, Alberta
How to get there: Drive north from Fort McMurray along the seasonal ice-road that links Fort Chipewyan and the national park, or drive northeast from Edmonton to Hay River, NWT, before turning southeast towards Fort Smith.
Winter Highlight: Traveling to Wood Buffalo National Park is the adventure. The paved road ends in Fort Hills, just north of Fort McMurray, and the ice road begins. It’s just over 500-km of temporary winter-road, which crosses the Peace and Athabasca Rivers, and passes through the hamlet of Fort Chipewyan.
The next several hours were a blur. We rushed from the Salt River Day Use Area to Pine Lake and stopped at many locations in between. We composed some images quickly, and left our cameras elsewhere to capture time lapses of the northern lights, which danced across the northern horizon. We alternated between standing outside to watch the stunning displays and staying warm inside the car.
When the northern lights dropped off in the early morning, we had captured more than we’d imagined possible in such a short visit. It was good luck, too, as we didn’t have time to spare. We were just halfway through our road trip to photograph Alberta’s six dark sky preserves, which had begun a month earlier and nearly 1,500 km to the south.
There are two critical elements to viewing and photographing the night sky: clear weather and the absence of light pollution. Alberta is naturally suited to both. Outside of the province’s two major cities, vast swathes of wilderness remain undeveloped. And Canadian Rockies slow weather systems that arrive from the west, giving storms time to dissipate before hitting the prairies. Because of this unique geography, Calgary and Edmonton are Canada’s two sunniest cities and much of the province sees clear skies more than 300 days each year. This is a skywatcher’s paradise.
Jasper National Park, located in the Canadian Rockies just west of Edmonton, was the first to receive the designation of dark sky preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Others soon followed and there are now six official dark sky preserves scattered across the province. Cypress Hills Provincial Park and Waterton National Park lie on opposing sides of the province, close to its southern border with the U.S.A.. Beaver Hills is located just east of Edmonton, while Lakeland Provincial Park and Wood Buffalo are both found in the northeast.
When we first started planning our road trip to photograph the six different areas, we soon realized it was too ambitious to photograph in a single trip. Not only would we need to drive more than 6,000 kilometres to visit them all, we also needed ideal conditions to photograph the night sky.
Looking beyond the need for clear weather, we also needed true darkness to clearly see stars and, with luck, the northern lights. We had to plan our shoots alongside the moon phases, taking photographs between the waning crescent and waxing crescent cycle. Beyond those key days, the moon’s brightness would obstruct our attempt to capture these skies at their best. So we divided the province in half, electing to photograph the three southernmost preserves in December and the three northern preserves in January.
CYPRESS HILLS PROVINCIAL PARK
Location: Southeast corner of Alberta
Nearest City: Medicine Hat, Alberta
How to get there: Travel southeast of Calgary along the TransCanada highway to Medicine Hat, then highway 41 south to the park.
Winter Highlight: Clear skies are the rule, rather than the exception, in the southeast corner of Alberta. The lack of light pollution is immediately clear when looking towards the eastern horizon where the Orion constellation is vivid.
In Cypress Hills, we photographed towering pine trees and crystal-clear reflections upon frozen lakes. We marveled at how stunningly clear the Orion constellation appeared on the eastern horizon. In Waterton National Park, we caught our first glimpse of the northern lights and welcomed the opportunity to highlight the southern Canadian Rockies under night skies.
WATERTON NATIONAL PARK
Location: Southwest corner of Alberta
Nearest City: Lethbridge, Alberta
How to get there: Drive 275 km southwest from Calgary to Pincher Creek and south to the national park entrance.
Winter Highlight: Solitude. Throughout the winter, two hotels and two restaurants remain open in the town of Waterton, but the number of visitors shrinks, leaving those who make the trek able to have much of this mountain paradise to themselves.
In Jasper, our luck ran out. As our phones erupted with alerts from apps that predict the northern lights, the skies clouded over and it snowed. We left empty handed.
Our next trip began with the incredible drive north to Wood Buffalo National Park. While it is accessible year-round, the driving route changes dramatically with the season. In the summer, visitors must travel north from Valleyview to Hay River, Northwest Territories, before heading south to the national park. Throughout the winter, a 500-km seasonal ice road is built, linking Fort MacMurray and Wood Buffalo, via Fort Chipewyan.
The journey along this road was surreal. The road zigzagged through boreal forest, across vast marshes and over both the Athabasca and Peace Rivers. We watched work crews flooding the river crossings, increasing the ice thickness to support heavier trucks delivering goods to Fort Chipewyan. Although it’s Alberta’s oldest European settlement, it’s one of its most isolated. The temporary winter road, which is typically open from December to March, is its only vehicle access. During the summer, the only links are by boat or by small plane.
Once in Wood Buffalo National Park, we discovered just how beautiful and isolated this corner of Alberta truly is. During the night, Jack and I were the only two people in the entire park. We spent just two nights in the national park and viewed the northern lights both times. It turns out to be the beginning of our streak.
LAKELAND PROVINCIAL PARK
Location: Northeast Alberta, in the lakes district.
Nearest City: Lac La Biche, Alberta
How to get there: Travel 215 km northeast of Edmonton, following signs for Fort MacMurray/Lac La Biche.
Winter Highlight: Cross-country skiing on machine-groomed trail near Shaw Lake isn’t just a daytime activity. The local Lac La Biche ski club organizes night ski programs throughout the winter to take in the trails and the stunning dark skies.
After retracing our route to Fort McMurray, we headed to Lakeland Provincial Park, which is between Lac la Biche and Cold Lake. The forest was more varied, with stands of Aspen, white spruce, jack pine tamarack, and willow creating a diverse eco-system. We lucked out again, capturing northern lights twice more before racing south to the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve.
BEAVER HILLS DARK SKY PRESERVE
Location: Central Alberta, just east of Edmonton.
Nearest City: Edmonton, Alberta
How to get there: Drive 45 km east of Edmonton along Highway 16.
Winter Highlight: Elk Island National Park, which marks the northern boundary of the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, is home to the densest population of hoofed animals in Canada. Bison, elk, moose, and both mule and white-tailed deer are common sights throughout the winter.
The Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve is easily the most accessible. It’s just a 30-minute drive from Edmonton, along the Yellowhead Highway. It’s massive, too, encompassing Elk Island National Park and the neighbouring Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area. Our luck continued, as the northern lights kicked up just as we entered the park. For the first time throughout the entire trip, we also encountered other stargazers. Some had cameras along to photograph the experience, but most visited for their own chance to see the northern lights.
After a week on the road, we were thoroughly exhausted. We’d driven across northern Alberta, spending our days traveling between these destinations and our nights photographing the night sky. We’d barely slept, somehow existing on short catnaps and strong coffees. We’d battled frozen cameras, dead batteries, and frost-nipped fingers and toes.
But we’d also been incredibly lucky, photographing northern lights five days in a row, so we opted to return to Jasper for a second chance at capturing its clear winter skies.
After the four-hour drive west from Edmonton, we arrived to find mostly clear skies. Both Jack and I are familiar with Jasper. I lived in the national park for five years and Jack has attended the Dark Sky Festival annually since 2011. Despite all our experience photographing the park’s stunning landscapes, we had never seen such perfect conditions.
JASPER NATIONAL PARK
Location: West-central Alberta, in the Canadian Rockies
Nearest City: Edmonton, Alberta
How to get there: From Banff, follow the TransCanada highway to Lake Louise and the famous Icefields Parkway north. From Edmonton, drive west on Highway 16.
Winter Highlight: The Maligne Canyon icewalk tours, which are a Canadian Signature Experience, guides hikers along a canyon floor. Frozen waterfalls tower overhead.
We rushed from location to location, ticking off our bucket list shots in the Maligne Valley and Horseshoe Lake. We photographed the panoramic scene from the Goats and Glaciers viewpoint and decided to try our luck with what we both considered a dream shot.
The Whirlpool River, along Highway 93A, is one of Jasper’s most natural photography compositions; both Jack and I had attempted to photograph this scene on numerous occasions. From the bridge, the view is almost due west, upriver across the McGillivray Ridge and Athabasca pass into the heart of the mountains. The view is beautiful, yet it’s almost always covered with clouds.
On the final night of our Alberta-wide photography road trip, we arrived two-hours before dawn. In the winter, the road closes 100 meters short of the bridge and becomes a track-set cross country ski trail. We gathered our camera gear and walked the short distance to setup.
The view west was truly dark and entirely cloudless, and we finally landed that dream image and time-lapse sequence.
After two 10-day road trips, we’d visited and photographed five dark sky preserves and an international dark sky park. While visiting during the winter brought its own challenges, it was the ultimate season to visit. Longer nights gave us more opportunity to see and photograph the night sky. The lack of crowds made it easier, too, as we felt we had each area to ourselves.
Along our journey, we were asked which destination was our favourite and we did not know how to answer. We had discovered each area had its own unique highlights, from clear views of distinct constellations to prime northern lights viewing. The truth is, we’d welcome any opportunity to return to each location and suggest they’re all worth visiting.