At 3.85 million square miles, Canada is the second largest country in the world by total area. Combine this with being sparsely populated and you’ll find a lot of open country, a lack of light pollution and therefore lots of dark sky spots. The fact that Canada is home to over half the world’s Dark Sky Preserves means it’s a stargazer’s paradise!
There is going to be a fair amount of celestial activity this winter, so whether you are an amateur astronomer or just have an appreciation for a clear view of the Milky Way, heading out to see one of these events is a must. Even if you have a city hotel in Canada booked, there are plenty of spots away from the city lights where you still have a great view of the action.
Canada’s best Dark Sky Preserves
Wood Buffalo National Park
The Wood Buffalo National Park is not only Canada’s largest national park, it is also the largest dark sky national preserve in the world.
Northern Canada’s skies get really dark in autumn, winter and spring, and with restricted artificial light, the sky comes alive.
The Milky Way can be seen across the horizon and the Northern Lights dance in the sky. The best time to see the incredible Northern Lights are in August, September, December, January and February.
The national park also hosts a Dark Sky Festival where you can join experts for night sky observations and take part in a number of activities.
Jasper National Park
Part of UNESCO’s Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, Jasper National Park is renowned for its walking trails, dramatic mountain scenery and the world-famous Icefields Parkway. However, the park is also the second largest dark sky preserve in the world, and due to this status, it’s taking extra steps to eliminate light pollution by replacing older street lights.
The best locations for stargazing in the park are generally considered to be Pyramid Island, Maligne Lake, Old Fort Point and the toe of the Athabasca Glacier.
Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve
The Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve is a great park to visit for those of you spending time in Toronto as it is just a two-hour drive from the city. The conservation reserve boasts rugged rocky scenery and is an oasis in central Ontario. There are lots of wetlands, small ponds and lakes to explore during a visit to the park.
As Torrance Barrens is so remote it boasts natural darkness of the night and is a special place to view the universe. According to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, a great stargazing site is behind the Ministry sign on Southwood Road.
McDonald Park Dark-Sky Park, Fraser Valley
The McDonald Park Dark-Sky Park in Fraser Valley is the best stargazing location to visit for those of you holidaying in Vancouver.
Another official dark-sky preserve, the Sumas Mountains in the park make for a looming presence, blocking artificial light from nearby towns. A natural amphitheatre is created and the dark sky assumes a new life.
If members of the Fraser Valley Astronomers Society are on hand you can look at our incredible universe through one of their telescopes.
Fundy National Park
Fundy National Park was recently designated a dark sky preserve and if you look upwards you will see the Milky Way and millions of stars.
As one of the best places to explore the night sky in Canada, the park celebrates being a dark sky preserve with an annual event called Fundy Star Party, which usually takes place in September. During the event, you can look through different telescopes and binoculars at star clusters, double stars, galaxies and nebulae.
Those of you visiting the park in the day can get a taste of Atlantic Canada culture by kayaking on the coast or venturing inland to see the waterfalls in the Acadian forests.
Timeline of Celestial events to catch in Canada
Taurids Meteor shower
Best place to see it: Canada’s northern or southern parks
Though only a minor meteor shower that produces just 5 to 10 meteors per hour it has been observed since 1869 and is very reliable. It is slow moving and can last for a few weeks. The interesting aspect of this meteor shower is the two observable streams of meteors known as the Northern Taurids and Southern Taurids.
The Taurids Meteor Shower is made up of weightier material than the usual dust, meaning it appears brighter in the sky.
Conjunction of Venus & Jupiter
Best place to see it: McDonald Park Dark-Sky Park
For the planet hunters, seeing two giants of the solar system appearing only 0.3 degrees apart is spectacular. Visible in the evening sky, the best way to see the pair is to watch the eastern sky just before sunrise.
If you are heading to Vancouver in this period, why not try and spot the conjunction with the Fraser Valley Astronomers Society? An observation session is scheduled on November 11th and welcomes both public and club members. Local enthusiasts will show you exactly what you are looking at and help you get ready to the see the conjunction at its peak.
Leonids Meteor Shower
Best place to see it: Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve
This shower has been historically one of the most magnificent events as every 33 years it peaks with hundreds of meteors visible every hour. When not at its peak you can still see on average 15 meteors per hour. This shower has had a major effect on the development of scientific studies of meteors which up until 1833 has been thought to be an atmospheric phenomenon.
This shower is best observed after midnight and the meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation of Leo. If you are in Toronto around these dates and want to enjoy the night’s sky with others, why not attend a Dark Sky Star Party with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada? If you don’t really know what you are looking for, other members can offer guidance and help you spot the significant events.
Full moon – Supermoon
Best place to see it: Bluewater Outdoor Education Centre – Wiarton
Full moons are always of interest for any astronomer as well as having a sacred place in the culture of many native people. A supermoon is when it is closest to the earth in its elliptical orbit, causing it to appear far clearer and brighter. This is the only supermoon for 2017 and the first of three consecutive supermoons.
For people travelling to Ontario in December and looking for some friendly advice or a great place to view the celestial events, why not sign up to Bluewater Astronomical Society? Located close to Lake Hudson, they have spectacular views of the night sky.
Geminids Meteor shower
Best place to see it: Wood Buffalo National Park
The Geminids shower is a must for any budding astronomers as it is one of the most spectacular shows in the heavens. It is one of the most prolific showers that is intensifying each year, with as many as 120 to 160 meteors spotted every hour under optimal conditions.
The meteors appear to radiate from the constellation of Gemini and often take on a yellowish colour. They are also fairly easy to spot due to the average speed of the meteors.
Wood Buffalo National Park is the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve meaning optimal viewing for this incredible event. With the help of Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society, why not head into the depths of Alberta for an amazing spot to view this astronomical event?
Ursids Meteor Shower
Best place to see it: Eastern Canada
One of the later meteor showers to be observed, it was not until 1945 that any study was conducted on the Ursids Meteor Shower. It is a fairly minor meteor shower with only 5 to 10 meteors observed every hour. Waiting for the crescent moon to set in the early evening will allow for optimal viewing which should be just after midnight.
Full Moon – Supermoon
Best place to see it: Jasper National Park
This full moon is of great significance as it is the second of three successive full supermoons. It also happens to coincide with a lunar perigee – when the moon is at its closest point to earth during its monthly orbit – and therefore looks 14% larger and 30% brighter than at its furthest point. There are only two supermoons in 2018 and they both fall in January.
Quadrantids meteor shower
Best place to see it: Mount Cosmos
Though the Quadrantids meteor shower is as prolific as the Geminids, its peak intensity can be very short, lasting just a couple of hours. This means it is observed less regularly and is, therefore, a special treat to view. If you do manage to spot it, there can be up to 40 meteors an hour, though the full moon may interfere with observations.
Mount Cosmos has the perfect name for an observatory, and anyone in British Colombia in the New Year should definitely enjoy the facilities there. Though the equipment might seem serious, the public observation sessions are illuminating and accessible for everyone.
Total Lunar eclipse
Best place to see it: across many parts of Canada including near Toronto and Calgary
Known as the blood moon, the lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes within the Earth’s umbra (or shadow). If you are watching the full cycle of the eclipse (just over 3 hours), you will gradually see the surface of the moon darkening and take on a rusty red-brown colour.
Image Credit: Timothy Boocock, Zengame, Asim Patel, Donovan Shortey, chb1848