Photographing The Aurora along the Ingraham Trail
& Camping at Prelude Territorial Park

by Dr. Robert Berdan
September 18, 2011


Jeep Wrangler at Ingrham trail sign by Robert Berdan

The Ingraham Trail forms a winding road through granite, small lakes and boreal forest east of Yellowknife, NWT

Giant Mine along the Ingraham trail, Yellowknife, NWT by Robert Berdan

Giant Mine is located at the beginning of the Ingraham trail and was once a thriving gold mine. It is now closed and there is a mining museum being constructed with old machinery that is worth a visit.

In the past three years I have been leading a photo workshop each Fall starting in Yellowknife and then we travel 250 Km north by plane to Point Lake. The workshop runs from Sept. 5-10, with two days in Yellowknife and four days 250 Km north on Point Lake at Peterson's Point Lake Lodge. This year I arrived 5 days early to take advantage of the new moon and dark skies in order to photograph the Aurora before heading further north in search of Caribou and other wildlife on the tundra. Rather then stay at a hotel in Yellowknife I decided to camp at Prelude Territorial park about 30 Km outside Yellowknife along the Ingraham trail. The Ingraham trail also known as Highway 4 extends 70 Km out of Yellowknife and ends at Tibbit lake. The road is paved for about half the route and then turns into a gravel road. It forms part of the ice road in winter. Along the route are numerous small lakes, hiking trails and a few camp grounds. Several places along the Ingraham trail are ideal for Aurora and nature photography. In this article I share with you some of the best spots to photograph the Aurora.

Prelude Lake Territorial Park

Bruce Davidson - Park manager Prelude Territorial park

Bruce Davidson is the first friendly face you will meet when you stop at the entrance of Prelude Territorial Park.

Prelude lake park headquarters by Robert Berdan ©

Prelude Lake park headquarters where you can buy camping and fishing permits, wood, and snacks. Behind this building is a new solar powered shower facility. It was great having the ability to take a hot shower in the wilderness.

Prelude Park is a scenic campground that includes a small sandy beach, boat launch, potable drinking water, panoramic trail and about 63 campsites suitable for trailers and tents - you can even book online here. Costs for camping start at $15\night. At the entrance of the park you will meet Bruce Davidson who has been working in the park for the past 13 years. I met Bruce briefly on my previous trips to Yellowknife in order to purchase a park pass to photograph the Aurora. Bruce is one of those exceptional individuals that loves his job and goes out of his way to help folks. He found me a great site (A6) for photographing the Aurora. Originally the site was reserved on the long weekend, but Bruce called the folks who said they were not going to use the site that weekend. The park includes walk in tent sites with exceptional views of the lake and sky, but I needed to be close to my car and all my photo equipment. The park is open from May 15 to about September 17th. Bruce estimates that about 3000 campers stay at the park each year and it is usually filled to capacity most weekends. The park offers several scenic walking trails, a boat launch and is also great place for fishing.

The park is a naturalists paradise with a wide variety of plants and animals to photograph. For Aurora viewing and photography it is simply fantastic. My only peeve is that the park allows noisy ATVs and a few folks like to run their generators well into the night (there are some homes nearby that also run generators for power). These were a minor inconvenience as I was often down by the lake photographing at the early hours of the morning anyway. For the most part during the week the park was quiet and I could hear the loons calling at night. The park is also close enough to Yellowknife that I could drive into town for a coffee, breakfast or lunch which I often did. I plan to stay at this park again and knowing how busy it can get I will book ahead next time.

Beach at Prelude Territorial Park by Robert Berdan ©

Prelude Lake Beach area - you can hear and see loons from this location. The beach is also a great spot to set up a camera for Aurora photography in the evening, You may be joined by Japanese tourists seeking to view and photograph the Aurora at night. To say hello in Japanese you can try: hello: konnichiha (pronounced as konnichiwa).

Overview of Prelude lake from rock face by Robert Berdan ©

Overview of Prelude Lake from Rock Hillside behind the boat launch - the beach can be seen near the top right of the photo. If the rocks are wet, they can be slippery - so beware if you walk out on them at night.

Walk in tent sites at Prelude Territorial Park by Robert Berdan ©

Walk In tent sites provide wooden platforms on granite rock overlooking the lake in the background. An excellent place to view and photograph the Aurora.

Sunset at Prelude Lake by Robert Berdan

Sunset at Prelude lake from near the boat launch - a few hours later and you can expect to see the Aurora if the skies are clear.

Campsite at Prelude Territorial Park offered ideal Aurora viewing by Robert Berdan ©

My Campground (A6) at night with the Aurora starting to light up around 10:30 p.m. Wood is available at $10\carton.

Tent at Prelude campground and Aurora by Robert Berdan ©

My tent and campground taken with a 10.5 mm fisheye lens at 1:00 am with the Aurora overhead. I left my tent window open so I could watch the Aurora when I went to sleep.

Aurora Viewing

Prelude lake is one of the best spots for aurora viewing and photography. The boat launch offers ample parking space and juts out into the lake providing about a 270 degree view of the sky and lake. There are picnic tables on the beach and the ground is relatively flat making it safe to walk around at night. Around midnight I often met Japanese tourists that showed up to view and photograph the Aurora. In September their are almost no biting insects and the lake reflects the Aurora on calm nights.

Aurora and boathouse reflection on Prelude lake by Robert Berdan ©

Boat House and Aurora reflect off the lake - 24 mm F1.4 lens, 4 seconds exposure, ISO 800. Orange glow is from red tower light reflecting off the low clouds behind the hillside.

Aurora photographers gather at Prelude lake by Robert Berdan ©

A group of photographers photographing the Aurora at the point near the boat launch (Peterson's workshop group).

Group photo in front of Aurora on Prelude Lake by Robert Berdan ©

Aurora portrait of our group. To take this picture we opened our camera shutters for about 6-8 seconds and Nigel Fearon used a soft box-flash to light up the people. The trick is to focus on the people not the Aurora I learned. Visit Nigel's web site at: to view more Aurora photography. Members of our group included from Left to right: Egan Wuth, Margaret Peterson, Amanda Peterson, Wayne Lynch, Roger Stanley, Robert Kerr, Judy Atkins and Robert Berdan.

Silhoutte of person in front of Aurora on Prelude lake by Robert Berdan ©

Aurora Silhouette of Dr. Wayne Lynch at Prelude Lake. The bright star reflection off the lake is Jupiter.

Aurora and soft stars due to condensation of water on lens by Robert Berdan ©

Reddish Pink Aurora at Prelude Lake - Jupiter is fuzzy due to water condensing on my lens in the early morning hours.

Aurora forming zig zag bands over Prelude lake. 24 mm F1.4 lens 2 seconds exposure at ISO 800, Canon 5D Mark II

Aurora photographed with fish eye lens at Prelude Territorial Park.

Photographer on the left (Dr. Wayne Lynch) - taken with 10.5 mm Fisheye lens F2.8 8 seconds at ISO 800 - Nikon 5100

Aurora bands over Prelude Territorial Park by Robert Berdan ©

Aurora bands - Prelude Lake Sept. Canon 5 D Mark II, 24 mm F1.4, ISO 800, 6.0 sec. exposure

Fireworks at Prelude Territorial Park by Robert Berdan ©

September long weekend festivities often include fireworks, but fireworks pale in comparison to the Aurora.

Other Aurora photography tips: bring along extra batteries and lots of memory storage. If the show is a good one you might be photographing for several hours. After 6 hours of shooting one night my neck was stiff from looking up, but I didn't dare leave as the show was so fantastic. Bring along a few snacks like chocolate bars, coffee, and mitts. When driving into the parking area try to minimize the time you have your car headlights on if there are other photographers already set up, better yet arrive a bit early before it gets dark. Bring a DSLR camera with wide angle lens (12-35 mm) with maximum aperture of F2.8 or F1.4 for the best results and set your camera ISO speed to 800-1600 and focus at infinity. For some lenses you simply set the lens on infinity, for others you may have to focus on a bright star. I use live view to focus on a bright star at 10X magnification and make the star as small as possible - this results in the best focus for Aurora photography and your stars will be pin points rather than donuts.

Wildlife and Fauna

I encountered a variety of wildlife in Prelude park including red squirrels, red fox, cross fox, common loons, spruce grouse and gray jays. A red fox dropped by my campsite each evening around 6:30 p.m. systematically checking the fire pit and picnic tables for scraps. One morning I awoke and he looked into my tent and I think I scared him as I peered back. Keep your campground clean though to avoid visits from black bears. I have seen Lynx along the Ingraham trail at night and numerous cross foxes - a variation of the red fox.

Red Fox at Prelude Territorial Park, NWT by Robert Berdan

Red Fox that came to visit my campsite most evenings.

Cross fox by Robert Berdan ©

Cross fox has a greater mix of black and orange fur coat and they are common along the Ingraham trail.

Spruce grouse photographed along the Ingraham trail, NWT by Robert Berdan

Spruce grouse - this one let me get within a few feet

Red Squirrel at Prelude Territorial Park, NWT by Robert Berdan ©

Red Squirrel

Most of the park is lying on a granite foundation interspersed with some white sand. Growing on the rocks are jack pine and a wide variety of lichens and mosses. There are also many species of mushrooms, some are edible though you better be an expert before you decide to eat any. One common lichen is black tripe and it was eaten in a soup by the 1821 Franklin expedition that set out to the find the Northwest passage. Many of the members of this expedition starved to death those that survived lived off Tripe, caribou skins and Franklin even resorted to eating his boots.

Black tripe (lichen) growing on granite at Prelude Territorial Park by Robert Berdan

At my feet are the edible black lichen called Tripe. The Franklin expedition made a soup out of the lichen.

Sculptured Puffballs Prelude Territorial Park by Robert Berdan ©

Sculptured Puffballs (Edible only when the spore mass is white).

Earth tongue lichen, Friendly fern, dog tongue lichen and sunburst lichen by  Robert Berdan ©

Sampling of the variety of lichens, ferns, liverworts found growing on the rocks in Prelude park. Top left: earth tongue lichen, top right: friendly ferns, bottom left: dog tongue lichen and bottom right: sunburst lichen.

Plants growing on granite Prelude Territorial Park, NWT by Robert Berdan ©

The forest is an interesting mix of Jack pine, mosses, crowberry and blueberry growing in patches on the granite face.

There is much to see and photograph in Prelude park during the daytime including: lichens, mosses, and mushrooms. I would recommend bringing a few guide books with you on lichens and mushrooms along with a magnifying glass and a camera with a macro lens.

While camping at Prelude the first week in September the weather was unusual in that during the day it would be overcast and then starting about 10 p.m. it would suddenly start to clear. Having clear skies is essential for Aurora photography, but the lesson I learned is that even if its cloudy during the day and you are in Yellowknife it is still worth a drive out the Ingraham trail in the evening to view the Aurora. During my stay I had 5 out 7 nights that were clear with excellent aurora viewing. Temperatures were cool in the evening, but I was comfortable sleeping in my winter sleeping bag and one person tent.

Another good spot to photograph the Aurora is at Pontoon Lake located about 1 Km west of Prelude lake. You can pull over on the side of the highway or turn into the parking lot near the point. If the lake is calm you can capture the reflection of the Aurora off the lake. We set up my small tent beside the lake and placed a small light inside. Adding a person in the foreground can also make for a more interesting photo.

Amanda Peterson points at the Aurora over Pontoon lake by Robert Berdan ©

Amanda Peterson points at the Aurora in front of my small tent - Pontoon lake.

The best time to photograph the Aurora in my experience is between 10 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. Often their is a peak of aurora activity around midnight, but I found the Aurora's intensity to vary greatly throughout the night. It can disappear all together then come out of nowhere and be so bright that you can see your shadow (Aurora storm or sub storm). Be prepared to stay out late, and if the sky is clear or even partly cloudy you have a good chance of seeing the Aurora. Don't rely on seeing the Aurora from Yellowknife even though it is possible. Your best opportunities will be out on the Ingraham trail. Bring a tuque (warm hat) for your head and gloves. Best to dress in layers as you can easily become chilled when you are standing in one place for a long time. I like to be close to my car so I can sit inside and warm up if necessary or listen to music while I wait for the show to start.

On this trip I met a Japanese women from New York, Hiroka Urakawa, who rented a car and was out every night along the Ingraham Trail for two weeks by herself in order to photograph the Aurora - that's what I call dedication and passion. Some Japanese believe the Aurora to be connected to the life-giving mysteries of conception. Japanese honeymooners visiting northern Canada relate to the legend, "A child conceived in the spell of the lights will be fortunate in life." The Japanese travel a long way to see the Aurora in Yellowknife, and I think its sad that more Canadians do not seek out this spectacular natural display that I have become addicted to. The Aurora is simply nature's magic and I am under its spell since seeing if first about 5 years ago.

Aurora reflection off Pontonn lake by Robert Berdan ©

Aurora reflecting off Pontoon lake next to the Ingraham trail.

Aurora over Pontoon Lake by Robert Berdan ©

Jupiter is the bright fuzzy star in the picture above. As your camera cools down in the evening you will find water starts to condense on the front of your lens so bring some lens tissue or cloth to wipe it off. The same problem happens to telescopes and some astronomers use heated lens hoods or battery powered air dryers to remove the dew. Next time I think I will bring a battery powered hair dryer too. When the solar wind is particularly energetic it is possible to see additional colours in the Aurora including purples, pink and reds. The Aurora can also move quickly or slowly across the sky and the word that best describes its movement is "dancing" as it can move slowly then quickly.

Passing storm on small lake next to the Ingraham Trail by Robert Berdan ©

Passing storm over small lake near the start of the Ingraham Trail. There is a small beaver hut on the left that someone placed a small Canadian flag at the top :-)

If you plan to travel to Yellowknife to photograph the Aurora the best locations will be next to one of the many lakes along the Ingraham trail. The Ingraham trail can be relatively busy with traffic so be sure to pull well over on the road to be safe. I also recommend driving out on the winding road during the daytime to become familiar with it before heading out in the dark as their are few lights along the route. Make sure your car is in good working condition and if you plan to drive this road in winter let someone know when you expect to be back, bring extra blankets and a thermos of warm coffee. The Aurora season, the period when its dark enough to view around Yellowknife is from about mid August to Mid May - after that it often doesn't get dark enough to view or photograph the Aurora, but it's still there. If you just want to watch the show, bring along a comfortable chair, a warm blanket and a warm drink. It's also nice to have some company with you to share the spectacle.

Attractions along the Ingraham Trail

Giant Mine


9.1 Km - paved road

Yellowknife River


11.5 Km - paved road

Prosperous Lake


20.7 Km - paved road

Pontoon Lake


27.7 Km - paved road

Prelude Lake & campground


29.2 Km - paved road

Cameron Falls


56.6 Km - dirt road

Reid Lake & campground


58.9 Km - dirt road

Hidden Lake


60.5 Km - dirt road

Tibbit lake - end of the road


68.7 Km - dirt road

The Ingraham Trail is named in honour of Vic Ingraham born American in 1896 who came to the north to seek his fortune. He built the first hotel in Yellowknife and then two more.

For Aurora photography, you should also bring along one or two small flash lights so you can see your camera controls, photographing in the dark is very different from photographing during the day. A tripod is a must. The other thing I learned is that the Aurora can appear in any direction of the sky north, south, east or west around Yellowknife. In Calgary when the Aurora appears on rare occasions it's almost always in the north sky. Before heading out check the Aurora and clear sky forecast on the web at www. web site. The web site also features a live view of the Aurora for those that can't get out on the trail. For more information about how to photograph the Aurora check out my pervious articles. If you would like to join me next year we plan to run another workshop in Yellowknife and at Peterson's Point Lake Lodge again in early September. RB

Map source: Discover North -


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