Alpenglow 101: The Magic of the Moment

It's a moment that makes you stop whatever you're doing and gaze toward summits. Alpenglow—a reddish, pinkish, purplish light in the last minutes of the day spreading across the mountaintops like a coy blanket. It doesn't last long, but Alpenglow leaves you in a state of wonder.

An oft-misunderstood phenomena, lots of things are called "Alpenglow" when they're technically not.

So what, exactly, is Alpenglow?

It's not the sunset (probably)

There's no sunlight during Alpenglow. Most scientists agree that Alpenglow refers to the reddish glow opposite where the sun has set after the solar disc has slipped just below the horizon. So, if the sun is still setting and the mountains are glowing red from direct sunlight, it's generally not considered to be Alpenglow. Experts say it's the moment right after the sun has set that makes it qualify.

It's a photographer's dream

When famed nature photographer Galen Rowell brought Alpenglow into vogue during the 1980s, he set off a trend in mountain landscape photography that continues to this day. Keen photographers chase this moment in remote spots around the globe hunting for the 'magic hour' of warm hues that's like gold. From the top of a mountain in Banff during winter, their chances of finding treasure are very good.

A mountain range glowing with pink and purple hues along the peaks.

It can get pretty geeky

While it's beautiful and romantic, Alpenglow is also a scientific phenomena involving areas of study like physics, optics, meteorology and astronomy. It's a complex thing! But here's a quick summary: in general, at sunset and sunrise, blue and green light (which have shorter wavelengths than other colours on the spectrum) scatters away into the atmosphere, leaving only longer wavelength colours like reds, yellows and oranges to reflect off the snow-capped mountains. How's that for a good science lesson?

It's followed by more magic

Right after sunset (or right before sunrise), the skies fade through shades of indigo that many call the "Blue Hour". Here in Banff, many of the cold, clear winter days gently glide from Alpenglow through the Blue Hour and then lead directly to some outstanding stargazing—what we like to call Starlight. Really, it's just one slice of magic after another.

It's best in winter

When the mountain tops are covered in white, the Alpenglow seems to be most striking. The white forms a blank canvas that the rosy red can display itself on. And after a day exploring the spectacular mountains of Banff National Park, the slow, stunning moments of Alpenglow make an unforgettable day well, phenomenal.

Come see it with us!

We're celebrating Alpenglow each Friday and Saturday evening at the summit of the Banff Gondola. Join us to soak up the beauty, explore the magic and toast each incredible day in the Rocky Mountains.

Pink sky over snow-covered mountains.

Quick Alpenglow Tips

  1. Sunset is your clue. As the sun gets low in the sky, make your way to the mountaintop. Alpenglow is coming.
  2. Look east. With the sun dropping to the west, the mountains to the east take on the warm glimmer of Alpenglow. From the top of Sulphur Mountain, look towards Mt. Rundle and the Fairholme Range.
  3. Dress warm. You can cozy up next to the outdoor firepits, but you’ll definitely want to bring your warmest coat, mittens, hat and some sturdy footwear.
  4. Bring a friend. These moments are worth celebrating. Be sure to bring your adventure mates.
  5. Slow down. Alpenglow is a gentle process. There's no rush. Give yourself all the time in the world to soak up each moment of nature’s beautiful light show.

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