Explore the Northwest Territories, one of the last great wildlife refuges on this planet
On a planet with seven billion people, it is hard to imagine that there are still places as wild as the Northwest Territories.
If you compare the size of the Northwest Territories with other countries, it is three times larger than Sweden and 34 times larger than Switzerland. Due to the remoteness, not many people live in the Northwest Territories; it has about the population of a small provincial town.
Most people heading north travel up to the Yukon or maybe plan a trip to iconic Nunavut. Northwest Territories often gets left out. I can’t even imagine how few people visit lonely Aulavik, one of the territory’s four national parks.
Most people know little about Canada’s Territories and therefore have no idea what they are missing. An amazing, accessible wilderness, wild highways, the world’s largest thundering waterfalls and North America’s deepest lake can all be found in the Northwest Territories. And there is also the Deh Cho (Mackenzie) Canada’s longest river.
The Northwest Territories is one of the last great wildlife refuges on this planet and will spot plenty wild animals along the way. About half of Canada’s bird species have been recorded here. You will find wilderness and naturalist opportunities in just about every corner. Almost all wilderness activities are possible when you travel.
The Northwest Territories of Canada include the regions of Dehcho, North Slave, Sahtu, South Slave and Inuvik‘
Yellowknife is the Capital and is also known as North America’s Diamond Capital.
People and Culture
While in the Northwest Territories meet northern people and learn firsthand about Aboriginal cultures. As a white person, you are suddenly the minority. The Northern Aboriginal people are very friendly and they are open for telling you their stories.
50% of the population identify as Aboriginal. Indigenous groups of the Northwest Territories include the Dene, Inuit, Inuvialuit and Métis. The Northwest Territories recognizes 11 official languages; nine Aboriginal languages as well as English and French.
Getting There and Around
Edmonton is the main gateway to Yellowknife and is served by various airlines.
Remote areas in the Northwestern Territories are best reached by air. You can book flights to most communities from Yellowknife or Inuvik.
Half of the Northwestern remote Communities are fly-in only. These communities can access them from Yellowknife with Air Tini, Norman Wells with North-Wright Air and Inuvik with Aklak Air.
Yellowknife’s airport is five kilometres west of the town’s centre. Regular flights arrive into Yellowknife Airport from all over Canada.
The lonely highways take you through a magnificent wilderness with access to campgrounds and picnic spots. Roadside attractions include spectacular waterfalls, especially along the famous Waterfall Highway.
Drive the Waterfalls Route and head to Fort Smith and to Wood Buffalo National Park. Backtrack from there to Fort Simpson and join a sightseeing tour into Nahanni National Park Reserve. If you have lots of time, book a trip with an outfitter and spend a week or two paddling the beautiful South Nahanni River.
Service stations and visitor information centres are located on all the major routes. Make sure to fill up your gas tank whenever you have a chance. Often, gas stations are far apart. Bring extra gasoline and a spare tire.
Check out The Wilderness Roadtrip Planner for more information.
All larger centres have car rental places. Flying in and renting a car is is a good option. This way you don’t have to spend days on the road before you cross the Northwest Territories border.
Three southern highways connect to the northern routes.
- Alberta Highway 35 north connect with NWT Highway 1 south of Hay River.
- Coming from British Columbia, Highway 77 connects to NWT Highway 7. The Highway runs parallel to the mountains and ends in Fort Simpson.
- Drive up the Alaska Highway through the Yukon to reach the Dempster Highway near Dawson City. The Dempster takes you to the Western Arctic and ends up in Inuvik.
Frontier Coachlines is the bus company that travel to the Northwest Territories and offers bus service between Hay River and Yellowknife, as well as between Hay River and Fort Smith. Check out the bus schedule for arrival and departure times.
Before my first trip to the Northwestern Territories, I learned how little travel information was available. Even to get a good map wasn’t that easy. Plenty of travel guides and maps for Yukon/Alaska are available, but not much for the Northwest Territories. To have a good map is crucial when you travel to remote places.
SOUTH SLAVE REGION
South Slave is the land of grand skies and lonesome highways, big rivers and waterfalls. Here the fish have never tasted a lure and the buffalo still run free. It is the land of modern pioneers. Most places south of Yellowknife are accessible by road, either from Yellowknife itself or by the long drive up from the south.
Coming across the 60th Parallel from Edmonton Alberta, the first community you come to is Enterprise. Enterprise is the gateway to the South Slave, just 83 km north of the Northwest Territories border. The settlement is situated next to the Hay River canyon at the junction of Highways 1 and 2 and within hiking and biking distance of Louise and Alexandra Falls. It is the first place North of 60 to get gas, groceries, a motel room, a restaurant meal and a shop for local arts and crafts.
Stretching along a high bank overlooking the Mackenzie, this historic Dene village is an essential stop for road-trippers. Just five kilometres west of Highway 3, it boasts a placid campground on the riverfront, excellent fishing (pike, pickerel, grayling), and unique crafts –porcupine quill work is a local speciality. Also, keep your eyes open for bison; they walk the dusty streets and graze in local yards.
This Chipewyan and Métis town is the oldest one in the Northwest Territories. The town is located on Highway 6, where the Slave River flows into Great Slave Lake. This is one of the towns founded by the Hudson Bay Company in the 1780s. Trapping remains a key of local industries, along with commercial fishing and timber harvesting. Take a stroll along the scenic lake shore.
Fort Smith began as a trading post at a favourite campsite of the portages travelling the 2575 km water passage from Fort McMurray to the Arctic Ocean. These days, visitors arrive by scenic Highway 5, to visit Wood Buffalo National Park, paddle in the Slave’s foaming whitewater and peer at white pelicans. Walk or cycle the riverfront Thebacha Trail and check out museums, gift shops and historic sites.
An easy day’s drive from Edmonton Alberta, Hay river is Northwest Territories “hub”-terminus of Canada’s northernmost railway. It also is the launch point for Arctic-bound barges and a key commercial fishing port. It is also Northwest Territories second largest town and it’s situated on the south shore of Great Slave Lake and boosts Northwest Territories best beach and great options for boating and fishing. Like Yellowknife, there are two parts to the town – the old town and the new, where you find most of the hotels, restaurants and government offices.
Kakisa is a tiny, traditional Dene settlement of log cabins nestled beside the blue waters of Kakisa Lake. It’s an easy 13 km detour from Highway 1, just up the road from the camping, fishing, paddling and sightseeing opportunities at stately Lady Evelyn Falls.
There’s a small convenience store with limited hours.
K’atl’odeeche is the only Northwest Territories First Nations reserve and is located on Great Slave Lake just across the river mouth from the town of Hay River. Accessible by a short ice road in winter and a 14-kilometre side-trip from Highway 2 in summer. This community is a centre of Indigenous tradition and learning. Visit the Dene Cultural Institute, where you’ll trade in your shoes for beaded moccasins and take a tour of Dene art and history.
Fort Providence is a small hamlet about a third of the way between Hay River and Yellowknife. A ferry operates across the river in summer and an ice road forms in winter. Crossing the river is not possible during the months of October and November (freeze up) and between April and May (break up).
Fort Providence is a gas stop for many travelling to Yellowknife on Highway #3. Fort Providence offers accommodations and all the basic amenities The local artists are best known for their work with moose hair.
South of the community is a series of waterfalls which provide the region with some excellent sightseeing opportunities. Other activities enjoyed during the summer months include fishing, canoeing, boating, kayaking, hiking and camping.
During the winter months the roads, rivers and trails become snowmobile routes and ice roads. And some of the winter routes lead to ice fishing destinations.
Fort Providence is the getaway to the MacKenzie Bison Sancturary.
The name Dehcho reminds of legends of lost gold and lost tribes. Today the region is home to the Slavey people and a mecca for canoeists, campers, climbers and hikers. It is a wild and untamed land of huge mountains, thundering rivers, waterfalls and abundance of wildlife. It is best known for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Nahanni National Park. Virginia Falls are twice the size and height of Niagara Falls and are located in the heart of the park. The Nahanni River is known to be Canada’s finest wilderness river.
The Dehcho has two car ferries. The MV Lafferty, which transports travellers across the Liard to Fort Simpson, and the MV Johnny Berens, traversing the Mackenzie en route to Wrigley.
Fort Liard is 785 km south of Yellowknife along the Mackenzie Highway and the Liard Trail and 37 km north of the BC/NWR border. This is a great place to fill your gas tank, buy some exquisite Dene arts and crafts. Birch bark baskets are the local speciality. Enjoy a walk on the banks of the river.
Fort Simpson is the Gateway to the Nahanni National Park Reserve or surrounding mountains and has a unique small-town atmosphere. The village is located on the Liard River and the massive Mackenzie. If you decide to stay in town for a while, there is plenty to do. Visit the riverfront heritage sites, the nine-hole golf course, or check out the intriguing exhibits at the visitor centre. Whether you have come to experience our Dene culture, witness the terrifying rumble of Virginia Falls, or slip a canoe into the mighty Mackenzie River (the Dene name is Dehcho), our businesses and people are ready to accommodate your needs.
Access is via air or highway 1 (except when breakup and freeze-up halt ferry and ice-road service across the Liard).
Jean Marie River
This tiny Dene settlement started as a trading post in 1915. It is located on the flats where the Jean Marie meets the Mackenzie. Today the community can be reached via a 27 km access road off highway 1. It’s the perfect place to picnic at the river, photograph the historic tugboat now retired on shore, or launch a kayak or canoe for a paddle downriver to Fort Simpson.
This small Dene community is named after the mountain guarding over it and it is picturesquely situated where the South Nahanni River pours into the Liard. The community features a unique log church and a log school.
During the summer the settlement is accessible by river taxi (call ahead), or in winter across the ice road across the Liard.
Situated on the sandy shores of its namesake lake, this quiet, traditional Dene village is famous for its fishing. Townsfolk run the nearby Saamba K’e Fishing Lodge, featuring log cabins and excellent angling for trout, pickerel and pike. The community is accessible by aircraft in summer or by a 126-kilometre ice road off Highway 1 in winter.
Wrigley is the northernmost Dehcho Dene community, a small log-cabin settlement sitting on a high bluff overlooking the Mackenzie River. Tucked into the Franklin Mountains, it’s scenic and serene, with a traditional lifestyle revolving around trapping, hunting and fishing. Access is by highway 1, which rolls through the foothills north from Fort Simpson and crosses the Mackenzie by ferry or ice road (except during break/freeze-up.
The place where the road ends and teal life begins. Sahtu is mountainous country and not accessible by car during winter. The frantic outside world has not arrived yet, and possibly never will. The Mackenzie flows through here and is at many sections 2 km wide. The area is suitable for hiking and paddling.
This traditional log-cabin village is located 50 km north of the Arctic Circle, on a lake of the same name, and is northeast of Norman Wells. It dates from 1962 when the Hareskin Dene began to settle around the new “Our Lady of the Snow mission. Today visitors can tour the mission and the small museum/gallery, fish for trout, grayling and pike. Access is by air only and in winter by ice road.
This culturally lively community is home to the only residents of Great Bear Lake, Canada’s biggest domestic lake, legendary for big fish and pure waters. The town also claims to be the birthplace of ice hockey: the first documented game was said to have been played by Sir John Franklin’s men when they overwintered here in the 1820s. Today, local guides will take you fishing and teach you about the area’s rich traditions and the environment. Access is by air and, in winter, by ice road.
Fort Good Hope
Fort Good Hope is located on a peninsula between Jackfish Creek and the east bank of the Mackenzie River, just upstream from where the river squeezes through the towering limestone chute of The Ramparts. The distance between Fort Good Hope and Norman Wells is about 145 km. This Dene village has deep roots in fishing, hunting and trapping. It is also home to the oldest building in the Northwest Territories. The Our Lady of Good Hope Church was built in 1865 and is now a national historic site. Access is by air from Norman Wells or in winter by ice road up the Mackenzie Valley.
The remote village of Norman Wells is located in the Mackenzie Valley, 330 km north of Wrigley (on the Mackenzie Highway). Is a historic oil town. In 1789, explorer Alexander Mackenzie reported oil seeping from the riverbanks. Today pump jacks and storage tanks are plenty.
The town has several hotels and restaurants, a campground, and a couple of interesting museums. This makes it a great place to explore before heading out to the mountain rivers or the Canol Trail. The rugged Canol Heritage Trail follows an oil pipeline used during the Second World War which was shut down shortly afterwards. Today the Canol Trail gives visitors a chance to explore the north on foot. Access is and in winter by winter road from Wrigley. Plan for three weeks for the complete trail.
Where the broad Mackenzie meets the clear-running Bear River is the village of Tulit’a, occupied by the Mountain Dene. It first became a formal settlement with the establishment of the trading post in 1869. The Mackenzie Mountains tower across the river. Access is and in winter by winter road from Wrigley.
Getting to the Western Arctic is an experience of a lifetime. This region includes the Mackenzie Delta, the Richardson Mountains and various islands of the Canadian-arctic Archipelagos. Here you find National parks, small Aboriginal communities and last but not least the city of Inuvik at the end of the magnificent Dempster Highway.
Aklavik is a Gwich’in, Inuvialuit and Métis town on the western flank of the Mackenzie Delta, near the Richardson Mountains. The town once was the region’s administrative centre. When the locals were ordered to move to Inuvik, many refused. Don’t miss the grave of the Mad Trapper, the mysterious backwoods killer who led Mounties on one of the greatest manhunts.
Access is by air only or in winter via the ice road from Inuvik.
Fort McPherson is the first community you get to when driving north on the Dempster. The friendly Gwich’in town is located in the rolling Richardson foothills along the Peel River, which is a popular paddling route. Visit the famous Tent and Canvas shop and don’t miss the graves of the Lost Patrol, the four Mounties who died en route to Dawson City in the awful winter of 1911. Stop in at the Gwich’in interpretive centre at Nitainlaii Territorial Park.
Inuvik is Northwest Territories regional hub, a vibrant mix of Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and non-Native residents, located along the easternmost channel of the Mackenzie Delta. Here you find plenty of hotels, restaurants, galleries and a variety of tour operators. Access is by air or via the amazing Dempster Highway. In winter you can take ice roads from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk and Aklavik.
Paulatuk is a small, traditional Inuvialuit community with deep roots in hunting, trapping and Arctic Char fishing. It is also a base camp for trips to Tuktut Nogait National Park, the Cape Parry Bird Sanctuary and the Smoking Hills, a perpetually burning coal seam. Access is by air only from Inuvik.
Sachs Harbour (Ikaahuk)
This is the Northwest Territories most northern community. The tiny Inuvialuit settlement is located on the treeless southwestern coast of Banks Island in the High Arctic. It is the and the only outpost on Banks Island and on most maps, the settlement doesn’t show. Banks Island is a wildlife haven and is home to more than half of the world’s muskoxen.
Aulavik National Park is located on the Island, with bird sanctuaries and the famous HMS Investigator shipwreck. It is a good possibility to find a few hybrid polar bear/grizzlies here. Access to Sachs Harbour is across the river by ferry in summer and ice road in winter.
Originally a Gwich’in summer fishing camp, Tsiigehtchic is now home to the Gwich’in people and has a population of around 200 people. This cozy village is a must stop for Dempster Highway travellers, who can walk along the riverbanks and stop in at the new visitor centre.
Some people come here by accident because they don’t realize that it has three points. the ferry connects the Dempster Highway on either side of the Mackenzie River and also crosses the Arctic Red River to stop in Tsiigehtchic.
“Tuk” is Canada’s favourite Arctic town and is the largest town above the treeline, reaching into the Arctic Ocean. Over the years it has been a base for Inuvialuit caribou and beluga hunting, as well as a DEW line radar site, and a centre of oil and gas exploration.
Visitors come to Tuktoyaktuk mainly to tour the nearby pingo hills, and of course to cool their feet in the chilly sea. Make sure to taste some traditional food (like muktuk) while you are in the area. Access is by air and winter road. Soon an all-weather highway will open to Inuvik.
Ulukhaktok is another small Inuvialuit community which is not shown on most maps. The hamlet is formerly known as Holman, and the community wraps around the head of an Arctic inlet on the west coast of Victoria Island. It was founded as a Roman Catholic mission in the 1930s. Ulukhaktok is famous for the world’s northernmost golf course (hosting the Billy Joss Open Celebrity Tournament each summer) and for exquisite Inuit prints. Access is by air from Inuvik and Yellowknife.
The area between Great Slave Lake and the Great Bear Lake is very rocky with many lakes and is rich in minerals. Apart from Yellowknife, most of the Tlicho First Nations live here in their traditional way, and not because of tourists or money being made.
North Slave is the place where you can see the new and the old Norths, where people live in both worlds.
Also known as “Fort Rae” or “Rae-Edzo,” the NWT’s largest Dene community occupies two sites along Frank’s Channel. Orderly Edzo was supposed to replace more
traditional Rae, a 10-kilometre detour from Highway 3 on the shores of Marian Lake, but most residents refused to leave. Today Behchokò˛ is the seat of the new Tłįcho˛ Self-Government and a gateway to Great Slave Lake’s island-studded North Arm.
Groceries, gas and lodging can be found here.
This is one of two Yellowknife’s Dene settlements on the outskirts of Yellowknife. The idyllic village occupies an enviable spot on the rolling shield-rock at the mouth of Yellowknife Bay. In winter you can drive, ski or walk here on the six-kilometre
ice road from Old Town, while in summer it’s a worthwhile 27 km by bike or car. Look for huskies howling, whitefish drying on racks and moose hides being tanned.
This placid village got its start in the 1970s when Tłįcho˛ Dene founded a traditional settlement on the point between Rae Lake and Lac Ste. Croix, halfway between Great Bear and Great Slave. In summer it’s typically reached by plane from Yellowknife, while in winter it’s an adventurous 213-kilometre trip via ice road. Grayling fishing, lake tours, and local crafts await visitors. Intrepid wilderness paddlers sometimes set out from here en route to Behchokò on Highway 3.
This traditional Chipewyan village is the only settlement on Great Slave Lake’s fish-filled, cliff-cradled East Arm – site of the proposed new Thaidene Nene National Park. The scenic community is accessible only by air, boat or snowmobile, and is an ideal jumping-off point for angling and paddling trips in Christie and McLeod Bays and over Pike’s Portage into the muskox- and caribou-rich Barrenlands.
Before gold-miners flooded Yellowknife in the ’30s, First Nations people used Latham Island as a hunting-and-fishing base, near to Back Bay, Yellowknife Bay and Weledeh – the Yellowknife River. These days, the southern half of Latham Island is part of eclectic Old Town, but the northern half remains a colourful Indigenous enclave, home to cultural events and great access to the lake.
This smallest, most remote Tłįcho˛ Dene community occupies a gorgeous setting on the Snare River as it weaves through sandy, rolling shield-country on the cusp of the treeline.
No settlement is closer to the herds of caribou that sweep through the Barrenlands, nor to the diamond mines that are the NWT’s economic engine. Fishing and hiking here are ideal. Access is by air and, during some winters, ice road.
A quick flight away from Yellowknife or a scenic 125-kilometre drive by ice road from Behchokò, this Tłįcho˛ Dene community is set on the shore of huge, pristine Lac La Martre. The town is known for its monster pike and trout fishing, and for its migratory bird life. Less well known is the stunning Whatì Waterfall – two thundering spillways with fine grayling fishing in the rapids below.
The Northwest Territories capital Yellowknife has it all: high rise hotels and lakefront campsites, shore-fried fish and black-tie cuisine, backwoods trails and symphony performances. The city receives direct flights from Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Whitehorse and Iqaluit, and is the air travel hub to the rest of the Northwest Territories and much of Nunavut. In winter, it’s the world’s Aurora-tourism mecca; in summer, it’s all about fishing, boating and hiking beneath the midnight sun.
The spectacle of the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis is listed among the planet’s greatest natural wonders. This is truly an experience you will never forget when you watch the sky become a living picture of colours. No wonder why people come here from all over the world to catch the show.
In the Northwest Territories National Parks rivers are large and clear and peaks reach up to heaven. Spectacular waterfalls drop deep into canyons and wildlife is abound; muskoxen, caribou, grizzlies, bison, you name it. Some of the NWT parks are legends, like the Nahanni which is on the bucket list of every adventurer. Other Parks are less known and located in the most isolated places on the planet. No matter whether you are watching bison in Wood Buffalo National Park or climbing a peak in Nááts’ihch’oh, you will experience the Earth wild and free.
Northwest Territories National Parks:
- Aulavik National Park
- Nahanni National Park Reserve
- Naats’ihch’oh National Park Reserve
- Tuktut Nogait National Park
The Northwest Territories has a large network of campgrounds and day-use areas to experience the natural wonders and make travelling easy. All campgrounds are at convenient locations along the scenic highway routes. All are located near idyllic lakes, crashing waterfalls, rivers or friendly communities. Some of the campgrounds have powered sites for RVs, some have boat launch facilities and most offer drinking water, showers and firewood.