Just north of the Alberta border, the Northwest Territories’ South Slave region is within reach – but beyond belief. An easy day’s drive from Edmonton, this alluring Subarctic frontier offers thundering waterfalls, roving herds of bison, lakes of oceanic proportion, and some of the best darn freshwater fishing on the planet.
Best of all, touring the South Slave is easy. All of the communities and key attractions are linked by a network of scenic all-weather highways. Along these wild roads you’ll find several of the North’s most celebrated territorial parks and campgrounds, each showcasing natural features of the region and serving as stupendous basecamps for adventure, discovery and relaxation.
For many road-trippers, your first “larger than life” experience in the Northwest Territories will occur just a 45-minute-drive past the Alberta border, at one of our most popular parks, Twin Falls Gorge.
Heading north on Highway 1, your first hint of what lies ahead will be the plume of mist billowing over the distant evergreens. Pull into the highway-side parking lot, step from your vehicle and you’ll feel the ground tremble. Then follow the short trail to the overlook: The rim of the Hay River Gorge, where 33-metre-high Alexandra Falls leaps into the abyss.
By driving a few more kilometres (or walking along the easy woodland trail), you’ll encounter the gracefully tiered Louise Falls, as well as the Twin Falls Gorge Campground. Here you’ll find a wealth of tree-shrouded tent and RV sites, along with washrooms, showers and fresh water, firewood, picnic areas and kitchen shelters, and helpful staff. Activities and attractions in the area make this a must-stop campground – for a night, a weekend or more.
Proceed north from Twin Falls Gorge and you’ll encounter the well-situated service centre of Enterprise, the luxuriant Paradise Gardens agricultural area, and then the friendly town of Hay River – the second most populous community in the Northwest Territories and our rail, shipping and commercial fishing hub.
Here, for the first time, you’ll witness Great Slave Lake – a sweeping inland sea, deeper than any other water body on the continent, lined with blissful beaches, dotted with waterfowl, and bubbling with some of the largest and feistiest sport-fish on the planet.
How best to experience the lake and town? The Hay River Territorial Park is hard to beat. Perched right on the Great Slave waterfront, this park offers fantastic swimming on the sandy shore, unique viewing of barges and fishing vessels plying the waters, great opportunities to fish for Northern Pike, and is within easy walking distance of many of Hay River’s attractions. The campground has 35 powered campsites, showers, washrooms and freshwater, firewood, kitchen shelters, friendly staff, and more.
Once you’ve had your fill of sun, sand and fish filets, pack your camping gear and hit the road again – this time heading southeast, to where the buffalo roam. Backtracking out of town, you’ll turn left on Highway Five, cross the Hay River, motor through corridors of jackpine and spruce and, an hour later, reach the entrance to Wood Buffalo National Park.
Here, in Canada’s largest protected area, wonders abound. You’ll almost inevitably see hordes of wood bison (the biggest land animals in North America) tramping along the dusty roadsides, sometimes with tiny golden calves in tow. You’ll also see an array of intriguing landforms: deep limestone sinkholes, creeks that vanish into the ground, saline rivers, and the famous glittering salt flats.
And then there’s Fort Smith, at the end of the road. This idyllic town is rich in fur-trade history and is well situated for further adventures into the national park. Here too you’ll also find the Slave River, home to world-famous rapids and unusual wildlife, including a nesting population of white pelicans.
Quiet Queen Elizabeth Territorial Park, at the edge of town, is a perfect place from which to explore it all. Beneath the forest canopy are 17 powered campsites, showers and washrooms, a kitchen shelter, firewood, a playground, plus trails leading to the rapids and into town.