Itinerary: Escape the traffic and take this glorious 4-day detour off the Alaska Highway

Itinerary: Escape the traffic and take this glorious 4-day detour off the Alaska Highway

Driving to Alaska this summer? Don’t let this wild side-trip pass you by. 

Halfway up the Alcan, there’s a secret detour that’s the gateway to great adventure. Leave behind the parade of RVs and cheesy giftshops for a sample of the Northwest Territories. A two-hour drive from touristy Fort Nelson will bring you to the 60th Parallel – where wild waterfalls, stunning parks, placid campgrounds and true Indigenous culture await. Here’s how to make the most of it. 

DAY ONE

Gas up in crowded Fort Nelson, and then, 30 kilometres later, bid the traffic adieu. Turning north from the Alcan onto the Liard Trail, you’ve begun a great adventure.

Two hours north, after crossing the stunning one-lane Petitot River Bridge, you enter the Northwest Territories. Watch for bison, and the Mackenzie Mountains rising to the west!

After 38 kilometres is idyllic Fort Liard. Spend the afternoon in this aspen-shrouded Dene village, wandering the banks of the riverbanks, checking out historic sites, and shopping at Acho Dene Native Crafts – perhaps the finest source of Indigenous art in the Northwest Territories.      

Continue northbound, crossing the Muskeg River (Pike and Pickerel fishing!) and then the Netla River (look for waterfowl). Arrive at Blackstone Landing. With stunning views of 1,396-metre Nahanni Butte, this is a perfect place to bunk down for the night. Camp at Blackstone Landing Territorial Park (boat dock, showers and visitor centre) or rent a cabin next door at the historic homestead of Lindberg Landing

DAY TWO

After a riverside breakfast and coffee, point your vehicle north again. Cross the Poplar River, boasting Grayling and Pike, and weave through a corridor of endless jackpines and tamaracks. Keep your eyes peeled for moose.

Arrive at the junction of the Mackenzie Highway. Bear east and then north to tiny Jean Marie River, one of the North’s most traditional Dene communities, on the banks of the Mackenzie River. After picnicking on the bluffs, continue on…

… to Sambaa Deh Falls Territorial Park. Gawk at the furious cascades, hike the many trails along the canyon rim, and fish below the falls. Then snooze at one of the park’s 20 secluded, pristine campsites.   

DAY THREE

Return west on the Mackenzie Highway. Pavement begins at the Checkpoint. Forty-three kilometres later you’ll reach the Liard River crossing, where the M/V Lafferty ferry bears you across the current. You’ve arrived at the hub of the Dehcho region, fantastic Fort Simpson.

Get oriented at the excellent Visitor Centre at the entrance to town, with a wealth of exhibits, maps, brochures, videos and friendly staff.

Tour the famed Edhaa National Historic Site, and, if your timing is right, take in a cultural performance (above). See the cabin of legendary goldseeker Albert Faille, and structures that showcase the Metis and fur-trade history of the town, including McPherson House, Lafferty House and the Hudson Bay Company shed.  

Try your hand at fishing on the banks of the Mackenzie, or go golfing at the lush Seven Spruces nine-hole course.

Bunk down at the Fort Simpson Territorial Park campground or at a local bed-and-breakfast or inn.  

DAY FOUR

Climb aboard a floatplane for the prettiest day of your life – a flightseeing tour of Nahanni National Park Reserve. 

Soar up the great gorges of the Nahanni River's First, Second and Third canyons. Set down on the river and walk the portage trail for heart-stopping views of furious Sluicebox Rapids, 300-foot-high Virginia Falls and imperious Mason’s Rock.

Re-board and take off for Lotus Flower Tower and other peaks in the Cirque of the Unclimbables – dramatic 9,000-foot spires embracing the Fairy Meadow, an idyllic alpine garden.

Then fly over Rabbitkettle Lake, home to Canada’s largest Tufa Mound, and the Nahanni Plateau, featuring the Ram River Canyons.

Stop at glorious Little Doctor Lake for a relaxing visit to Nahanni Mountain Lodge before returning to Fort Simpson.

Then it’s back south, driving toward the Alaska Highway. 

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