Nahanni National Park is synonymous with paddling, but to really get to know the lay of the land you've got to head uphill. The trek to the summit of 1,450-metre-high Sunblood Peak, rising above legendary Virignia Falls, is perhaps the park's most famous excursion. It's a 16-kilometre round-trip climb, certain to stretch your legs for half-a-day or longer. The trail begins directly across the river from the Virginia Falls campground, leads northeast through a mature spruce forest and then continues up an open screen ridge toward the summit.
Erupting from the pancake-flat tundra just outside the community of Tuktoyaktuk, this bulbous, ice-filled mound is the second-largest "pingo" on Earth. Called Ibyuk, it's 1,000 feet wide at its base and rises to the height of a 15-storey building, making its summit a scenic and popular destination for hikers.
There's hiking, and then there's the Canol. Possibly North America's most rigorous backpacking trail, this 355-kilometre trek follows the route of a defunct military road that once transected the Mackenzie Mountains. Tackling it is an exercise in self-sufficiency and endurance: Most hikers require three weeks to make it to Norman Wells, carrying food, survival gear and an inflatable raft to cross numerous swift, glacier-fed rivers.
What in the world? Just west of Fort Smith in Wood Buffalo National Park lies a shimmering, pearly desert, stretching to the far horizon. A quick hike downhill will bring you to the bizarre Salt Plains, where saline minerals leach from an ancient seabed, turning the world white and crystalline. Remove your hiking boots and stroll barefoot over the smooth, crusty saltflats and through the briny pools. You'll likely see the tracks of various critters (bison, lynx, even rare whooping cranes) that utilize the area as a salt lick. And if you have a taste for the savoury, you can sample the salt yourself.
Forming a seven-kilometre loop around the shores of Frame Lake in the heart of Yellowknife, the city's favourite walking trail has a little of everything. The eastern half of the loop is a paved, sedate urban path, leading you past architectural marvels such as the territorial legislative assembly, city hall and the famous Prince of Wales museum. The western half of the trail, however, is a taste of the Northern backcountry, allowing you to ascend rocky outcrops, cross black-spruce swampland (via convenient wooden boardwalks) and spy on local wildlife, including waterfowl, muskrats, foxes and even coyotes.
What's even better than the sky-scraping spires of the Cirque of the Unclimbables? The Fairy Meadows – the flat, lush paradise at the heart of this cathedral of peaks. Here in this green oasis, big-wall alpinists prepare for their dizzying ascents – or, if you prefer to stay grounded, you can spend days wandering the trails, basking among the alpine wildflowers, gawking at the hawks and marmots, and feeling delightfully tiny in the shadow of the gobsmacking summits.
Following the rim of the gorgeous Hay River canyon, the easy Twin Falls Gorge trail begins at the community of Enterprise and leads south for eight kilometres through luxuriant boreal forest. Along the way you'll enjoy interpretive signage, great views of the yawning limestone chasm, and the marvels of Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park, which include Louise Falls (you can get down to the lip of the cascade via a dizzying spiral staircase) and mammoth Alexandra Falls, where the trail terminates.
Trekking the Ram Plateau in Nahanni National Park can make a person feel mighty small. That's not a bad thing: It's just a reminder that in the Northwest Territories, nature is larger than life. The plateau is an enormous table of dolomite, ringed by the Mackenzie Mountains and slashed by plunging canyons. On this dramatic mesa, life abounds: Dall sheep, bears, mountain caribou, birds of prey, and a gazillion alpine wildflowers. You could trek for weeks up here, feeling on top of the world.
This isn't a long hike (just two kilometres). It's not a hard hike (boardwalk, downhill). But hoo boy, it sure is a beautiful hike. The portage trail starts safely upstream of Virginia Falls, the pièce de résistance of Nahanni National Park. First you'll witness heart-pounding views of Sluice Box Rapids, where the Nahanni accelerates into a raging torrent. Next up is Mason's Rock, the great stone sentinel that slices the river in two. Then, of course, you'll stand at the altar of Virginia Falls itself, where acres of water freefall for 30 storeys, detonating at the bottom with terrifying force. The trail ends at the cobble beach below from the falls – perfect for picnicking or for launching your canoe downstream, where plenty more beauty awaits.
A must-see attraction on the drive from Fort Providence to Fort Simpson, the Sambaa Deh Gorge gapes where the Trout River slices through thick spruce woodlands not far from the community of Jean Marie River. Most visitors photograph the roadside falls, where the river surges through a limestone slot and hurtles over a preciptious drop – but there's plenty more to see if you follow the network of trails that trace the canyon rim. Upstream about 1.5 kilometres is bucolic Coral Falls, named for the numerous coral fossils in the area. Downstream, meanwhile, the path will take you down to the water, where you'll find stellar fishing for Arctic Grayling and Pickerel.
For a pretty little hike through classic Northern shield-country, drive 45 kilometres east of Yellowknife to the Cameron Falls Trail. The path twists through evergreen forests, across boardwalks and over undulating outcrops until, 20 minutes later, you arrive atop a lookout facing the waterfall, where the Cameron River tumbles 17 metres down a slanting stone face. From here, you can continue upstream, where a bridge permits access to the far side, with excellent picnicking, fishing and (on hot days!) swimming at the base of the falls.