Known traditionally as Tinde’e, Tu Nedhé, and Tucho, among other names, the body of water today called Great Slave Lake is the second-largest in the Northwest Territories (after Great Bear Lake), the deepest lake in North America and the tenth-largest lake in the world. It covers an area of over 27,000 square kilometres and at some points is over 600 metres deep. Put in context, Great Slave could sink the CN Tower.
Along its shores stand the communities of Hay River, Behchokǫ̀, Fort Resolution, Łutsel K’e, Dettah, N’dilo and, of course, Yellowknife. Many of the locals in these places still utilize Great Slave Lake’s life-giving waters for sustenance and to provide for their families. Beneath its sparkling waves, this lake teems with Whitefish, Lake Trout, Grayling, Walleye, Cisco, Inconnu and many more species.
Great Slave Lake’s astounding East Arm is punctuated by countless islands and towering cliffs. It’s here you’ll find the bewildering beauty of Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve. On the vibrant North Arm, home to Yellowknife Bay, floatplanes soar overheard and houseboats bob with the current. In winter, the icy surface is alive with festivals and northern activities while incandescent Aurora dance above.
The lake’s name originates from “Slavey,” an outdated name used by early settlers to describe the Dene people of the region. The Indigenous people of the North were the first to make a home around these waters when glacial ice retreated nearly 10,000 years ago. Later in the mid-18th century the lake drew the attention of fur traders and the Hudson’s Bay Company. More explorers traversed and mapped the area up until the 1930s when, with the discovery of gold on the North Arm, Yellowknife and eventually other mining towns were established.
Great Slave Lake starts freezing over in late November and the ice remains thick (up to four feet or 125 cm thick) until early May. During that time an ice road connects Yellowknife to the nearby community of Dettah. The “shoulder seasons” of breakup and freezeup can be treacherous so always pay attention to local announcements and signs about ice safety.
By June, the open waters welcome back a chorus of fishers, boaters, and hobby craft. There are many operators who can show you around Great Slave Lake’s vast and impressive waters during both seasons.
One of Yellowknife’s special gems, this 297-seat theatre is the only fully-equipped live performance theatre in the NWT.
The Northern Arts and Cultural Centre is run by a non-profit charitable organization that’s hosted fine arts performances here for nearly 40 years. It was built in the 1980s with the help of the Globe and Mail, whose publisher implored donors across Canada to “Help us kill Macbeth in Yellowknife.”
Since then, the NACC has become the destination for local, national, and international performances in the territory, hosting artists, symphonies, live music, theatre, stage shows, film festivals and more. The NACC also brings a variety of artistic programs to communities throughout the NWT, from educational workshops to performing artist mentorships.
Tickets sell out fast so be sure to check the NACC website for upcoming performances.
Yellowknife’s most popular lookout rises high above Old Town, providing a stupendous view over Great Slave Lake, Back Bay and the northern reaches of the city. The monument rests atop “The Rock”—a six-storey hill where the town’s original water tower once stood—and is accessed via a winding wooden staircase.
Back when Yellowknife was still young, travel between communities and camps was long and dangerous. Bush planes were a vital resource for transporting supplies, food, medicine and people. This monument is dedicated to those pilots and engineers whose lives were lost as they flew the wild skies of the Northwest Territories. But it also serves a practical purpose: When the light atop the tower is flashing, residents and visitors are warned that floatplanes or skiplanes are active on nearby Yellowknife Bay.
Reaching the base of Pilot’s Monument is easy. Just head down Franklin Avenue towards Old Town and you’ll see it rising up above the houses. Getting to the top is a little trickier. The climb is steep and unfortunately not wheelchair accessible. There are two resting areas on the staircase for those that need them. At the peak are two viewing platforms where many travellers take photos and gaze out on the beautiful scenery of Yellowknife.
Perched on a pillar near the Yellowknife airport, the blue Bristol Freighter greets visitors, reminding them of the region’s vital aviation history.
The former Wardair freighter last flew in the 1960s and was owned by Max Ward, famed northern aviation pioneer. Bush planes such as this one fed the development of Yellowknife and other communities in the North, bringing in people and supplies and connecting the outside world before there were any roads.
This particular plane is a Bristol Type 170 that was piloted by Bruce D. Allcorn. It was the first wheeled aircraft to land at the North Pole. After it was decommissioned in 1968, it was donated to the City of Yellowknife and is now one of approximately 10 Bristol aircraft that exist for display in the world.
The plane itself is easily reached from the airport and the city centre. Around the freighter, you’ll find picnic tables, trails, and interpretive signage.
Tucked behind the Chateau Nova and Explorer Hotels, this easy two-kilometre loop explores the shoreline of a small marshy lake in the heart of a Yellowknife residential neighbourhood. The short 35-minute walk is a popular destination for trail runners, walkers, and wildlife. Despite the nearby houses, Niven is full of beavers, muskrats, waterfowl and also great urban birdwatching opportunities. The trail features benches and several viewing platforms, plus a floating pontoon bridge over the water. Open year-round, and equally gorgeous in all seasons.
This big, boreal wildlife reserve is home to Canada’s northernmost population of bison, also called wood buffalo, and is located just east of the community of Fort Providence.
The free-roaming Mackenzie Herd wanders through these protected 10,000 square kilometres. Long ago these mighty bison stampeded all over Alberta, northern British Columbia and much of the Northwest Territories. But hunting and disease nearly wiped out the NWT’s bison population. In 1963, 18 of the remaining animals were relocated to this newly created reserve and the species was given official protection. The herd recovered to some 2,400 in the 1980s, though has since declined to around 850 animals.
Roadside parks in the area – including North Arm and Chan Lake – provide an opportunity to stretch your legs and explore the sanctuary’s flora and landscape. One of the best ways to view the Mackenzie Herd, though, is simply travelling along Highway 3. Lumbering bison grazing along the side of the road is an almost inevitable sight for travellers in summer. Drivers should also be ready for unexpected delays from the massive animals lazily crossing – or snoozing – on the highway.
Be alert and aware of bison when driving on NWT roads, especially at night. While you can take pictures from inside your car, do not approach or feed bison at any time.
Stop and rest on the picturesque shores of Great Slave Lake at this roadside park, a favorite stop for locals and visitors travelling the highway. Take some photos or simply relax with a picnic. But be sure to look around you – the scenery abruptly changes here from rolling, well-treed Mackenzie lowlands to the granite of the Canadian shield. This is also a prime waterfowl nesting area.
The park, located off of Highway 3 near Behchokǫ̀, offers washrooms, a kitchen shelter and a boat launch.
It began in the early 1980s when one or two families built their own houseboats out of old river barges on the waters off of Old Town. This colourful community has grown over the years into a kaleidoscope of brilliant designs representing a one-of-a-kind Northern attraction brimming with frontier spirit.
The houseboats are lived in year-round by Yellowknife residents, who commute by canoe in the summer or walk, ski or drive on the ice in the winter. You can view the wonderful homes via boat tours when the bay is open or stroll over on the ice in winter, but please respect the homeowners’ privacy.