Big Thrills in the Big River Land

paddling the mackenzie river

Big Thrills in the Big River Land

It’s a legendary land blessed with towering peaks, blanketed with dense forest and teeming with roaming giants. It’s home to warm hearts, smiling faces and outsized stories. And the Mackenzie River runs through it all. Fortunately, so does the Deh Cho Connection—a highway route that takes you through the scenic southern Northwest Territories.

Here’s what awaits you along a truly wild highway this summer.

roadtrip on liard trail in nwt deh cho connection

The Deh Cho Connection

This gateway to adventure runs north from the Alberta-NWT border on Highway 1 to Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park and the Hamlet of Enterprise. From there, it veers north-west then west, running parallel to the Mackenzie River until it approaches the Liard River, outside of Fort Simpson. There, it swerves west and finally south on Highway 7 to Fort Liard and then northern B.C.

The Deh Cho Connection takes you past powerful waterfalls and through vast stretches of wilderness dotted with small, tranquil communities, like Jean Marie River, population of about 100, perched on the shore of the mighty Mackenzie River. Visit the old school house, built by local residents in the 1950s to keep children in the community for their schooling.

On this true wilderness route, you will encounter hulking bison in herds so large they stall traffic. Or glimpse a black bear and her cubs before they scurry back into the woods. You can stop for a hike, a picnic or a night at any number of clean and quiet territorial parks along the route.

biking the trails at Sambaa Deh Falls

Sambaa Deh Falls 

As you head west toward Fort Simpson be sure to stop at Sambaa Deh Falls.

Get up close to the Trout River as it races through a layered limestone canyon it has carved out over millions of years at Sambaa Deh Territorial Park. Marvel at this waterfall and feel the rumble and roar from any perspective—from the Highway 1 bridge that runs over top of them, from a trail that runs along the gorge’s wall high above, or beside a pool below, with fishing rod in hand, as you cast for hungry Northern pike or Arctic grayling. Consider booking one of the park’s 20 sites for the night and use the on-site water to clean your catch and cook it up over the fire. Refresh in the shower building before settling in for the night.

If you’re feeling adventurous, hike roughly two kilometres upstream from the park to search for fossils around Coral Falls. Then return, following the path that runs close to the cliffs, to dip yourself in the slow pools above Sambaa Deh to cool down and relax. Make sure you have good footwear as you explore the area, as the rocks can be slippery.

man camping at fort simpson territorial park nwt

Fort Simpson Territorial Park

Fort Simpson is the hub of the Dehcho, and the launch-pad for trips into stunning Nahanni National Park Reserve and paddles down the Mackenzie River.

Fort Simpson Territorial Park is an ideal spot to park and pitch your tent before getting out to explore the historic town. The picturesque campground is located on the road into town and has more than 30 well-kept sites (21 powered and 11 non-powered). It also has a kitchen shelter, showers, playground, dump station, a small picnic area for day use, and drinking water is also available.

If you’re hungry and looking for things to do, the campground is walking distance from Fort Simpson’s well-curated visitor’s information centre, the Ice Breaker Lounge and Chinese food restaurant Pandaville.

world's tallest wooden teepee in fort simpson

A Walking Tour of Historic Fort Simpson

Any visit to Fort Simpson should begin at the Ehdaa Historical Site. These flats on a flood plain, where the Mackenzie and Liard rivers merge, are an age-old meeting place for Dene. Today, you will find a large drum circle, an arbour and a reconstructed teepee from Pope John Paul II’s famed 1987 visit to town.

From there, walk to the McPherson House, a large square-log dwelling built in 1936 at the edge of the old Hudson’s Bay Company compound. Then walk along the river trail and gaze out at the biggest river in Canada.

Check out the quaint cabin built by Albert Faille, a prospector who spent much of his life searching for gold in the Nahanni. Tour some of the town’s other historic buildings, like a one-hundred-year-old barn and the Lafferty House, built in 1929 by members of the namesake family that has been in the region for hundreds of years. To discover more of Fort Simpson’s rich history—of the Dene who have lived there since time immemorial, of the Métis and the fur trading days, of the role the town played in the first flight into the Northwest Territories—drop into the Visitor’s Information Centre and the new Historical Society Building.

Dene drummers in the Dehcho

Learn from a Dehcho Expert

There’s no better way to learn about Fort Simpson and the Dehcho region than by spending time with a local tour operator. Some operators offer guided tours on the Mackenzie River, local community tours, and visits to Dene camps. You can learn the various uses of plants in medicine while walking a Dene trail that’s nearly one thousand years old or try traditional foods and learn to play Dene games.

Check in with the Tourism Coordinator at the Liidlii Kue First Nation Office or the staff at the Village’s Visitor Information Centre to find out what tour excursions are available.

flightseeing tour over Nahanni

See Nahanni from the sky

The Dehcho is home to one of Canada’s most iconic and impressive wilderness areas—the Nahanni National Park Reserve. If you don’t have weeks to explore it by paddle, book a trip with a local pilot while in Fort Simpson to see the many jewels of the NWT from the sky.

Take a flightseeing tour to experience the massive Virginia Falls, which makes Niagara look cute. One three-hour tour option allows you to fly up to—and around—the falls. Or, you can choose to stop for a hike at the falls and then make a trip to a secluded beach on Little Doctor Lake for a dose of Northern serenity before returning to Fort Simpson.

Another option includes a full-day of flightseeing that starts with a trip to Virginia Falls before continuing on to Glacier Lake to observe the jaw-dropping Cirque of the Unclimbables. You will then fly over Rabbit Kettle Lake and its large Tufa Mounds, before a stop at Little Doctor Lake. 

Prepare for your trip by clearing the memory on your camera or phone because you won’t be able to stop snapping photos.

golfing in fort simpson nwt

Golf at Midnight

Tee time is any time in Fort Simpson in late June.

When the sun barely dips below the horizon at summer’s peak, grab your clubs and head over to the Seven Spruce Golf Course to get in nine holes under a twilight sky.

If you prefer golfing at a more traditional time—like not at midnight—stop by the clubhouse to pick up some snacks before you tee off. While you’re at it, join in on a local tradition: Friday night steak night, where non-members are always welcome.

Dene elder doing caribou tufting

Celebrate the arts

All year long, Fort Simpson’s Open Sky Creative Society hosts events and runs art workshops that let locals and visitors indulge their creative sides.

And in late June or early July, they take things to the next level. The Open Sky Festival, held on the flats, features a variety of arts and craft workshops that can include porcupine quill work and soapstone carving, along with local and Northern music and dance performances. There are also a host of activities to keep the kids busy and inspired.

If you’ve ever wanted to learn the ins and outs of creating an authentic piece of Northern art, the Open Sky Festival should not be missed.

couple setting up tent in blackstone territorial park

Blackstone Territorial Park

Along the highway, roughly halfway between Fort Simpson and Fort Liard, get out and stretch at Blackstone Territorial Park. This quietly beautiful campground has 19 non-powered sites, along with a kitchen shelter, showers, a playground, drinking water, dump station, and a boat launch. If you don’t plan to stay the night, you can still unpack a picnic and take in the view across the river—a towering bluff behind the small, fly-in community of Nahanni Butte.

And you never know who might drop by while you eat. The park is a popular end-point for paddlers who have just spent an epic week on the South Nahanni River. Maybe pack some extra lunch.

roadtripping through fort liard at hay lakes campground

Hay Lakes Campground

The tropics of the North, Fort Liard is famous for the bison that wander through town and rub up against buildings and fences. The town’s name in Slavey, Echaot’ıe Kue, means the place of the people from the land of giants. This refers to the area’s massive trees and rivers and skies—and probably the bison too.

While in Fort Liard, you need to visit the Acho Dene Native Crafts store to pick up local masterworks. You’ll find ornate birchbark baskets, moosehide moccasins and accessories like beaded card-holders. On the drive into town, on the access road from the Liard Trail, turn off at Hay Lakes Campground, with eight non-powered sites and a kitchen shelter. Take a leisurely walk on a trail that circles the lake and keep your eyes peeled for ducks, beavers and swans. And maybe even a bison or two.

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