If the notion of “car-camping” conjures images of asphalt RV parks jammed bumper-to-bumper with Winnebagos, look to the Dehcho region, where car camping offers the adventure of a lifetime.
Here you’ll find a drive-through wilderness of remote mountains, legendary rivers, big waterfalls and untamed wildlife, plus three of the most distinctive “destination campgrounds” in the Northwest Territories.
The territorial parks at Sambaa Deh Falls, Blackstone and Fort Simpson are your perfect playgrounds for hiking, fishing, paddling, and exploring Dene culture and history – or simply for kicking back around a campfire beneath the midnight sun.
Turning west from the busy junction of Highways 1 and 3 near Great Slave Lake, you’ll quickly leave the pavement – and the traffic – behind. Along this well-groomed gravel route you’ll experience the Northern boreal lowlands in their purest form: a vastness of spruce and muskeg, patrolled by moose, black bears and waterfowl, and cut through by great fishing creeks like the Axe Handle, Bouvier and Redknife.
After about 140 kilometres you’ll arrive at the first great Dehcho territorial park, Sambaa Deh Falls. Here, just metres from the highway bridge, the honey-brown Trout River rockets through a limestone sluiceway, shaking the ground and sending spray above the surrounding woodlands. Trails lead downstream along the brittle canyon rim, providing access to great trout fishing, and upstream around the bend to Coral Falls, named for the fossils that surround this placid pour-over.
The adjacent Samdaa Deh Territorial Park is an ideal picnic stop and an even better place for a few days of peaceful, off-the-grid camping. The staff here typically hails from the nearby Dene village of Jean Marie River, and are a wealth of information and stories; be sure to drop in and say hi at the little visitor centre. There are 20 well-spaced, forest-shrouded campsites, plus showers, washrooms and water, firewood, picnic tables, kitchen shelters and more.
After you’ve fished, hiked and waterfall-watched to your heart’s content at Sambaa Deh, it’s time to head even deeper into the Dehcho. After detouring to tiny Jean Marie River, perched on the banks of the Mackenzie, continue westbound past the Checkpoint junction and across the broad Liard River via the MV Lafferty car ferry. Approximately 150 kilometres later you’ll arrive at one of the most diverse, historic, relaxing little towns in the Northwest Territories, Fort Simpson.
Lying at the great confluence of the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers, Fort Simpson is an epicentre of culture, history and adventure – and the ideally situated Fort Simpson Territorial Park is a perfect basecamp from which to explore it.
The park is near the entrance to town, within easy walking distance of the excellent visitors centre. Better yet, the park overlooks the junction of the two big rivers as well as the Edhaa National Historic Site – the grassy meadow where Pope John Paul II famously blessed the Indigenous people of Canada back in 1987, and where community games and festivals are still held. Trails from the campground lead along the riverbank to a plethora of other local attractions, including the historic Albert Faille Cabin, McPherson House, and the lush Seven Spruces golf course.
The campground itself is an oasis of peace and quite. Tall, leafy trees shelter the campsites, 21 of which offer electrical power. There are showers, washrooms and fresh water here, along with firewood, picnic sites, kitchen shelters and friendly staff.
Once you’ve thoroughly explored Fort Simpson, it’s time to tackle the remote, aspen-shadowed Liard Trail. Southbound from Checkpoint, this gravel road undulates along the east bank of the Liard River, often within view of the Mackenzie Mountains, and ultimately connects to the Alaska Highway in northern British Columbia. Moose, bears and bison are more common than vehicles here, and the forests are luxuriant – this is the North’s banana belt, boasting its warmest weather and tallest trees.
Halfway to the small town of Fort Liard, just north of the territorial border, you’ll encounter the enchanting Blackstone Territorial Park. Here, you’ll get be treated to great views across the mighty Liard to 1,396-metre Nahanni Butte.
The campground features an excellent log-cabin visitor centre, complete with museum-quality interpretive displays and helpful staff from the nearby town of Nahanni Butte (for those wishing to cross the river to the community, river taxis can be arranged). You’ll also find 19 campsites along the riverbank, as well as washrooms, showers and drinking water, firewood, picnic areas and more.