On every paddler's life-list, there's the Nahanni River. Why? Canyons and hotsprings. Wildlife and history. Rapids and mountains. Culture and waterfalls. Whether you paddle for a month from the Northwest Territories border or do a quick trip from the base of Virginia Falls, it's the greatest wild river journey you'll ever take.
This flat, lush paradise nestles in the heart of the cathedral of peaks called the Cirque of the Unclimbables. 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.
Known by the Dene as Náilicho, this may be the world’s greatest wilderness waterfall. Imagine Niagara – then double it. Here, 3 billion cubic feet of water per day leap off a 30-storey-high cliff, presenting a four-acre face of plunging current that’s sliced down the middle by the great spire of Mason's Rock. The falls is louder than a freight train, makes the earth tremble, and produces a jet of mist that will blow your hat off from half a kilometre away. Everyone should experience it at least once in their lifetime.
Like a bizarre lunar stalagmite, the largest tufa mound in Canada rises near the shores of the Rabbitkettle River in Nahanni National Park. Thirty metres tall and 10,000 years old, the mound is formed by thermal springs that burble from the volcanic ground, leaching calcium carbonate that hardens into a crust called tufa. Take off your shoes and follow park officials on a barefoot hike to the delicate summit.
Nahanni 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 Viriginia Falls, is 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.
After the 30-kilometre paddle through Nahanni’s stupendous, cliff-pinched First Canyon, you arrive here, at Kraus Hot Springs. Named after pioneers Gus and Mary Kraus, who lived here for nearly 30 years (lucky!), this sulfuric hot springs is an idyllic spa in the wilderness. It smells like rotten eggs but it feels like heaven. Bask as long as you'd like. You earned it.
Trekking the Ram Plateau can make a person feel mighty small. That's not a bad thing: It's just a reminder that here, 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.
Accessible only by floatplane, Little Doctor is renowned for its pristine waters, golden beaches, feisty fish (pickerel, grayling and trout, plus pike that approach 40 pounds) and mountain scenery, including the legendary Gap, formed by twin massifs guarding the lake’s port and starboard. Here you’ll find Nahanni Mountain Lodge – the most idyllic getaway you can imagine.
On the riverside in Deadman Valley is this must-see landmark. Over the decades, thousands of paddlers have paused here to leave homemade, signed paddles marking their pilgrimage to the Nahanni. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s autograph is here, plus scores of poems, jokes and other travellers’ tales. Reading them will leave you feeling kinship with the canoeists who’ve passed here before. Be sure to leave a memento of your own.
This is where the Nahanni River whips itself into a fury before its calamitous plunge over Virginia Falls. Walk down to the rapids from the portage rail and you’ll feel humbled – even scared – as you see nature explode into madness. The whitecaps spout higher than houses, the roar is bone-shaking, and watching the current be sucked toward the brink will induce a sort of vertigo. Whatever you do, do not fall in.
Nahanni National Park is slashed by all sorts of gaping gorges, but the most dramatic is this dangerous, dark, sheer-sided, unexplored incision – legendary Scimitar Canyon. It’s 20 kilometres long, very narrow and mysteriously deep. It was formed eons ago when the Ram River slit open the Ram Plateau, carving the most fearsome chasm you’ll ever peer into.
Trivia question: What’s the name of the Northwest Territories' tallest mountain? If you said “I don’t know,” then you’re correct. The territory’s highest peak – a 2,773-metre summit in the Nahanni’s Ragged Range, just east of the territorial border – doesn’t have an official name. Informally, the icy rampart is sometimes called Mt. Nirvana, or Summit 2773, or Summit 9027 (its height in feet), or simply Unnamed Peak.
Try not to strain your neck. Here you’ll find a landscape from a dream: peaks like daggers that impale the sky and thumb their nose at the law of gravity. It’s an alpinist's Shangri-La, with classic climbs like Mount Proboscis, Middle Huey Spire, and, most famously, Lotus Flower Tower – a sheer, severe 2,200-foot wall revered as "one of the most aesthetically beautiful rock faces in the world."
Population just 113, Nahanni Butte (a.k.a. Tthenáágó, or “strong rock”) is a deeply traditional Kaska Dene outpost on the flank of Nahanni National Park. Located where the Nahanni River disgorges into the Liard, the community sits in the shadow of its namesake peak and welcomes paddlers as they exit the park. You can also get here by water taxi from the Liard Highway or by ice road in the wintertime.
Nestled in Nahanni’s remote northern reaches, this an aquamarine jewel in the midst of a mountain fastness. It’s one of the few places in the region where floatplanes can touch down, so it serves as the gateway for trekkers accessing the Ragged Range and the otherworldly Cirque of the Unclimbables. You can wet a line here, stroll the shore, or just kick back ogle the splendour. Welcome to Arctic Eden.