In the Northwest Territories, "social climbing" doesn't mean what you think it means. "Clawing your way to the top" isn't even slightly competitive. And "skyscrapers" are made of stone, not steel.
Up here there are scores of stunning summits that beckon adventuresome trekkers; traipsing to the top of them will give you a whole new perspective on life. From technical alpine ascents in the Mackenzie and Logan mountains to stunning flight-seeing tours to lofty observation towers in the Mackenzie Delta, here are 13 Northern highpoints that will put you on top of the world:
In Dene, Mount Wilson is Nááts’ihch’oh, meaning “stands like a porcupine.” This spine-like peak is the namesake of the new Nááts’ihch’oh National Park, in the southwest corner of the jagged Sahtu region. Dene saw the mountain as a place of spiritual power, which can be bestowed upon newborn children. The peak looms over the headwaters of the famous Nahanni River, and can be climbed by bushwhacking to its base from the Moose Ponds, where floatplanes regularly land.
Great Slave Lake’s storied East Arm is a paradise for sailors and anglers, but it’s also a glorious hiking destination, where trekkers can clamber up ragged orange escarpments and stroll the spruce-studded mesas that leap from the crystalline waters. Scenic lookouts are everywhere, but the most iconic is Utsingi Point, at the uttermost tip of the Pethei Peninsula. Here, above the fathomless blue waters, you can gaze out upon glinting battlements of Redcliff Island and marvel as the big lake bends beyond the curve of the Earth.
Virginia Falls, in Nahanni National Park Reserve, is Canada's great wilderness cascade. It's a furious wall of whitewater, four acres in size and 300 feet high. You can reach the brink of it all via the park’s famous portage-trail boardwalk. Here at the lip of the falls the Nahanni River whips itself into a fury, plunging through the notorious Sluicebox and hurtling toward the void. The roar of the waves is deafening; the stony ground shudders; the air itself is churned into a maelstrom. No viewpoint on Earth is so humbling.
What in the world? Just west of Fort Smith in Wood Buffalo National Park lies a shimmering white pearly desert stretching to the far horizon. Welcome to the bizarre Salt Plains, where saline minerals leach from an ancient seabed, turning the world crystal-white. You might spy a variety of critters (bison, lynx, even rare whooping cranes) that utilize the area as a salt lick. The Salt Plains Overlook surveys it all, rising above the saltflats via a half-kilometre switchback trail.
Looming over the little town of the same name, Nahanni Butte is a 1,239-metre-high prominence marking the confluence of the Nahanni and Liard Rivers. Also known as Tthenáágó, or “strong rock,” it is a sacred site for area Dene. According to ancient lore, Dene were menaced by giant beavers until the Great Spirit used his walking stick to put a hole in the top of Nahanni Butte, chasing the beavers deep inside. Today, locals can ferry you across the river, where trails will take you to the top of the peak.
On the shores of Cape Bathurst in the Western Arctic, the bleak Smoking Hills have smouldered for centuries, sending sulphuric soot billowing over the Northwest Passage. A place of fire and brimstone, the area is underlain with oil shales that spontaneously ignite when exposed to air. Adventurers typically traipse the area after paddling down the nearby Horton River. Just east is the community of Paulatuk: the name means, appropriately, “place of coal.”
Revered as "one of the most aesthetically beautiful rock faces in the world," Lotus Flower Tower is a sheer, breathtaking 2,200-foot cliff – one of the world's tallest, most severe walls of stone. The signature face in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, this skyscraping escarpment attracts world-class alpinists. It's not for the faint of heart: It takes iron guts to keep your cool when there's a half-mile of thin air between you and terra firma.
A solemn yet stunning vantage point, this vertiginous Yellowknife attraction honours the flyboys who opened up the Northland. The monument perches atop the highest point of the city’s funky Old Town, the six-storey-tall “Rock.” From here you’ll get 360-degree-views of Back Bay, the famous Great Slave Lake houseboats, the floatplane aerodrome, and the downtown skyline. The hike up is like a rustic Stairmaster, with scores of wooden steps to the summit.
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.
The most popular attraction around Tuktoyaktuk is this great green mound, swelling high above the Arctic coast. As tall as a 15-storey building, it’s called Ibyuk Pingo – the most massive pingo in Canada. Engorged with ice, it is slowly expanding, like a pop can bulging ominously in the freezer. Eventually, like that can, it will split its top and burst, then sag back into the tundra. Pingo walks can be arranged with local guides.
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 Virginia Falls, is the park's most famous stroll. 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 scree ridge toward the summit.
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. It’s rarely climbed, and only by alpinists skilled on rock and ice.
Just before the mighty Mackenzie River pours into the Arctic Ocean, it fractures into an infinite maze of channels and islands, forming the Mackenzie Delta. Here is the North’s richest ecosystem, where the murky sloughs and silty shores support a menagerie of waterfowl and fur-bearers. The best place to get a lay of the land is in Ja’k Territorial Park, just outside Inuvik, where an observation tower provides excellent views of the surrounding scenery. Watch especially for falcons, eagles and ducks.