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Home Story What to Do in the Winter in the NWT

What to Do in the Winter in the NWT

In the Northwest Territories, the cold season offers a huge variety of winter activities.

Simply zip up your parka and come to a place of Arctic wonder. See the world’s best Northern Lights, filling the sky with their awe-inspiring and mesmerizing dance. Watch dog teams dashing through backcountry trails of frosted forests. Delight in wide-eyed wonder as you immerse yourself in a pristine winter wonderland and experience some of the best winter activities in the world.

If you’re looking for the best things to do when you visit the NWT in the winter, here are some handy suggestions.

Warm Up at Our Winter Festivals

It’s important to stay warm during the North’s winter months, and Northerners know the best way to handle  the cold is to stay busy and active.

Winter festivals take place in nearly every town. In Inuvik, residents celebrate the first sunrise after a month of darkness in early January with a huge bonfire and three days of fun that include performances by the heart-thumping Inuvik Drummers and Dancers. 

In Yellowknife, like magic, a castle of snow and ice appears on Great Slave Lake. There, the Snow King invites you to partake in the celebrations, which include  performances from talented artists on a snow stage. See the snow carving competition as artisans craft creations out of the lake itself. Inside the castle you’ll find a café, VIP room and a courtyard with a giant ice slide. The castle is open the month of march but visitors can take a tour of the snow build site during February.

Meanwhile, in Hay River, you can join the Polar Pond Hockey tournament in March. The NWT is speckled with thousands of frozen lakes, and teams from communities across the territory hone their skills for the opportunity to compete in the tournament. Over 40 teams compete in Hay River in what has become the most sought-after winter event in this community, for both players and spectators. 

Where to Find The World’s Best Northern Lights

“The Lights are out!” is a common call throughout the NWT, and it’s your signal to quickly bundle up and step out to witness one of the NWT’s most spectacular sights. In the winter, our cloudless, long nights, coupled with our optimal geographic position, make us the best place in the world to see the Northern Lights. The Aurora can be observed up to 240 nights per year, mesmerizing visitors in shimmering hues of emerald, violet, yellow, and crimson.

Seeing the world’s best Northern Lights is an experience that keeps people coming back to the NWT. Witnessing ribbons of dancing colours stretch across the horizon is a humbling feeling, and standing silently with others on an Aurora tour and staring up in awe is an unforgettable and unique moment.  

Take a Spin on a Snowmobile

Looking for an exciting way to get around in winter? Well, for some, winter means driving snowmobiles. They are almost as common as cars in the NWT, and a lot more fun! These snow machines will take you to places you could never reach by road — up steep peaks, down winding trails, over iconic ice roads and even onto the frozen Arctic Ocean. When you sign up for a snowmobile tour or rental, you’ll truly experience the territory the way Northerners do.

Go Mushing With the Friendliest Furry Faces

Looking for an iconic NWT winter activity? Take a wild ride — behind a team of huskies! With frosty manes and blue eyes afire as they race along gleaming trails of snow, sled dogs remain a cherished part of Arctic culture. Up here, driving a dog team is called “mushing.” You’ll have a howling good time at dog team races or, if you want to become a “musher” yourself, sign up for a tour. They’re offered all winter long.

Watch Winter at 40 Below

The North is undeniably cold during the winter months, but as long as you’re prepared, there’s a unique beauty to the pristine winter landscapes of the NWT. Imagine a quiet, picturesque landscape where each tree is coated in hoarfrost, and all you can hear is the sound of your footsteps on crip snow.

Imagine the sun ringed with iridescent sundogs, and the moon appearing so clear and close it seems you can touch it. The world is frozen and still, filled instead with the amplified sounds of winter – wind, crunching snow, buzzing snowmobiles, and playing huskies. Imagine ice nearly one and a half metres (four feet) thick, yet clear enough to still see the fish beneath. During a northern deep-freeze, living in a frozen world is (quite literally) its own type of cool winter activity.

Steer Toward Northern Adventure on an Ice Road

Here’s one of the most unique winter activities of all. If the show Ice Road Truckers sounds familiar, you should know that the NWT is the place where the truckers first revved their engines. Each winter, nearly a dozen snow-and-ice highways are carved across our bold frontier. The most famous, the Tibbett-to-Contwoyto Winter Road, stretches hundreds of kilometres through the Barrenlands, reaching all the way up to Nunavut. Mellower ice-roads can be found close to town, including the Dettah Ice Road. This six-km-long  (near four miles) thoroughfare atop Great Slave Lake links metropolitan Yellowknife with the nearby Dene

Northerners use a variety of unique vehicles to travel over snow and ice. In a landscape where so much changes between seasons and where there is so much variety between regions, transportation can require some ingenuity. 

The Bombardier is a snow tractor that looks like a beetle scuttling over the snowdrifts. A Hagglund resembles an amphibious tank, and it can even float if it breaks through thin ice during freeze-up and thawing seasons. Finally, a SnoBear is basically an ice fishing hut on treads — it even has a trapdoor for dropping your line through the ice. 

That’s not to mention dogsleds, kicksleds, snowmobiles, skis, snowshoes, or thick-wheeled “fatbikes” – the ways to get out and see the winter landscapes of the NWT are almost as numerous as the incredible sights these transports can take you to. Tours featuring all of these vehicles take place around many communities and lodges.

The Avid Angler’s Prefered Winter Activity - Ice Fishing

In the NWT, the fishing season heats up when the temperature drops. A few feet below the ice, big and bountiful fish ply our waters all winter long. On the Arctic coast, you can jig for Arctic char through a hole in the floes. Elsewhere, fish for trout, pike and pickerel on inland lakes. 

Don’t be disheartened by depictions of survivalists shivering over a hole in the ice:  modern ice fishing huts can often look more like saunas – tightly insulated wooden structures with comfortable seating and temperature control. Head just a few minutes out onto the water, typically with your gear on the back of a snowmobile, dogsled, or SnoBear tracked vehicle — or just out the door of your cozy lodge.

Strap on Your Skis and Traverse the Backcountry

Imagine a trail immersed in the natural beauty and silence of the North. Each tree is gilded with pristine frost. Your skis glide effortlessly through a still landscape. There’s potentially nothing more perfect than a peaceful ski through the incredibly still vistas of the frozen North

It’s a popular activity for Northerners and travellers alike, and so many northern communities have ski clubs that feature groomed cross-country ski trails. Most others offer great terrain for making your own pathways – whether that’s through a frozen boreal forest, across the wide expanse of a frozen lake, or the sweeping Arctic. It’s a wonderful way to see more of the winter landscape or even to embark on a larger overland expedition.

Excited to see a true winter wonderland? Read more about what Northerners look forward to every winter, and the ways you can keep busy (and warm!) on your authentic Northern experience.

Find the best way to fill your day while you wait for the Northern Lights to return at nightfall with more winter activities to do during your visit to the NWT.

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