If you’re looking for the road less travelled, hit the gas – the rugged highways of Canada’s Northwest Territories are gateways to a world you never knew existed. Unlike other Northern destinations, you won’t get stuck all day behind a line of Winnebagos, creeping toward some kitschy theme-park. The alpine highways and wildlife-lined trails of the Northwest Territories see few tourists and even fewer tourist-traps. What they do offer is the Northland at its wildest and most free.
Here, you’ll find an endless hinterland of evergreens, virgin rivers and lakes so big they could pass for freshwater seas. Fishing holes and duck-ponds dot the roadsides, while bison and bears walk the centerlines, unfazed by the occasional motorist. That’s the charm of this place: Whether it’s the woods, the wildlife, or the colourful locals whose traditions remain vibrantly alive, what you’ll witness on a Northwest Territories roadtrip is the real deal.
Kilometre 72: The first roadside pull-off in the Northwest Territories is a good one: the Alexandra Falls overlook in Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park. Here, just metres from the highway, the Hay River leaps over a 33-metre-high cliff and into a sheer-sided gorge. The three-kilometre walking trail from here to the somewhat mellower Louise Falls, downstream, is a great way to stretch your legs after the long haul from Northern Alberta.
Kilometre 167: Seven kilometres down a sideroad is another of the Northwest Territories’ impressive cascades: crescent-shaped, 17-metre-high Lady Evelyn Falls on the Kakisa River, not far downstream from the traditional, log-cabin village of Kakisa. There’s an idyllic, piney campground here, and good fishing at the base of the falls.
Kilometre 323: The highlight of the route toward Fort Simpson is Sambaa Deh Falls. Here, almost directly beneath the highway-bridge, the Trout River tumbles into a canyon and explodes into furious whitewater. A trail downriver leads to good fishing in the gorge; upriver is the more placid Coral Falls. The nearby campground is peaceful and verdant.
Kilometre 474: Founded some 200 years ago as a fur-trading post called Fort of the Forks, this laid-back little town lies at the sweeping confluence of the Mackenzie and Liard Rivers. It’s this area’s regional hub, the gateway to Nahanni National Park Reserve, and a place where the North’s past remains very much present. While you're here:
- At the visitor centre, arrange a tour of historic McPherson House and the cabin of eccentric Nahanni-area trapper Albert Faille.
- Stroll along the riverfront and through Papal Flats, where thousands gathered to welcome Pope John Paul II in his landmark visit to the North in 1987.
- Take a daylong flightseeing tour of Nahanni National Park, with stops at 30-storey-tall Virginia Falls and mountain-flanked Little Doctor and Glacier Lakes.
Kilometres 594-694: Rugged mountains arise an hour past Fort Simpson on the lonely gravel road to Wrigley. Here, after ferrying across the Mackenzie at Camsell Bend, you’ll encounter the rolling Franklin Range, the territory’s easternmost peaks. Hilltop vantage points are numerous, offering big views of the river and the distant, and even more impressive, Mackenzie Mountains.
Tombstone Territorial Park:
Kilometre 71: The Tombstones are a set of sawtoothed, gravity defying spires as pretty as anything in Patagonia or the Alps. Gawking at them from your auto is great; taking a hike to get a closer view is even better. The nearby Dempster Interpretive Centre can give you details.
Kilometre 329: The Arctic Circle is the North’s most intriguing imaginary landmark, and the Dempster is the only highway to cross it. Here, at a scenic pull-off amid the Richardson Mountains, you can park your car during the night of the summer solstice and watch the sun not set.
Kilometre 734: Here, where the Dempster Highway dead-ends just upstream from the Arctic Ocean, Canada’s largest Arctic town was purpose-built half a century ago. Now with more than 3,000 residents, Inuvik – constructed entirely on pilings to prevent it from melting into the permafrost – is the regional centre of the Western Arctic and the gateway to several impressive parks. While you’re here:
- Explore area craftshops specializing in Dene and Inuit art or, even better, visit during the mid-July Great Northern Arts Festival.
- Continue on to Tuktoyaktuk on the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway, ending at the Arctic Coast, where some of the world’s largest pingos erupt from the landscape.
- For the more adventuresome, use Inuvik as the jumping-off point for adventures in Tuktut Nogait, Aulavik or Ivvavik National Parks, or to historic Herschel Island.
Kilometres 25-245: Among the Northwest Territories' various highway-side beasts, by far the most visible are the wood bison that stroll along the Fort Providence-Behchoko corridor. Larger and darker than their southern cousins, these ungulates seem to enjoy the highway’s bug-beating breezes. If they’re on the road – and they almost always are – keep your distance, stay in your vehicle, and don’t rile them. They have sharp horns and know how to use them.
Kilometre 232: This highway flanks the world’s ninth-largest lake. Alas, except for a few viewpoints, Great Slave is veiled by roadside boreal forest. Your first chance to gaze at the water comes at North Arm Territorial Park, a picnic area lapped by the chilly surf. This is a good place to launch a kayak or, if the day is boiling hot, cool off with a lightning-quick dip in the icewater.
Kilometre 340: Yellowknife has a big appeal to visitors, thanks to its scenic setting on outcrops overlooking Great Slave Lake, and due to its diversity of sights, shops and eateries. With nearly 20,000 people, the city is the territorial capital and its business and government hub. The gold mines that led to Yellowknife’s founding in the 1930s are now all closed, but diamond-mining north of the city has added new sparkle to the economy. While you’re here:
- Stroll (or paddle) around Old Town, where goldrush-era shacks jostle for lakeside space with architecturally elaborate mansions.
- Check out the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, the North’s biggest museum, with displays on First Nations and non-Aboriginal culture and history.
- Take a flightseeing tour to Great Slave’s East Arm, where granite cliffs drop into pristine bays and outsized Trout swim in the deepest lake-waters on the continent.
Kilometre 28: Just a few clicks off the Ingraham Trail in a territorial park, this big lake is Yellowknife’s cottage country. On sunny summer days, hikers and mountain-bikers populate the boreal trails; power boaters and canoeists ply the waters; kids and sun-worshippers luxuriate on the little beach; and campfires and barbecues are everywhere.
Kilometre 46: From the parking lot, a one-kilometre trail undulates through aspen, spruce and jackpine to reach a precipice overlooking this 17-metre-high froth of whitewater – a cross between a waterfall and a really big rapids. Just upstream, a pedestrian bridge takes you to the far side of the cascade and, if you bushwhack a bit, down to its base.
Kilometre 67: At the end of the Ingraham Trail, this is where, in winter, the territory's famous ice-road heads off toward the diamond mines. In summer, it’s a different kind of trailhead: the put-in for several of the excellent day- and multi-day canoeing routes found along the Ingraham Trail.
Kilometre 96: The North’s original national park and Canada’s second-biggest, Wood Buffalo is a Switzerland-sized preserve established in 1922 to protect rare, one-tonne wood bison. More than 5,000 of the beasts now patrol the park, along with other creatures like endangered whooping cranes and the continent’s highest-latitude reptiles, red-sided garter snakes. Visitors can view these animals from the park’s campgrounds and trails, or by going paddling or taking flightseeing tours.
Kilometre 106: Just inside Wood Buffalo National Park is the sizable Angus Sinkhole. It’s an example of the area’s “gypsum karst topography,” meaning it was created when subterranean water eroded the rock, leaving a big divot in the landscape. A trail circles the crater, and there’s a firetower, picnic site and playground here, too.
Kilometre 231: From here, a narrow, rutted 13-kilometre sideroad leads to one of the North’s weirdest places: the salt plains of Wood Buffalo National Park. From the overlook and trails you can get a good view of this crusty white moonscape, the result of saltwater welling up from an ancient seabed. Strange, saline-tolerant plants are all that thrives here. We dare you to lick the ground.
Kilometre 267: Once the territory's de facto capital, sleepy Fort Smith perches high on the banks of the Slave River at the terminus of the old portage-route around the furious Slave River Rapids. Now a government and education centre, the town is a friendly admixture of First Nations, Métis and non-Aboriginal cultures. While you’re here:
- Check out the excellent Northern Life Museum, with displays on everything from the revolutionary Conibear trap, invented by local Frank Conibear, to Canus, the whooping-crane sire who largely saved his species from extinction.
- Walk the extensive boreal trails along the Slave River, where pelicans fish in the rapids and world-class whitewater kayakers come to play.
Alaska Highway Junction:
Kilometre 0: Less than 30 kilometres north of the Northern B.C. gas-and-lumber town of Fort Nelson, the Liard Trail joins the Alaska Highway, permitting travellers to make a vast loop through the Northwest Territories: up the Liard Highway, east along the Mackenzie Highway and back down through Northern Alberta. Alternatively, the drive up the Liard Trail to Fort Simpson is a diverting sidetrip for Alaska-bound motorists.
Kilometre 109: Six kilometres west of the highway is little, riverfront Fort Liard. There’s a campground here that’s popular with buffalo, and a visitor centre/giftshop that sells just about the finest Dene crafts in the territory, including birchbark baskets decorated with dyed porcupine quills.
Kilometre 288: This idyllic campground, halfway between Fort Liard and Fort Simpson, is washed by the broad Liard River just downstream from its confluence with the Nahanni. Across the river the Mackenzie Mountains loom. Inside the interpretive centre are interesting displays on area history and culture; outside are bears (sometimes) and mosquitoes (always).