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Northwest Territories Travel Guide

QUICK Northwest Territories FACTS
Population: 44,541 (2018) • Area: 1,346,106 sq km • Capital City: Yellowknife • Official Flower: Mountain avens • Official Tree: Tamarack larch • Official Bird: Gyrfalcon

Northwest Territories’s Epic Highways

Cities and Communities

Travel Resources and Tours

Why visit Northwest Territories

It’s hard to imagine what it is like in the Northwest Territories (NWT), the remote land of wild beauty and wide-open spaces with hardly any people.

The majority of Southerners, as well as the rest of the world, know little about Canada’s Territories and therefore have no idea what they are missing.

Travel to the Northwest Territories for wilderness and adventure, for the spectacular waterfalls and epic highways.

Go there for the summer festivals that showcase local music, dance, arts and food. Travel to this vast land for hiking, mountain climbing or whitewater rafting. Go for the amazing wildlife.

But most of all, go to meet the northern people. Their friendliness will blow your mind.

Wood Buffalo National Park
Wood Buffalo National Park, on the way to the Salt Planes

Did you know

  • Northwest Territories has the wildest, iconic highways.
  • NWT is home to Virginia Falls and Nahanni National Park Reserve.
  • Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories are two of the world largest lakes.
  • Deh Cho (Mackenzie) is Canada’s longest river and empties into the Arctic Ocean.
  • The Arctic Circle runs through the Northwest Territories at 66.6 degrees north.
  • About twenty percent of the NWT lies above the Arctic Circle, including Banks Island.
  • Other Arctic Islands such as Victoria Island and Melville Island are shared with Nunavut, the neighbour to the east.

How to get there

Air Travel

  • Yellowknife, NWTs Capital City is the busiest airport in the NWT and serves as a connection point for flights into other NWT communities.
  • Regular flights arrive at Yellowknife Airport from all over Canada. Remote areas in the Northwestern Territories are best reached by air. You can book flights to most communities from Yellowknife or Inuvik.
  • About half of the Northwestern remote Communities are fly-in only which and you can access these places from Yellowknife, Norman Wells and Inuvik.

Road Travel

Many Northwest Territories highways are paved and most gravel roads are well maintained. Permafrost creates dips and bumps in the roads and it feels like being on a rollercoaster. Therefore it is important to use caution and drive according to road conditions.

In summer, free ferries cross several rivers; in winter you can drive across on the ice.

Three southern highways connect to the northern routes:

  • Alberta Highway 35 north connects with NWT Highway 1 south of Hay River.
  • Coming from British Columbia, Highway 77 connects to NWT Highway 7. The Highway runs parallel to the mountains and ends in Fort Simpson.
  • Drive the Alaska Highway through the Yukon to reach the Dempster Highway near Dawson City. The Dempster takes you to the Western Arctic and ends up in Inuvik. From there you can continue on the Inuvik – Tuktoyaktuk #10 highway to as far as Tuktoyaktuk at the Arctic Ocean.

All larger centres have car rental places. Flying in and renting a car is a good option. This way you don’t have to spend days on the road before you cross the Northwest Territories border.

Bus Travel – There is no bus company I know of that travels to the Northwest Territories at the time of research.

Brief History

Long before the Europeans arrived, Inuit and First Nations people inhabited the land area which became the Northwest Territories. They had lived in the harsh climatic conditions of the region for generations, supporting themselves through hunting and fishing. These traditional lifestyles were altered with the arrival of European settlers and traders.

From the late 1500s, European explorers were looking for the Northwest Passage in the Arctic.

Further south, Hudson’s Bay Company claimed rights to all of the land of Hudson Bay and was called Ruppert’s Land. Over time, both, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company established fur trading posts in the territory.

Some of these trading posts were:

  • Fort Resolution in the Great Slave region;
  • Fort Simpson, where the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers meet;
  • Fort Providence, south of Yellowknife

Life in the Northwest Territories Today

Aboriginal peoples First Nations, Métis and Inuvialuit make about half the population of the Northwest Territories whose ancestors came to this land thousands of years ago. Other people have moved here from the south to take advantage of the rich natural resources.

First, it was furs, then minerals and fossil fuels. Most recently, the glimmer of diamonds has made people go north.

The fur industry is the oldest industry in the Northwest Territories and still today, many people continue to earn a living by hunting and trapping fur-bearing animals like beaver, Arctic and red fox, lynx, marten, mink, muskrat, wolf and wolverine. Furs and hides are used by local craft people and for export.

Fishing is also still a way of life for the Dene and Inuvialuit people.

NWT recognizes 11 official languages; nine Aboriginal languages as well as English and French.

Yellowknife meeting locals
Making new friends in Yellowknife

When to Go

  • March – Best winter visits for aurora viewing, husky mushing, Yellowknife’s Snowking festival or Inuvik Sunrise Festival. Every community you visit in the Northwest Territories has its own special events and jamborees to welcome back spring.
  • June – Experience the midnight sun before the mosquitoes and horseflies hatch and miss all the tourists.
  • July and August – The time for an active summer season, when the roads are dusty but not wet and when the fish are plentiful and it’s ideal for canoeing in lakes and rivers.
  • December to March – If you can take the dipping temperature you might even want to drive some of the ice roads.

Break-up and Freeze-up

Travelling in the Northwest Territories is interrupted for a few weeks during break-up (April and May) and freeze-up (November). Check www.gov.nt.ca for current conditions.

Wildlife

Bison herd in the Northwest Territories
Wild Bison are a common sight in the Northwest Territories

The Northwest Territories is one of the last great wildlife refuges on this planet with wild roaming bison herds, caribou herds, large numbers of black bears and many other wild animals.

About half of Canada’s bird species have been recorded here. You will find wilderness and naturalist opportunities in just about every corner. Almost all wilderness activities are possible when you travel.

Travel Resources

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of travel information available for the NWT. Even to get a good topo map is a challenge. Be aware that maps might be out of date and show gravel roads where the roads are actually paved.

Gas station showing on a map might be out of business.

On my last road trip north, I used a Garmin car GPS, which was not up to date either.

In the end, who cares driving on a paved road instead of a gravel road is nothing to get upset about.

You will find travel guides and maps for Yukon and Alaska, but there is hardly anything available for the Northwest Territories. To have a good map is crucial when you travel to remote places.

Once you cross into the NWT you will find useful brochures and maps at any NWT Visitor Centre.

Additional Information:

Service stations and Visitor Information centres are located on all the major routes. Make sure to fill up your gas tank whenever you have a chance. Often, gas stations are far apart. Bring extra gasoline and a spare tire.

South Slave

Spectacular Virginia Falls NWT
Spectacular Alexandra Falls near Enterprise, NWT

South Slave is the land of grand skies and lonesome highways, big rivers and waterfalls. Here the fish have never tasted a lure and the buffalo still run free. It is the land of modern pioneers.

The two main communities in the south are Hay River on the shores of the Great Slave Lake and Fort Smith, which is the gateway to Wood Buffalo National Park.

Most places south of Yellowknife are accessible by road, either from Yellowknife itself or by the long drive up from the Alberta border.

Communities

Enterprise, Fort Resolution, Fort Smith, Hay River, Kakisa, K’atl’odeeche Reserve Fort Providence.

Dehcho Region

Dehcho Region NWT
Liard Highway with the Mackenzie Mountains in the background

Dehcho is the Dene word meaning ‘Big River’ and encompasses the entire Mackenzie River basin. It’s the wild and untamed rivers, waterfalls, huge mountains and the abundance of wildlife.

It is best known for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Nahanni National Park. Virginia Falls are twice the size and height of Niagara Falls and are located in the heart of the park. The Nahanni River has the reputation to be Canada’s finest wilderness river.

The Dehcho has two car ferries. The MV Lafferty, which takes you across the Liard to Fort Simpson, and the MV Johnny Berens, traversing the Mackenzie en route to Wrigley.

Dehcho Communities

Fort Liard, Fort Simpson, Jean Marie River, Nahanni Butte, Trout Lake, Wrigley.

Sahtu Region

This is the place where the road ends and real life begins. Sahtu is a mountainous country and not accessible by car during winter. The frantic outside world has not arrived yet, and possibly never will. The Mackenzie flows through here and is at many sections 2 km wide. The area is suitable for hiking and paddling.

Sahtu Communities

Colville Lake, Déljne. Fort Good Hope, Norman Wells, Tulit’a

Western Arctic

Northwest Territories - Inuvik

Starting near Dawson City, Yukon, the Dempster is Canada’s northernmost highway, a 740 km gravel road stretching all the way to Inuvik, which is part of the Western Arctic.

Getting to the Western Arctic is a unique adventure. The region includes the Mackenzie Delta, the Richardson Mountains and various islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelagos. Here you find National parks, small Aboriginal communities and last but not least the city of Inuvik at the end of the magnificent Dempster Highway

Western Arctic Communities

Aklavik, Fort McPherson, Inuvik, Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour (Ikaahuk), Tsiigehtchic, Tuktoyaktuk, Ulukhaktok.

North Slave Region

The area between Great Slave Lake and the Great Bear Lake is rocky with many lakes and is rich in minerals. Apart from Yellowknife, most of the Tlicho First Nations live here in their traditional way, and not because of tourists or money being made.

North Slave is the place where you can see the new and the old Norths, where people live in both worlds.

Communities

Behchoko, Detah, Gameti, Lutselk’e, N’Dilo, Wekweeti, Whati.

Yellowknife

Yellowknife NWT old town
Yellowknife NWT, old town harbour

The Northwest Territories capital Yellowknife has it all: high rise hotels and lakefront campsites, shore-fried fish and black-tie cuisine, backwoods trails and symphony performances. The city receives direct flights from Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Whitehorse and Iqaluit, and is the air travel hub to the rest of the Northwest Territories and much of Nunavut. In winter, it’s the world’s Aurora-tourism mecca; in summer, it’s all about fishing, boating and hiking beneath the midnight sun.

Northern Lights

The spectacle of the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis is listed among the planet’s greatest natural wonders. This is truly an experience you will never forget when you watch the sky become a living picture of colours. No wonder why people come here from all over the world to catch the show.

Winter is the time to see the lights.

National Parks

At NWT National Parks you find the most untrammelled places on the planet with wild rivers, large mountain peaks, thundering waterfalls and wild animals abound – muskoxen, caribou, grizzlies, bison, you name it.

No matter whether you’re waiting for a herd of bison to make way for your car in Wood Buffalo National Park, or ascending an unnamed, unclimbed peak in Nááts’ihch’oh, you’ll be experiencing the world in its perfect form.

The Northwest Territories has five national parks (soon to be six).

  • Wood Buffalo National Park – Wood Buffalo is Canada’s largest National Park and the second largest in the world. There is limited road access to it, making it not easy to get around. The only facilities are at Pine Lake, about 60 km south of Fort Smith. which has a campground. The Salt Plains are a special feature of the park, as well as the wild roaming Bison herds.
  • Aulavik National Park – This is one of Canada’s most remote parks. It remains a timeless Arctic treasure where you can hear the wolf howl, and the muskoxen grunt. Charter a Twin Otter form Inuvik for the 4-hour flight northeast to the park.
  • Tuktut Nogait – This is a remote park located 40 km east of Paulatuk northeast of Inuvik. You can access it from Inuvik or Norman Wells. Tundra, scattered with rolling hills, barren plateaus and remote lakes and wild rivers above the arctic circle.
  • Nahanni National Park Reserve – Fort Simpson is the gateway to the Nahanni. From there you can book floatplane to fly into Virginia Falls, which is twice the height of Niagara Falls. river trips are only recommended for experienced paddlers.
  • Naats’ihch’oh National Park Reserve – Near the Yukon-Northwest Territories border, the park is the traditional homeland of the Shúhtaot’ine, Sahtu Dene and Métis Aboriginal peoples. Charter a floatplane from a nearby community in the Northwest Territories or Yukon, and set down at a backcountry lake. From there, you must chart your own route into the largely unexplored reserve.
  • Tuktut Nogait National Park – This remote park is located 40 km east of Paulaktuk and 460 km northeast of Inuvik, above the Arctic Circle. Access via plane from Inuvik or Norman Wells. Wild rolling hills, barren plateaus, wild rivers and deep canyons.

Territorial Parks

The Northwest Territories has a large network of campgrounds and day-use areas to experience the natural wonders and make travelling easy. All campgrounds are at convenient locations along the scenic highway routes.

Most of the campgrounds have powered sites and space for RVs, some have boat launch facilities and most offer drinking water, showers and firewood. Don’t forget to bring your axe.

Territorial campgrounds

  • Camping Fees – Tent pads: $15 per night, non-powered sites $22.50/night, powered sites $28/night, Fred Henne powered $32/night
  • Opening and closing dates vary. Check NWTParks.ca for updates.

Emergency and Transportation

globe icon Show map of Northwest Territories

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