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Northwest Territories Travel Guide

Northwest Territories Epic Highways

Northwest Territories Featured Towns

Why visit the 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.

Most Southerners and 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, adventure, 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 NWT
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’s 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

By Air

  • Yellowknife, Northwest Territory’s 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 and can be accessed from Yellowknife, Norman Wells, and Inuvik.

By Road

Many Northwest Territories highways are paved and most gravel roads are well maintained. Permafrost creates dips and bumps in the roads and it’s like driving 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 – No bus company I know of 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 lived in harsh climatic conditions 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 searched for the Northwest Passage in the Arctic.

Further south, the Hudson’s Bay Company claimed rights to all of the land of Hudson, called Ruppert’s Land. Over time, 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 up 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 for 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. Still today, many people continue to earn a living by hunting and trapping fur-bearing animals like beaver, Arctic, red fox, lynx, marten, mink, muskrat, wolf, and wolverine. Furs and hides are used by local craft people and for export.

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

NWT recognizes eleven official languages; nine Aboriginal languages, English and French.

Yellowknife, Northwest Territory friendly 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 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.


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 much travel information available for the Northwest Territories. Even getting a good topo map is a challenge. Be aware that maps might be outdated and show gravel roads where the roads are paved.
  • Gas stations showing on a map might be out of business.
  • On my last road trip north, I used a Garmin car GPS, which was not updated either.
  • Driving on a paved road instead of gravel is nothing to get upset about.
  • You will find travel guides and maps for Yukon and Alaska, but not much for the Northwest Territories. Having a good map is crucial when you travel to remote places.
  • Once you cross to the Northwest Territories you will find useful brochures and maps at any Northwest Territories Visitor Centres.

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.

Northern Lights

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

National Parks

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

Whether you’re waiting for a herd of bison to get off the highway at Wood Buffalo National Park, or ascending an unnamed, unclimbed peak in Nááts’ihch’oh, you’ll be experiencing Canada’s wilderness at its best.

Territorial Parks

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

Most of the campgrounds have powered sites and space for large RVs. Some campgrounds have boat launches and most offer drinking water, showers, and free firewood. Don’t forget to bring an axe with you.

Territorial Campgrounds

  • Camping Fees – Check NWT Parks for up-to-date camp fees.

Emergency and Transportation

Related Links

17 Best Towns in Northwest Territories to VisitYukon Travel Guide
5 Epic Gravel Travel Highways in Canada’s NorthBackcountry Camping
Northwest Territories – The Canadian CyclopediaRVs and Camper Rental Guide