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Fort Smith Travel Guide

Fort Smith is the gateway to Wood Buffalo National Park. It lays in the middle of Canada’s subarctic wilderness in the Northwest Territories, just north of the Alberta border. It will take you a while to get there. Once you do, you will be glad that you made the journey.

White Pelicans at the rapids of the drowned, Fort Smith NT
White Pelicans at the rapids of the drowned, Fort Smith

Fort Smith with a population of 2,700 was once the political capital of the Northwest Territories. The Chipewyan name for the region is Thebacha, which means “beside the rapids”.

Situated on the banks of the Slave River, surrounded by the Boreal forest it is the southernmost community in the Northwest Territories. The four rapids on the Slave River were the reasons for the town to come alive. Those rapids were the gateway for early travellers on the river system going north.

If you are a bird and an animal lover, this will be the place for you. In summer the area is abandoned with birds, fish and northern wildlife. The trails around town are endless to enjoy the sights.

In winter, the place turns into a peaceful haven and a winter wonderland with clear skies and the chance to watch the dancing Northern Lights.

Highlights

  • 24-hours daylight in summer
  • More than 5,000 free-roaming wood bison in the area
  • American White Pelicans at the whitewater rapids near the town
  • Gateway to Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada’s largest national park, the size of Switzerland and a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • Home to the endangered whooping crane
  • 370 square kilometres of Salt planes, 25 km west of Fort Smith
  • Limestones and sinkholes of Wood Buffalo National Park
  • Lonely Roads
  • Friendly locals

I’m left with fond memories of Fort Smith. I was invited to local people’s homes, had Cariboo meat for lunch and learned about the old tradition of preserving bear fat.

Wils roaming wood bison Fort Smith NWT
Wild roaming wood bison

Getting there and around

There are many ways to travel to Fort Smith. The community is connected year-round to the NWT highway system. In winter an ice road connects Fort Smith to Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray, both in Alberta.

By Car

Travelling to Fort Smith by car is the top choice if you want to see the North and appreciate the vastness of the land. This also gives you the opportunities to see plenty of northern wildlife on the way.

Driving distances from other communities, via NWT Highways 1, 2 and 5:

  • Hay River, NWT to Fort Smith: 272 km
  • ​High Level, AB to Fort Smith: 583 km
  • Yellowknife, NWT to Fort Smith: 740 km
  • ​Edmonton, AB to Fort Smith: 1,365 km

Road Conditions – NWT highways are all two lanes and well maintained. Highway 5 will lead you into Wood Buffalo National Park and on to Fort Smith. It is fully paved and suitable for cars, vans, trucks, and camper trailers.

Welcome to Fort Smith, gateway town to Wood Buffalo National Park
The gateway town to Wood Buffalo National Park

Winter Road

For safety and information about the winter road between Fort Chipewyan, Alberta and Fort Smith, NWT, check the regional government website.

Driving distances from other communities, via the winter road through Wood Buffalo National Park:

  • Fort Chipewyan to Fort Smith: 228 km
  • Fort McMurray to Fort Smith: 499 km
  • Edmonton to Fort Smith: 955 km

By Air

Air service to Fort Smith is provided by Northwestern Airlease, a local airline, offering scheduled flights to and from Yellowknife and Edmonton.

By Bus

  • Frontier Coachlines provides passenger bus services between Fort Smith, Hay River and Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories.
  • Double “A” Ventures offers express bus lines from Hay River, NWT to High Level, Alberta. Phone: (867) 874-1117
  • Northern Express provides service between High Level, AB and Edmonton, AB, Grande Prairie, AB

History

Trapping has been a traditional way of life for many people in the region for hundreds of years and still is to this day. For centuries, the Dene and Metis lived here from the land.

The town began as a Hudson Bay fur trading post in 1874. Built around the Slave River, it was an essential link for water transportation between southern Canada and the western Arctic.

Early fur traders found an established portage route from Fort Fitzgerald to Fort Smith. First Nations had used this portage trailhead for centuries. This route allowed its users to navigate the four sets of impassable rapids (Cassette Rapids, Pelican Rapids, Mountain Rapids, and Rapids of the Drowned).

History of the rapids, Fort Smith NT
History of the rapids

Top things to see and do

Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre

The Northern Life Museum provides a great insight into the history and wildlife of the South Slave Region of the Northwest Territories. It features interesting cultural and natural collections from the region known as Thebacha. You learn about the traditional lifestyle of the First Nations and Metis people of the area and their traditional art and crafts.

The welcoming and dedicated staff make it a perfect stop in this friendly northern town. It is well worth a visit and a great addition to nearby Wood Buffalo National Park.

Rapids of the Drowned

Many of the hiking trails in town run along the river bank overlooking the rapids. Watching from above is not the same as w “The Rocks”. A hike down to the rapids is a must. Good shoes are also a must. Pack water and lots of bug spray.

My hike down to the Rapids of the Drowned was an experience that I will remember forever. Actually, I will remember Fort Smith forever.

A short but steep trail took me down to the riverbank. Walking through the forest and trying to navigate around large paddles and stepping over rocks the spectacular sight of the rapids suddenly opened up in front of me.

And here I was at the highest northern nesting grounds for the white pelicans. It was an overwhelming experience to watch them swim in the rapid that have taken so many human lives.

I visited in June when all the pelicans were there and I got to enjoy an expressive sight. The rocks in the river are polished pink granite and it is possible to walk out and get close to the roaring flow.

I have seen many pelicans in my life, but watching the northern white pelicans swim in the rapids was a special sight. No one should miss venturing on this short hike to this fabulous spot.

The Rapids of the Drowned is the most visible rapids in Fort Smith.

White pelicans breeding place, Fort Smith, NT
White pelicans breeding place, Fort Smith

Paddling

The Slave River’s four major rapids, Cassette, Pelican, Mountain and rapids of the Drowned produce some of the biggest and best whitewater in the world.

The rapids at Mountain Portage are some of the most accessible on the river for paddlers of all levels. You will find the access road driving 8 km towards Fort Fitzgerald. Ask at the Visitor Centre for a map.

Before venturing out on the river for a great adventure, please contact the Fort Smith Paddling Club or the Visitor Information Centre.

Mountain Portage is also a nesting site for the white pelicans. In the summer, you can see these magnificent birds fishing in the turbulent whitewater and soaring high above the river.

Fort Smith Mission Territorial Park Day use area

This Heritage Park is all that remains of the original 151 acres Oblate Catholic Mission church. you can do a self-guided tour of the historic mission sites, with signboards describing various aspects of the history and activities of the mission.

Rusty Raven Coffee Shop

This was the best little coffee shop I came across during my northern road trip. What a treat to find this little gem in an off the beaten path northern town.

It’s easy to make a coffee stop at the Rusty Raven as a daily routine during your time in town. The beautiful cottage offers fantastic lattes and tempting baked goods and doubles as a gallery and craft store. The decorations and crafts are beautiful.

Visit Wood Buffalo National Park

Salt Plains, Wood Buffalo National Park, NWT
Salt Plains, Wood Buffalo National Park

You can’t venture all the way to Fort Smith without spending time exploring Wood Buffalo National Park. Wood Buffalo is Canada’s largest National Park and is the size of Switzerland.

Stay a night at Pine Lake campground surrounded by boreal forest, about 60 km (a 45-minute drive) from Fort Smith.

Explore Canada’s only salt plains. Hike down to the saline springs while you follow animal tracks. And all the time you’re in the park you will see plenty of wildlife.

Wood Buffalo National Park’s interpretive centre is located in the federal building at Fort Smith and features videos about the park, exhibits, maps, backcountry registration and other information.

CONTACT Wood Buffalo National Park and The Town of Fort Smith Visitor Centre at 867-872-7960. The Road, Trails and Events Hotline is 867-872-7962.

Fitzgerald

Only 25 km drive south from Fort Smith you arrive at the tiny hamlet along the Slave River. Fort Fitz, as it is known by the locals, originally Smith landing is off the beaten path, but you won’t regret making the trip.

Here you’re in the middle of the northern wilderness with locals that live a traditional way of life.

The rapids between Fort Smith and Fitzgerald are a paradise for whitewater adventures.

The road continues from Fitzgerald to Hay Camp. At Hay Camp along the Slave River, there used to be a meatpacking plant for Buffalo. All that remains of it is the foundations now.

Northern Lights

The latitude makes this the perfect place to view the Aurora Borealis. August through the end of March is the best time for aurora viewing in Fort Smith.

Royal visit in 1970

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second and her husband Prince Philip with their children visited Fort Smith in 1970 during a tour of the Northwest in Territories to participate in centennial celebrations. Today, this event is still well remembered in Fort Smith.

Weather

For an idea what to expect: The coldest day ever recorded in Fort Smith was -54 C in February 1947. The hottest day in Fort Smith was 35 C in August 1981.

Best time to travel

  • Summer (June through August) is when you will have the warmest temperatures, but this is also the dreaded mosquito and horsefly season.
  • Autumn (September through October) and spring (April and May) is a good time to visit if you don’t mind much cooler temperatures.
  • Winter (October through April) temperatures can be very cold (as low as -40 Celsius). It is important to be well prepared to be on the road this time of year.
Northwest Territories bird paradise
Northwest Territories bird paradise

Where to stay in Fort Smith

Queen Elizabeth Territorial Park

The park is located just outside of town and has 24 big powered campsites with tent platforms. Each site is sheltered with trees and is very private. The park has picnic sites, toilets, water, kitchen shelter, showers, dump station, firewood, fire pits and a playground.

The park contractors looking after the campground are extremely friendly and helpful. Reserve at nwtparks.ca.

Other accommodation

Fort Smith Visitor Information Centre

Stop in at the friendly Visitor Information Centre and pick up maps and information about the town and Wood Buffalo National Park. View interesting exhibits and watch videos about the area. Purchase local souvenirs. Talk with friendly staff to help with trip planning.

Guided tours of the town and areas in Wood Buffalo National Park are available. Ask at the Visitor Information Centre for details.

The Visitor Centre for both the town of Fort Smith and Wood Buffalo National Park is located at 149 McDougal Road, Fort Smith, phone (867) 872-7960,

Opening Hours: June 1 – August 30: Seven days a week from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, Sept 1- May 31: Monday to Friday from 9:00 am to noon and 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm

Anglican Church, Fort Smith NT
Anglican Church in Fort Smith

Gasoline and Groceries

Fort Smith has a gas station and a Northern Store and the Kaeser’s store to stock up on supply. It also has a Field’s store, which is a small department store chain typically located in small towns.

For eating out you have a couple of restaurants to choose from as well as Berro’s Pizza place.

Additional Travel Information

NORTHWEST TERRITORIES