Liard Highway Route
Epic Road Trip: Fort Nelson, BC to Checkpoint, NWT via the Liard Trail, the only connection between British Columbia and Northwest Territories.
About the Liard Highway
Liard Highway, (Highway 77 in British Columbia and Highway 7 in the Northwest Territories) is an all-weather road linking northern British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.
The Highway is also known as the Liard Trail and starts two hours from Alaska Highway. It is an alternative route to the MacKenzie Highway 1 through Northern Alberta.
This epic gravel highway ends at Checkpoint where it meets Mackenzie Highway 1 known as the Heritage Route.
- Moose, Bison, Black bears, and other wildlife rumble along the dusty roadsides.
- No RV lineups or commercialized places along the way;
- Views of the Mackenzie Mountains and the Liard River;
- Handcrafted local artwork at Fort Liard;
- Jumping off spot for the Nahanni National Park Reserve; air access from Fort Simpson.
Before the trip
Long before I headed in that direction I spent hours in front of my old torn Yukon /NWT map trying to plan my travel route north. The Liard Highway somehow worried me.
It’s not that I’m a novice road tripper, not at all. I travelled to the north before. Like the famous Dempster Highway to Inuvik which I drove two years earlier and a few other gravel highways since then.
Still, the Liard somehow seemed to be a challenge. This has to do with the lack of information available about the drive.
In the end, the lack of resources was a good enough reason for me to finally head that way.
- Fort Liard
- For Simpson
The small remote communities along the Liard Trail live in isolation and deal with the limitations that the remoteness and the cold and long night offer them. Many people in these communities still live off the land.
The Liard Highway is an all-weather road linking northern British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. The highway is paved to the Northwest Territories border and gravel after that.
Beginning 27 km north of Fort Nelson on the Alaska Highway, it runs approximately 400 km north to join the Mackenzie Highway a short distance south of Fort Simpson, NWT.
- Fort Nelson
- Fort Liard
- Fort Simpson
When to visit
June to mid-August is the best time for road-tripping in the Northwest Territories. That’s when you get pleasant temperatures with an early sunrise and late sunset, if the sun sets at all, in the land of the midnight sun.
Once the summer ends in mid-August the temperatures get cooler quickly and snow can come any time. Northwest Territories long winter season begins in October and lasts until May. To see the Northern Lights, you have to go there in winter during the near-constant winter darkness.
Arriving from southern British Columbia I camped at Triple G Hideaway in Fort Nelson for a night. This private campground is conveniently located opposite the Visitor Information Centre and offers all modern camping facilities plus a restaurant as well as washing machines and dryers.
If you’re sleeping in an SUV or tent, you most probably will be perched between large RV rigs. Another option is to find a camping spot along the river beach where locals seem to spend their time.
It’s free camping and a superb location if you have a travel partner. I didn’t feel comfortable putting up camp for the night. Inquire at the Visitor Centre about how to get there.
Scenic Highway 77 begins 28 km north of Fort Nelson on the Alaska Highway. The section of the Liard Trail (Hwy 77) runs 138 km to the British Columbia and the Northwest Territories borders where it enters the Dehcho region.
Fort Nelson to Beaver Lake Recreation Site
From Fort Nelson, drive north on the Alaska Highway (approx 15 minutes), to Highway 77, turn right at the Beaver Lake Recreation Site Highway sign, continue north on Highway 77 to the 10 km marker and turn right at the Beaver Lake Recreation Site sign. The site is approx 200 meters off the highway.
Beaver Lake Recreation Site is a small campground with outhouses, picnic tables, fire pits, and a small lake for canoeing but not suitable for swimming. No fees, and no services, except toilet paper in the privies and a dumpster for garbage.
Km 0 – BC / NWT Border
At the border, it’s important to set the odometer to zero. Here the Liard Trail (Highway 7) continues for 254 km as a rough-packed dirt and gravel road and joins the Mackenzie Highway south of Fort Simpson.
Stop at the NWT welcome sign and shoot some memories.
Km 38 – Fort Liard
The 6.4 km access road leads to the small First Nation village (population 615) west of the Liard Highway at the confluence of the Liard and Petitot Rivers.
This short side trip is an absolute must. The view of the rivers and mountains from the access road and get a feel of this place are worth the short drive.
About Fort Liard:
- Fort Liard is one of the oldest continuously occupied areas of the North.
- The village is known as “the tropics of the north” with the warmest temperatures and it boosts to have the best growing conditions in the Northwest Territories.
- The community offers gas, accommodations, food, and a chance to buy handcrafted souvenirs at the Acho Dene Native Crafts Centre if you don’t arrive on a Sunday.
- The area is the home to Acho Dene, renowned for its birch bark and porcupine quill artistry.
- The Visitor Information Centre is located in the arts and crafts store.
- Try to get to Fort Liard on a weekday. The crafts store was closed when I arrived on a weekend in June.
Hay Lakes Campground, Fort Liard
Hay Lakes campground is located about 4 km along the access road to Fort Liard next to a small lake. It offers several campsites, an outhouse, firepits, picnic tables, and a kitchen shelter along the lakefront. This is a delightful location to spend a night.
A beautiful hiking trail leads around the lake. Unfortunately, when I saw a big bison grazing in the field on the other side of the lake I wasn’t brave enough to do the hike.
Cars drove in and out a few times late at night and in the early morning; it seemed like locals were checking out who was camping.
The only other campers in their large RV had already left when crawled out of my RAV4 in the morning. Their generator was running late at night and again early morning. An annoying disruption in this otherwise quiet and idyllic place at Hay Lake. I fully recommend Hay Lake Campground for a stopover.
Back on the trail
I checked out Fort Liard the day before and didn’t bother to go back to the village before I continued my trip. Sunday meant the craft store and everything else would be closed.
With a topped-up fuel tank, I drove back to the Liard highway and continued on my gravel travel journey.
While parking in the middle of a bridge to take a picture, a fuel truck passed me; the first vehicle travelling in the same direction as me since I started my drive on the Liard Highway three days earlier.
Km 47 – Muskeg River
Here is a turnout with information panels at the north end. This is supposed to be a good fishing spot for pike, pickerel/walleye, and freshwater clams. It’s used as a swimming hole by local people.
Km 77 – Liard Valley Viewpoint
This is a rest area providing a picturesque view of the Liard Valley and the mountains in the Liard Range.
K 116 – Netla River
This area is an important waterfowl breeding habitat with gorgeous views of the mountains on the opposite side of the Liard River
Km 140 – Nahanni Butte
Looking west you can see the location of the winter ice road that leads 22.3 km to Nahanni Butte (population 92). This small community at the confluence of the South Nahanni and Liard Rivers is accessible in summer by boat, floatplane, or wheeled plane. To arrange for a boat taxi contact the Nahanni Butte Dene Band (867) 602 2900.
Nahanni National Park Reserve
Nahanni made history by becoming the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
Nahanni National Park Reserve protects a portion of the Mackenzie Mountains Natural Region and is a favourite destination for flight-seeing visitors, canoers, and white-water adventures.
At Virginia Falls the river drops 90 m nearly double the vertical drop of Niagara Falls.
Nahanni National Park Reserve is the traditional homeland and hunting grounds for the Dene people. There is archaeological evidence of occupation dating back as far as 10,000 years. Today, the land is still a hunting ground for local indigenous people. The traditions, culture, and stories associated with the land run deep.
The majority of visitors travel to the park by float plane via Fort Simpson or Yellowknife.
Km 146 – Blackstone River and Blackstone River Day Use Area
There is a small picnic area between the two bridges
Km 150 – Blackstone Territorial Park
This park has campsites in a spectacular setting framed by stunning mountain views and abundant wildlife. This is an excellent campground with a nice shower house and flushing toilets.
Short hiking trails loop from the campground through the boreal forest. The campsite was the ideal location for a campfire and cooking up a curry with carrots, potatoes, and lentils.
The visitor information building is built with local logs and has a beautiful display about First Nations history and a pot of coffee is on all day. This is a must-stop for everyone venturing this way.
Km 154 – Lindberg Landing
From here a road leads west to a small homestead of Lindenberg Landing spread along the shore of the Liard River. Rustic guest cabins are available for rent. Reservations are required.
Km 220 – Popular River
Known as an excellent spot for Arctic grayling and pike fishing.
KM 255 – Checkpoint (Junction Liard Highway 7 and Mackenzie Heritage Highway 1)
There are no Visitor Services at Checkpoint. Continue northwest on Highway 1 to travel the Heritage Route to Fort Simpson and Wrigley.
Fort Simpson is the oldest established trading post in the Mackenzie Valley and full of history. Here you find all the basic amenities to support your journey.
For the extension of the Liard Trail at the Checkpoint Junction continue with on Heritage Route to Fort Simpson and Wrigley.
- Beaver Lake Recreation Site
- Hay Lakes Campground, Fort Liard
- Blackstone Territorial Park
- How to find free camping in Canada
Important Safety Tips
- Never forget that you’re travelling in a wild, rugged country.
- Sections of the Liard Highway are used for emergency airstrips.
- Check out weather conditions at your destination and along your route before you leave.
- Top up the gasoline tank whenever you get a chance; bring extra fuel.
- Make sure to bring an extra spare tire, just in case.
- Don’t depend on cell phones. A satellite phone is highly recommended for long trips.
- Let someone know about the route you’re taking and when you expect to get there.
- Take a GPS unit along. This will not only help you navigate but if you run into a problem, it will let you know your location.
- Slow down for vehicles going the other way, especially trucks; it might save you the windshield
- Watch out for local wildlife a treat it with respect. Huge animals like bison, muskoxen, and bears can be unpredictable if they feel threatened.
- Treat the environment with respect. Be careful with campfires, and don’t leave anything that could damage the unspoiled wilderness and its inhabitants.
- Near towns, watch out for ATVs (4-wheelers) and people walking along the road.
- 30 km/hour is the speed limit in most NWT towns. Adjust your driving accordingly.
For emergency services dial 911 or phone the local RCMP.