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Wood Buffalo National Park Travel Guide

Lonely highways and you’re on your own with tourist attractions far apart. The Wood Buffalo National Park Route is not for first-time road trippers heading north. It’s for hardy travellers only.

Wood Buffalo National Park salt plains
Salt plains at Wood Buffalo National Park

I travelled the Wood Buffalo National Park Route on my own as part of my Northwest Territories and Yukon road trip. This wasn’t my first trip to the Northwest Territories. I knew what to expect and was prepared for a long and lonely journey. The famous Dempster Highway, as well as my gravel travel in the Yukon, have prepared me well for what was yet to come.

If you can’t handle the isolation and are not a total wilderness lover, this might not be the road trip for you. Or at least you want to bring a travel partner along.

Road to Salt plains at Wood Buffalo National Park
Gravel Road to Salt Plains

My Toyota RAV4 mini camper conversion was the perfect vehicle for this trip. It was my comfortable mini home for the summer, it did well on the rough gravel highways and was easy on gasoline. I was a happy camper for sure.

Wood Buffalo National Park was on my bucket list for years before I finally made the trip.

I was in Grand Prairie, Alberta on my way north when the direct route through Northern Alberta was closed because of horrendous wildfires. There was no way I would cancel this road trip now and therefore changed my route via Fort Nelson instead. From there I took the Liard Highway to get me into the Northwest Territories.

Toyota RAV4 mini camper conversion
Toyota RAV4 mini camper conversion

About Wood Buffalo National Park

The Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and with a size of 44,800 km2, it is the largest national park in North America and the second-largest in the world. This wilderness heaven is located in northeastern Alberta and the southern Northwest Territories.

Larger than Switzerland and established in 1922, the park protects one of the last remaining free-roaming wood bison herds in the world (around 3,000). The park is also home to the last remaining natural nesting ground of the endangered Whooping Crane.

There are no towns located within Wood Buffalo National Park.

  • Fort Smith (Northwest Territories) is located just north of the Alberta/Northwest Territories border.
  • Fort Chipewyan (Alberta) is located on the shores of Lake Athabasca; accessible by air and seasonal ice roads.
wild roaming wood bisons nwt
Free-roaming wood bison

Highlights

  • Canada’s only Salt plains
  • Natural swimming holes – giant sinkholes
  • Home to an abundance of wildlife, including herds of wood bison
  • Whitewater rafting and kayaking on the Slave River
  • Pelicans at the Slave River Rapids
  • The town of Fort Smith
  • Lonely highways and nature pure

How to get there

  • To explore Wood Buffalo National Park you will need a vehicle.
  • There is a road from Hay River through the park to Fort Smith, a three and a half hour journey. 
  • The Park is accessible from Fort Smith, NWT and Fort Chipewyan, Alberta.
  • Fort Smith is home to the park’s headquarters.

To Fort Smith

From Alberta: Take Highway 35 from northern Alberta through High Level and cross into the Northwest Territories at the 60th parallel. Stop in at the 6th Parallel Visitor Information Centre for NWT travel information.

AT the Northwest Territories border, Highway 35 turns into Mackenzie Highway 1.

Continue north on Mackenzie Highway 1 for about 83 km and turn into Highway 2 N, follow signs for Fort Smith. Connect to Highway 5 just south of Hay River, and drive approximately another 204 km to reach Fort Smith.

From British Columbia: Take the Liard Highway at 27 km north of Fort Nelson on the Alaska Highway. It runs approximately 400 km north and joins the Heritage Route (Mackenzie Highway 1) a short distance south of Fort Simpson, NWT.

  • Liard Highway –  Fort Nelson, BC to Checkpoint, NWT
  • Heritage Route – Checkpoint to Fort Simpson, NWT, an extension of the Liard Highway
Metis history Wood Buffalo National Park
The truth of the Métis experience

To Fort Chipewyan

There is no all-weather access road to Fort Chipewyan.

A winter road connects Fort Smith with Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray in Alberta. The road is open for approximately three months during the winter.

You need to be well prepared and take special precautions to travel on the winter road. Contact the Visitor Centre in Fort Smith or Fort Chipewyan for updated winter road conditions.

By Air

Flights to Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan are available from Edmonton and there are also direct flights from Yellowknife to Fort Smith.

The journey along highway 5 to Fort Smith

Km 0 of the Wood Buffalo Route (Highway 5) starts at the junction of Highway 2 and 5 south of Hay River and continues to Buffalo Junction, which is the junction of highways 5 and 6 at km 61.

Wood Buffalo National Park

The official entrance to the park is at km 97.6. There is no registration or entrance fee to visit the park.

Boreal forest Northwest Territories

Angus Fire Tower

At km 107 stop at the giant sinkhole, evidence of the unique karst topography of this area. This is one of the largest sinkholes in the park with 100 metres across and 60 metres deep. It formed when the roof of an underground cave collapsed.

There were a couple of outhouses at the sight, but they were disgusting when I was there. So, who knows what to expect!

Angus Fire Tower sinkhole Wood Buffalo National Park
Sinkhole at Fire Tower, Wood Buffalo National Park

Nyarling River Pull Off

At km 120.8 you have interpretive displays describing the unique geology of the Nyarling River. Find out why the river disappears to flow underground for 26 km.

Wetlands Pull Off

Km 201.4 is the area where you have a small chance to see the endangered whooping crane. (I was out of luck when I was there). A short interpretive trail leads you down to a peaceful area overlooking habitat similar to that of the whooping crane nesting area.

Wood Buffalo National Park Boundary – 212.2

Wood Buffalo National Park
Wood Buffalo National Park

Little Buffalo River Falls Territorial Park

Km 214.6 is where you find this quiet picturesque park to spend a night. It has six non-powered campsites. Here you see how fast the forest has recovered from the 1981 fire. Relax at the small waterfall or launch your canoe in the gorge below.

Camping permits are available at the-site registration kiosk and sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Salt Plains lookout Access

At km 230, a 13 km dusty gravel branches off to a fantastic panoramic viewpoint overlooking the salt plains. There are interpretive panels, a viewing telescope, a picnic area and outhouses. Take the trail down the escarpment to explore the salt-encrusted landscape from up close.

View of salt plains
View of the salt plains and start of the trail

For an even bigger adventure take the 57 km single lane dirt road to the Parson’s Tower viewpoint in the middle of boreal forest and bison territory. According to Parks Canada, a 4-wheel drive is recommended for this trip. The road is often impassable after heavy rain and closures occur periodically due to fallen trees and washouts.

Make sure you are prepared for this side trip before heading out.

Queen Elizabeth Territorial Park

Km 261 brings you to Forth Smith’s Territorial Campground, located just outside of town. The park has large powered sites and everything that makes your camping experience a good one.

Fort Smith Visitor Centre and Wood Buffalo National Park Office

The friendly Visitor Centre is located 2 km before you reach the town of Fort Smith, address 149 McDougal Road.

Fort Smith

At km 266, close to the NWT/Alberta border you have arrived at the town of Fort Smith.

Pine Lake Road

Salt River Day Use Area

Located approximately 27 km from Fort Smith, this is a great picnic stop with a view of the Salt River Cliffs. The Salt River Day Use Area is home to Snake hibernaculum and the trailhead for excellent day hikes to salt flats and sinkholes.

Hiking Wood Buffalo National Park
Hiking Trails at Salt River Da Use Area

Pine Lake Campground

Located 60 km south of Fort Smith, Pine Lake is one of the main recreation areas in the park. The Day Use Area is a favourite gathering place for local families and is located next to a beautiful sandy beach and the aquamarine waters of Pine Lake in the middle of the boreal forests.

The campground has 18 non-serviced sites and three RV pull-through sites with campfire pits and picnic tables.

Pine River Campground is open from the May long weekend to the end of September.

Pine Lake
Pine Lake

Kettle Point Group Camp

Kettle Point is located on the east shore of Pine Lake. This quiet, beautiful facility t has a large cozy log building, plenty of space for tents, a private beach, fire circle, firewood, picnic tables and an outhouse and a playground.

To reach the group camp take Pine Lake Raod (HWY 58) and keep going after the Pine Lake Access Road. Turn onto Kettle Point Road and follow it to the end.

A minimum group size of eight people and reservations are required. Please call 867 872 7960.

Lakeside Trail

Pine Lake Cabin Rentals

Enjoy rustic and cozy cottage living and have some comfort instead of roughing it. The cabins overlook beautiful Pine Lake where you have the choice of recreation. Hiking, canoeing, swimming and dark sky gazing are all available nearby.

Cabins can be reserved from the May long weekend to the end of September.

Peace Point

This is home to Mikisew Cree First Nation with boat and canoe access to the Peace River.

Fort Chipewyan

Fort Chipewyan Visitor Centre. This is a small fly-in community and the oldest in Alberta. It is the gateway to the Peace Athabasca Delta, one of the largest inland freshwater deltas in the world and significant wetlands.

The visitor Centre offers Information, backcountry registration services and a small exhibit area.

Access to Fort Chipewyan is by air from either Fort McMurray, AB or Fort Smith, NWT. From September to mid-March there is winter road access.

Contact the Visitor Centre in Fort Chipewyan for information.

Sweetgrass Station

For a unique backcountry destination, Sweetgrass Station might be the place for you. Visiting Sweetgrass is a true wilderness adventure and only recommended for experienced backcountry adventurers.

To get to Sweetgrass Station involves a drive from Fort Smith to Peace River, a boat or canoe trip to Sweetgrass Landing along the Peace River plus a 14 km hike inland to Sweetgrass Station.

Once you arrive you can pitch your tent or get settled into a warehouse, a restored heritage building for a cozy accommodation option with cots and woodstove.

To register for your backcountry permit and for information, please contact the Visitor Centre at 867 872 7960

Moose Island

In summer the road ends at Moose Island. In winter it continues as an ice road across the Peace River and you’re on your way to Fort Chipewyan.

In summer this location is a popular boat and canoe launch.

Star Gazing

Wood Buffalo National Park is known as the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve. The best chance to watch the Northern Lights is January and February during the long nights.

In late August you can join the Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Dark Sky Festival.

Winter in the park

Are you dressed for the extreme weather in the north? Winter temperatures in the park can dip to minus 40°C. Check the weather before you head out and dress accordingly.

  • Travel the ice road connecting the communities of Fort Chipewyan, AB and Fort Smith, NWT for a winter wonderland experience and wildlife viewing at its best.
  • Snowshoe on one of the hiking trails or try cross country skiing
  • Aurora Viewing
  • Have a go at skating on the lake

Wildlife in the Park

Wood Buffalo National Park is home to many animals, including wood bison, black bears, moose, wolves, lynx and a large bird variety.

Drive slowly and expect bison or bears on the road anytime.

The best off-road wildlife viewing experience is when you venture out for a hike. Make sure you know the wildlife safety skills.

In the wetlands of the park, you will see plenty of birds, especially during spring migration.

Important Safety Tips

There is over 50 km of maintained hiking trails in the park and plenty of wilderness areas to explore. The trails are not patrolled and you use them at your own risk.

  • Register at the Visitor Information Centre prior to all overnight backcountry trips.
  • Be prepared and have some backcountry knowledge. Take a compass and a map of the area or a GPS.
  • Respect area and trail closures.
  • Carry a bear spray and noisemakers to warn bears.
  • If you encounter bison, moose or bears on a trail make yourself known by making noise. Walk slowly around them at a safe distance or return the way you came.
  • Learn about Wildlife safety before heading out.

Wildlife viewing

  • If you see wildlife on the road, stop at a safe distance and stay in your vehicle until they leave the area.
  • Do not approach bison. They are most dangerous during the rutting season from mid-July to September and females can be protective of their young in early spring.
  • Never feed wildlife.
  • Keep pet on a leash at all times.

Camping and accommodation

  • Queen Elizabeth Campground, Fort Smith
  • Little Buffalo River Falls Territorial Park
  • Pine Lake Campground
  • Kettle Point Group Camp
  • Pine Lake Cabin Rentals
  • Sweetgrass Station (backcountry camping)

Bugs

Mosquitoes and horse flies are a reality of life in the boreal forest and in all of the Northwest Territories. Your best defence is adequate protection. Wear clothing that they can’t bite through, as well as a bug jacket. Bring insect repellent.

I actually used my bug jacket when I was hiking to the Salt Planes. Without the bug jacket, I had to turn around or I would have been eaten alive.

Bug jacket for NWT
Bring a bug jacket along, just in case

Road conditions

  • As of January 2019, the Wood Buffalo Route is paved all the way to Fort Smith, even if your GPS says that you’re driving on gravel. All side roads off Highway 5 are gravel.
  • Watch out for northern traffic jams caused by bison herds or black bears on the roads.
  • For highway conditions visit www.gov.nt.ca
Gravel Roads at Wood Buffalo National Park
Gravel Roads at Wood Buffalo National Park

Contact Information

  • Visitor Centre for both the town of Fort Smith and Wood Buffalo National Park is located at 149 McDougal Road, Fort Smith, phone +1 867-872-3060
  • Visitor Centre Fort Chipewyan – 1 780 697 3662
  • Tollfree Parks Canada Info Line – 1 888 773 8888
  • 24 Hours Emergency: RCMP Fort Smith NT 1 867 872 0404, RCMP Fort Chipewyan, AB: 911

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.

salt plains wood buffalo route
Salt Plains

More about the North

globe icon MAP OF WOOD BUFFALO NATIONAL PARK

NORTHWEST TERRITORIES