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Yellowknife Travel Guide

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories capital is known as the diamond city above 60 parallel where life is just a bit different.

Yellowknife NWT old city harbor

Did you know

  • The city of Yellowknife is nestled in the great Northwest Territories wilderness. In summer the sun stays up nearly 24 hours, which means long days of exploring this northern city and its surroundings.
  • The name Yellowknife originates from a local Dene tribe known as the Yellowknives Dene, who used copper-bladed or yellow knives. In the Tlicho, Yellowknife is known as Somba K’e – “where the money is.
  • Yellowknife is the Diamond Capital of Canada.
  • Sunrise in Yellowknife on June 21 at 4:03 am and sunset at 10:55 pm.
  • In winter it gets cold in Yellowknife. Temperatures can drop to -40 C or lower. The days are short with limited daylight. When the sun does come out it is bright and wonderful.
  • Ice roads are real and an important part of the NWT transportation system in winter. If you’re up to the experience, take the Dettah Ice Road from the main dock in Old Town. To be safe, check the signage, and stick to the road.
  • Houseboaters live on the lake all year round, whether the lake is frozen or not. The only thing that changes with the season is how they get home.
Yellowknife's famous houseboat bay, NWT
Yellowknife’s famous houseboat bay, NWT

Getting there

  • By Plane – Yellowknife Airport is located five kilometres west of the city along Highway 3. It is the hub of air travel in the Northwest Territories. Several regional and national airlines offer daily and weekly flights.
  • By Road – Driving to Yellowknife got much easier after the Deh Cho Bridge was built spanning across the mighty MacKenzie River. You can access the Mackenzie Highway (NWT Highway 1) via Alberta’s Highway 35 or British Columbia’s Highway 77. From there take the Liard Highway (NWT Highway 7). From Edmonton Alberta, the driving distance is approximately 1,500 km which is about 20 hours of driving.

Getting around

You can pretty much walk anywhere or use the city’s bus service. The city and the airport have car rental firms and taxis available.

Or you can rent a bike from Old Town Glassworks, Overlander Sports, or Borealis Bike Tours.

History of Yellowknife

Discover the history of Yellowknife
The history of Yellowknife

The Yellowknife Dene have lived and travelled in the region for centuries around the Yellowknife River and Yellowknife Bay. Today the Yellownives Dene live throughout the city and in two distinct settlements, Dettah and N’dilo.

Dettah is a small community with a population of 220, located east of the city across Yellowknife Bay, a 15 km drive from the city along the Ingrahm Trail. In winter, a 6 km ice road across Yellowknife Bay makes the drive considerably shorter.

N’dilo is located on the tip of Latham Island just past Old Town and is home to approximately 200 members of the Yellownives Dene First Nation.

Yellowknife was permanently settled after the discovery of large gold deposits in 1934 and became the capital of NWT in 1967. In 1970, Yellowknife was officially declared to be a city.

After 60 years of controlling the economy, the gold era eventually slowed down. As a result, the last mine stopped operation in 2004. Diamonds were discovered north of the city in 1991 and today three diamond gold mines are in operation. The city built on gold is now known as the “Diamond Capital of North America”.

Top things to see in Yellowknife

View from Pilots Monument Yellowknife
View from Pilots Monument

Old Town

From the city centre take Franklin Avenue (50th Ave) and drive down the hill to Yellowknife’s Old Town. The first log and frame buildings were erected at this site in the 1930s. The roads are narrow. Look for the parking lot on your right. Along the narrow streets the Quonset huts, converted buses, original settler’s homes, old boats, and tiny shacks look quite unusual in a Canadian capital city.

In Willow Flats, East of Franklin Avenue you find the most unusual housing. Many buildings have signs telling the story about the building.

Wildcat Café

Historic Wildcat Cafe Yellowknife NWT
Historic Wildcat Cafe in Old Town Yellowknife

The Wildcat Cafe was built in 1937 and was thriving in the business of bush pilots, prospectors, and other early settlers of the Yellowknife area who came north in search of gold. It became the first ice cream emporium in 1939 but was later abandoned.

The restored heritage building is open to the public as a summer restaurant. Treat yourself to a specialty coffee or a meal.

Pilots Monument

The monument is atop The Rock above the Old Town and celebrates the aviators who helped build the North. Take the short hike up the six-story staircase and enjoy the 360-degree view of the city. From here you can watch floatplanes land and take off amongst the houseboats.

Ragged Ass Road

The short, unpaved residential street in the Old Town, Ragged Ass Road was named by Lou Rocher, who owned property along the road at the time. A season of poor prospecting left Rocher “ragged ass broke” and the street name was born.

The road has been declared one of the most famous streets in Canada. Singer Tom Cochrane’s 1995 album, Ragged Ass Road, includes a song about the road.

Houseboat Alley

Yellowknife Bay, NWT
Yellowknife Bay, NWT

The floating community in Yellowknife started in the 1970s when Tim Shandrick parked his home in Yellowknife BAY. Start your walk from Old Town’s public docks to reach the colourful houseboats of Yellowknife Bay.

Houseboaters live there year-round, canoeing to the mainland in summer and walking on the ice starting around mid-November.

Legislative Assembly

NWT Legislative Assembly Yellowknife
Flags on the way to NWT Legislative Assembly

The glass-domed building on the shore of Frame Lake is anchored to the ground with an indigenous stone. Inside the building are wonderful displays of art sculptures and paintings.

Find out how decisions are made in the Northwest Territories and check out the unique territorial mace. If possible, try to take part in a tour and you won’t regret it.

Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre

Opened in 1979 by Prince Charles, the impressive building on the shore of Frame Lake houses artifacts and collections from across the Northwest Territories. It showcases the NWT’s culture and heritage and has various exhibits happening.

The building also houses the NWT archive, a large selection of historical documents mostly accessible to the public. You can easily spend a few hours here.

NWT Diamond Centre

That is why the NWT Diamond Centre was built. There you will find out how diamond mining has impacted the North. Tours are offered and you learn about the different steps that go into diamond mining and refining. You get to watch free diamond polishing demonstrations.

Yellowknife declares itself as the Diamond Capital of North America. The mines are only accessible by air or by driving 400 km on an ice road during winter. They are privately owned and not accessible to the public.

Events

In Yellowknife, there is lots of action all year long. The Snowking Winter Festival is a glittering ice palace, the Folk on the Rocks Music Festival every July happens on the shores of Long Lake every year, the Midnight Sun Fly In is another one, and the list goes on.

Hiking Trails

Be sure to pack your hiking boots. Yellowknife has many beautiful trails suitable for walking, biking, hiking, and jogging. Carry water and bug spray and be prepared to see wildlife, including black bears.

  • Frame Lake Trail – The 9 km path loops around Frame Lake and can be accessed from several locations, including City Hall, the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, and the Legislative Assembly.
  • Prospector’s Trail – This 4 km trail loops around Fred Henne Territorial Park.
  • Niven Lake Trail – The Niven Trail is 2 km long, circles a picturesque lagoon full of wildlife and is one of the best bird-watching areas in the city. The trail can be accessed by taking the sidewalk from the Explorer Hotel to the Chateau Nova.

Inquire at the Visitor Centre about a trail map.

Northern Lights

Yellowknife is one of the best places in the world to view the aurora borealis or northern lights. You have the best chance to see the aurora on cloudless nights from mid-November to the beginning of April.

Several tour operators offer aurora viewing combined with dog sledding and snowmobile excursions.

Weather

Yellowknife is warm and breezy in summer, cold in winter, and almost always dry and clear.

The average high in July is 21.3°C with perpetual daylight; March average temperatures are -12.5 °C with 12 hours of light.

Country Food

Bullcocks Bistro Yellowknife for seafood
Bulldocks Bistro for fresh seafood

Wild meat, fish, berries, mushrooms, and birch syrup are some of the northern delicacies.

Caribou is the main source of food for many people in the region. Chefs in Yellowknife offer locally harvested meat and fish as part of their menu choices. You’ll find caribou, muskox, whitefish, and more in many Yellowknife restaurants.

Fruit and vegetables travel a long way to get to Yellowknife. By the time they arrive, they lose some of their freshness. Fresh produce costs double the price of what you pay in the South.

There is no lack of restaurants, coffee shops, pubs, and other watering holes in Yellowknife whether you want to feast on fresh fish from Great Slave Lake or indulge in international cuisine. The city has a vibrant dining scene filled with multicultural fare.

Summer Camping

Campsite information and reservations at https://www.nwtparks.ca/

Canoeing on the lakes along Ingrahm Trail, Yellowknife
Canoeing on the lakes along Ingrahm Trail, Yellowknife

Fred Henne Territorial Park

The park is located on the outskirts of town, across from the airport on Long Lake, and is the closest campground to the city. Fred Henne is the most expensive campground in the Northwest Territories. Shower facilities were not available at the time when I was there.

Important Tip! If you arrive on a weekend, make sure to book ahead. Most sites are booked by Yellowknivers all summer long.

The Fred Henne Territorial Park is the start and finish of the scenic, 4 km trek across the colourful ancient rock formations. Interpretive brochures are available to highlight some of the geological features of the area.

Prelude Lake Territorial Park

Prelude Lake Territorial Park is the park I recommend if you don’t mind the 28 km drive from Yellowknife. Along the beautiful Ingraham Trail Route, the park offers full campsite facilities, a small sandy beach, boat rentals, and beautiful hiking trails.

Ride Lake Territorial Park

Drive another 35 km from Prelude on the Ingrahm Trail Route to Ried Lake Provincial Park. This park is an excellent base camp for water sports and exploring the surrounding lake systems. The park offers non-powered campsite facilities and tent pads.

Accommodation

Yellowknife offers a large selection of accommodations from first-class hotels to Airbnb.

Useful tips

Make sure your vehicle is mechanically sound before heading for a journey north. The highways take you through isolated areas and service centres are few and far between. A 4-wheel drive vehicle is not necessary to get to Yellowknife, but I would recommend one.

  • Keep your gasoline tank as full as possible.
  • Carry a good spare tire and car jack, first aid kit, tow rope, flares axe, knife, matches, and candles.
  • Take along windshield fluid if you travel during summer – the amount of bugs make a mess of your windshield. Don’t forget the bug spray.
  • Bring along food and water.
  • In winter bring extra blankets, warm clothes, and a sleeping bag
  • Watch out for wood bison. If you see them on the road, stop and let them pass.
  • From Edmonton Alberta, the driving distance is approximately 1,500 km which is about 20 hours of driving.
    Try not to drive after nightfall. Bison frequently wander across the road and are hard to see. You don’t want to hit 1,500 kg.
Watching the float planes in Old Town Yellowknife
Watching the float planes in Old Town Yellowknife

NWT Highway Conditions

Yellowknife Visitor Information

More about the North

NORTHWEST TERRITORIES