A vast and untouched province, the Northwest Territories is five times the size of the UK with the population of a small town. The pristine wilderness makes it an outdoor lover’s paradise with endless forests, tundra and lakes to explore, as well as several historical towns to make your base.
The largest town in the province - home to half its entire population - is Yellowknife, which sits on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, one of the largest and deepest lakes in the world. A haven for boaters and swimmers in the summer months, the lake is frozen for most of the year providing fantastic snowmobile and cross-country ski terrain, excellent ice fishing and a spectacular ice castle for the annual Snowking Festival.
Yellowknife is a busy town with a good selection of shops and restaurants. Interesting museums include the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre which houses exhibits on the history and settlement of the area as well as its varied cultures. The city’s Old Town is a popular place to wander, with colourful houseboats, artists’ studios and waterfront cafés perched around the central mound named ‘The Rock’. You can climb to see the Pilot’s Monument on the summit, dedicated to the bush pilots who were integral to the early exploration and settlement of the province. The mount also boasts great panoramic views of the lake and around.
On the south shore of Great Slave Lake is Hay River, the province’s second largest town, which is an important transportation link as well as having a beautiful stretch of sandy beach. Another popular place to visit is the isolated Inuvik, which lies at the end of the famous Dempster Highway above the Arctic Circle and overlooks the maze of streams and lakes of the Mackenzie Delta.
The province’s main draw however is its rugged, unspoilt landscapes and there are plenty of ways to get out and enjoy them. During the summer months, set out on foot to explore the many scenic hiking trails, from gentle strolls and day hikes with peaceful picnic spots to long overnight backpacking trips through the wilderness. Wildlife abounds, from bears, moose and huge wood bison to a wide variety of birds. For tranquillity like no other, head out onto the pristine lakes with a canoe or rowboat and potter around the bays and coves, or take a trip down one of the many rivers.
During the winter, the lakes freeze, the landscapes are blanketed with deep snow and there are even more ways to get outdoors – from cross country skiing and snowshoeing to snowmobiling and dog sledding. Wildlife watching is still excellent, with the beautiful Ptarmigan and their winter coat of white feathers, the elusive snowy owl and graceful arctic foxes.
Cast your eyes upwards during the dark nights of these winter months and you are likely to be rewarded with the mesmerising light show of the Aurora Borealis. The province provides ample opportunity to witness this natural phenomenon, whether you prefer to experience it in comfort from a heated seat on a purpose-built viewing platform, from the surface of a frozen lake, on an evening dog sled ride, or even from a steaming hot tub.
As the winter draws to an end, communities all over the province celebrate with lively festivals and events, starting with the Sunrise Festival in Inuvik in January and including the popular Snowking Festival in Yellowknife and the K’amba Carnival in Hay River hosted by the K’atl’odeeche First Nation, both in March.
The Northwest Territories are a destination like no other: a trip into the unknown, with vast open tundra, forests and mountains to explore, cascading waterfalls, rivers and shimmering lakes, and endless skies that dance after dark. With a smattering of towns perfect for refuelling and a little home comfort, your arctic adventure can be as adventurous as you make it.
Things to do
Popular Northwest Territories holiday ideas
Top tips for visiting Northwest Territories
Top Tip 1
• The dark winter nights are perfect for watching the spectacular Aurora Borealis dance across the sky. For a great view, stay in a snug log cabin or tipi in the backcountry where the display is brightest. Enjoy a day full of winter activities like skiing and ice fishing, a warming sauna and home-cooked meal, then sit back and enjoy the show.
Top Tip 2
• For eight months of the year, Great Slave Lake is frozen, creating a vast icy playground perfect for snowmobiling, skiing and snowshoeing. For an exhilarating new skill, take a lesson in kite-skiing and skim across the snowy surface – you’ll feel like you’re flying!
Top Tip 3
• Another unique experience is driving on the frozen lake. Drive the ice road from Yellowknife or across the Mackenzie Delta from Inuvik. It is a very different sensation and can take a little getting used to – with stopping distances of up to a quarter of a mile.
Top Tip 4
• While in the Northwest Territories, you must try dog sledding. Whether you learn to mush your own team or leave it to the professionals and enjoy the ride, the enthusiastic huskies will captivate you.
Top Tip 5
• If you are looking for the full northern adventure, you can complete your journey by catching a flight from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk – Canada’s furthest north community. And don’t forget to join tradition by dipping your toes in the freezing Arctic Ocean!
Top Tip 6
• The province has some of the most impressive waterfalls in the country, from the towering Virginia Falls in Nahinni National Park, which is twice the height of Niagara, to the dramatic Alexandra Falls near Hay River. A trail that leads to one of these offers a magical reward to its hikers.
Top Tip 7
• There are endless scenic trails in the province through widely different landscapes. Head to Fred Henne National Park just outside Yellowknife to see some of the oldest rock formations in the world on the Prospector’s Trail and enjoy a cooling swim from the sandy beach.
Top Tip 8
• For a real treat, take to the skies on a flightseeing tour and embrace the sheer scale of the vast plains, lakes, rivers and mountain ranges as you soar above herds of bison, thundering waterfalls or icy seas dotted with beluga whales.