Updated: January 18, 2021
With more than one million square kilometres of land area and a population of less than 50,000, the Northwest Territories are about as wild as it gets. It’s certainly not an easy area to visit (many places are fly-in, many roads are gravel, and distances are vast) but for those who make the effort, there are some incredible places to see and things to do in Northwest Territories.
Whether you’re looking to drive Canada’s only highway to the arctic ocean, fly over the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, sleep at a secluded fishing lodge, admire the Northern Lights, or visit some charming northern towns like Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, the Northwest Territories is an adventurer’s paradise.
We also learned many new things, including:
- Nahanni National Park (and L’Anse aux Meadows) was the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- The new highway to Tuktoyaktuk is the first Canadian highway to reach the Arctic Ocean.
- Virginia Falls in Nahanni National Park is almost twice the height of Niagara Falls.
- NWT is home to two of the largest freshwater lakes (Great Slave Lake and Great Bear) and river systems (Mackenzie River) in North America.
- North of the Arctic Circle, the “Midnight Sun” arrives in May and doesn’t depart until the end of July. Cool, eh!?
Getting to the Northwest Territories
Although the Northwest Territories is part of Canada’s far north, there are a number of highways linking it up with the Yukon, British Columbia, and Alberta. The main options for getting there would be to drive or to fly.
However, due to the immense wilderness and isolation of the territory, some parts are divided. For example, if you’d like to drive from Yellowknife to Tuktoyaktuk, you’d have to drive through Northern BC and the Yukon, taking approximately 48 hours of drive time to get there!
Getting to the Northwest Territories by Car
If you’d like to take a road trip or get into some real adventure in the NWT, you’ll need your own car. In fact, you’d be better off with an SUV or a truck. The highway you take to the Northwest Territories will depend on where you’re coming from or where you want to go. For example, the distance between Edmonton and Yellowknife is 1,452 kilometres.
It’s a pretty straightforward drive, as you’d take highway 88 and 35 north for about 16 hours. You’ll pass numerous towns on the way, but when it comes to the NWT, you’ll want to be a little more cautious about drive times, as gas stations are more spread out than they are in Canada’s south.
If you’d like to drive to Canada’s arctic ocean, you’ll have to go through the Yukon, taking the Dempster Highway from Dawson City up to Inuvik. From there, you’d then drive another two hours north to Tukotyaktuk. If you’re hoping to explore both regions, expect to be in the vehicle for long periods of time.
Getting to the Northwest Territories by Plane
For maximum efficiency, you’ll want to take flights to the Northwest Territories. Car rentals are possible, so you could always rent a car and explore it from your home base. Most people visit Yellowknife, the territory’s capital city, or Inuvik, which is much farther north and only hours from Tuktoyaktuk and the arctic ocean.
However, since the area is home to many isolated communities and mines, there are a vast number of tiny airports in the Northwest Territories. Flights are limited, so you really want to know where you’re going. For example, if your objective is to simply explore Nahanni National Park Reserve, you’d want to fly into Fort Simpson and take a sightseeing tour from there.
Popular airports include:
- Yellowknife Airport (YZF)
- Inuvik Mike Zubko (YEV)
- Hay River Merlyn Carter Airport (YHY)
- Fort Simpson Airport (YFS)
Best Time to Visit the Northwest Territories
Unless you’re planning to do something specific in the wintertime like drive the ice road or admire the Aurora Borealis, the best time to visit the Northwest Territories would be in the summer, late spring, or early fall.
Considering its location in Canada, the Northwest Territories is home to some extreme weather and very cold winters. For road trips, you would really want to travel in the summer months when highways are in their best condition. Also, popular activities like watersports, fishing, hunting, and camping, are all done in the warmer months.
However, like most of Canada, the NWT is home to some awesome winter activities as well, such as dog sledding, snowmobiling, ice fishing, northern lights viewing, and more. Therefore, your time of visit should depend on what you’re hoping to accomplish.
If you do visit during the winter months, make sure you check out our article about what to wear during the winter in Canada.
Road to 150 – Northwest Territories Episode
Back in 2017, we produced a travel series called the Road to 150. Celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday, we drove across the country for 150 days, visiting each and every province and territory to experience the best things to do.
The Northwest Territories was our 9th stop during the trip, arriving via Alberta and spending approximately two weeks exploring places like Yellowknife, Nahanni National Park, Inuvik, and Tuktoyaktuk. It’s the only territory that had its time divided because we had to drive through the Yukon to get to the upper half of it.
During our time there, we visited many beautiful waterfalls, took a floatplane to a secluded lodge nestled between two lakes, learned about the First Nations Peoples at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, took a spectacular trip over Nahanni National Park Reserve, and drove all the way up to Tuktoyaktuk where we jumped into the Arctic Ocean.
We also toured Inuvik, took a boat tour through the narrow channels of the Mackenzie Delta, and saw heaps of wildlife, including beavers, bears and bison. We packed a lot of adventures into our short visit and can’t wait to return one day and explore the territory further.
Best Places to Visit in Northwest Territories
The Northwest Territories are far more spread out than other provinces in Canada and so unless you’re planning on doing an extensive road trip, you’ll need to better plan what you want to do and where you’re going. To help you decide, we’ll list out some of the best things to do in the Northwest Territories below, divided into the most popular regions.
Perhaps the most popular destination is the capital city of Yellowknife. Here you’ll find a variety of accommodation, shops, and amenities, as well as floatplanes ready to take you where you need to go. There’s a lot of cool modern architecture to check out and amazing views from Bush Pilot’s Monument. Yellowknife is also the perfect base for a night tour to experience the Aurora Borealis.
Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre
Thanks to its exhibits and artifacts dedicated to the cultures and history of the NWT, the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre has become the top attraction in Yellowknife. The museum displays and preserves important documents, photos, sound recordings, artifacts, and other materials related to the history of this vast northern region.
You’ll learn about the minerals that are mined all around the territory as well as explore the culture of the Dene First Nations people and the pervasive influence of the fur trade. If you’re interested in learning about the place you’re exploring, make this a priority when visiting Yellowknife.
Cameron Falls Trail
Located approximately 50-kilometres east of Yellowknife is the popular Cameron Falls Trail. Part of the reason it’s popular is its beauty and because it’s an easy trail. It’s only a 20-minute walk and is impressive to see in both summer and in the winter. However, if you’re looking for more adventure, there are longer hikes as well, such as the trail to the Cameron River Ramparts Waterfalls, which are about 9-kilometres from Cameron Falls.
Yellowknife and the surrounding area are one of those places that are best seen from above. Luckily, there are a number of operators offering flightseeing tours in floatplanes, and this makes for an excellent way to see the beauty of the area and get some incredible photos.
However, there’s another reason floatplanes are so popular in this area. Aside from flightseeing tours, they also take people to remote lodges for isolated fishing and hunting opportunities.
Old Town Yellowknife
Yellowknife is somewhat divided into a new town and an old town. As you may have guessed, the old town is where all the history is. With the discovery of gold in 1934 and Yellowknife’s first gold rush the following year, eager miners built their camps on the shores of Great Slave Lake.
These days, you’ll find some of those old heritage buildings in Old Town Yellowknife, as well as the popular Ragged Ass Road where you’ll find a good view of the city from “the Rock”, which is also known as Bush Pilot’s Monument.
Yellow Dog Lodge
Words can barely describe how awesome our stay was at Yellow Dog Lodge. It’s a beautiful Northwest Territories hotel, nestled between two secluded lakes, just a 15-minute flight from Yellowknife. When we were there, it was just us and the incredible staff.
They brought us around both lakes by boat, helped us catch lake trout and northern pike, made campfires for us on secluded islands, prepared a hot tub heated by wood fire, and cooked us delicious meals three times per day. As if that’s not perfect enough, there’s also a floating raft that you can spend a night on.
They parked it in a secluded bay and we were surrounded by complete silence. The only thing we could hear was our echo bouncing off the thick forest all around us. We made a wood fire on the barge and woke up to an eagle flying overhead. Simply incredible.
Alternatively, you could take a special week-long kayak trip, to see the sites and experience the Yellowstone area to the fullest.
Where to Eat?
Bullocks’ Bistro: If a restaurant can also be an attraction, this is it. We came in expecting fish n’ chips and left with a full tummy of grilled Arctic Char, fried halibut, curry seafood chowder, and caribou! It was incredibly delicious and the place has so much character. This is the most famous restaurant in Yellowknife and a must-visit when you’re here. Look for our Must Do Canada business card on the wall.
Things To Do In Hay River
Hay River, NWT is not a typical town for most tourists visiting the NWT but it’s just a 30-minute drive from Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park, which is home to two of the best waterfalls in the Northwest Territories. It’s also a great place to rest if you’re on the way to Yellowknife or Fort Simpson and is the first town you’ll see if you’re entering from Alberta.
Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park
Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park is home to both Alexandra Falls and Louise Falls, two of the most popular and spectacular waterfalls in the Northwest Territories. Both are incredible to see and you can get super close to Alexandra Falls if you’re looking for that classic adventure photograph.
Camping is also permitted in the park and you’ll also find the 8-kilometre Twin Falls Gorge Trail that follows the canyon rim through the forest for more stunning views. You can hike the trail yourself, or sign up for an interpretive walk with a local Dene storyteller and tour guide.
Did you know that Hay River is home to the largest shipping centre in the north? That’s right. The town resembles a seaport in many ways as it’s home to tugs, barges and commercial fishing operations. However, if you’re in Hay River on a Saturday, another popular thing to do is visit Fisherman’s Wharf for their outdoor market. This is a great chance to buy some fresh-caught fish, produce, baked goods, and local arts and crafts.
Visit the Beach
Spending time on a beach is probably the last thing you imagined while visiting Canada’s Northwest Territories but Hay River actually has the best beach in the north with miles of sand dunes stretching out along massive Great Slave Lake. On a hot summer day, it’s a great place to spend the day and is also a good spot for camping.
Where to Stay?
Ptarmigan Inn: This is the best place to stay in the town. It’s clean, comfortable, and has a variety of amenities, including a restaurant, pub, bank, a real full-size fitness centre, and a place to get a haircut. They also have a really massive and delicious breakfast that we truly looked forward to each and every morning. Highly recommended!
Things To Do Around Fort Simpson
Known as the base for exploring Nahanni National Park, that’s what most tourists come here for. However, there’s more than just the park, so we’ll give you some ideas of what to do below.
Nahanni National Park
This renowned park absolutely blew us away. In fact, the beauty and vastness of the park is hard to describe in words. Some describe Nahanni National Park as a combination of Jasper National Park, Banff National Park, the Columbia Icefields, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, the Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls all in one.
Sounds pretty incredible, eh? It’s not quite as large as the huge Wood Buffalo National Park, but it remains absolutely mind-blowing. If you’d like to visit, the best way to do so is with Simpson Air, which we’ll talk about below.
There are basically two ways to see the park and Nahanni River. You can take a multi-week, very expensive canoe trip or you can take a 5-hour+ scenic flight tour with Simpson Air. We were so blown away by the beauty we witnessed from the air, and the owner, Ted, was a great person to guide us around.
After all, he’s been doing this for over 30 years! He’s full of stories and he’s incredibly passionate about what he does. This is an outstanding park and quite possibly the most diverse park in Canada. Add this to your Canadian bucket list for sure!
Fort Simpson Territorial Park
Located in the community of Fort Simpson at the confluence of the Mackenzie river and Liard river, this park is within walking distance to town and its amenities. It’s a popular spot for bird-watching and listening to the sounds of northern frogs.
Many different species of birds have been found here and it’s also popular with migratory waterfowl such as tundra swans and snow geese. It also links up with some of the historical sites in the area, is home to a golf course and is a good spot for camping.
Built back in 1936, this one-and-a-half storey squared-log dwelling is an excellent example of Metis architecture and is located at the southern edge of the original Hudson’s Bay Company compound and is an icon of the fur-trade heritage of the community.
Ehdaa Historical Site
This National Historic Site of Canada, which is located at the southwestern end of Fort Simpson Island, is a traditional Dene meeting place. Here they would allocate land use, arrange marriages, resolve disputes, hold puberty rites, undertake ceremonies of healing and thanksgiving, and trade goods and knowledge. The site remains important to the local Liidlii Kue Dene and contains facilities built for the 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II.
Where to Stay?
Janor Guest House: This lovely guesthouse might be one of the best we’ve stayed in. The rooms were very comfortable, the place was super clean, and everything was so well organized.
Basically, you make your own breakfast but everything is provided. They provided eggs, bread, cereal, yogurt, coffee, and more. The owners are friendly and the WiFi is good.
Alternatively, the Bannockland Inn is another great option.
Inuvik Northwest Territories Tourist Attractions
Located at the end of the Dempster Highway, Inuvik is a regional hub for the Arctic region of NWT. Here you’ll find a vibrant mix of Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and non-Native residents, all gathered in a town near the beautiful Mackenzie mountains.
Western Arctic Visitor Centre
Our short tour here provided us with so much history and knowledge about the area. The staff were so friendly and proud to share their culture with us. There’s a variety of exhibits about art, flora and fauna, neighbouring communities and wildlife. You can also pick up your official Arctic Circle Adventurer Certificate here, making it a great place to stop before exploring further.
Quite possibly one of the North’s most photographed structures, the Our Lady of Victory Church is a bleach-white cylinder capped by a silvery dome, imitating the Inuvialuit snow-houses of old. It’s quite small but when inside, you’ll find paintings by local artist Mona Thrasher. This is one of the most popular attractions in Inuvik. I mean, where else can you find an igloo church!
One thing we didn’t expect to see in Inuvik was a greenhouse, especially the largest of its kind in the world with over 16,000 square feet of space in an old hockey arena. Scheduled tours are available from June-September and we loved learning about how and why it got started and how it’s helping the community. It made us want to start our own greenhouse one day.
Midnight Sun Mosque
First an igloo church, and now a mosque? That’s right, Inuvik is home to the world’s northernmost mosque. Also known as the Little Mosque on the Tundra, it was built in Winnipeg before setting off on its 4,000-km journey to Inuvik in 2010. Travelling on both road and river, the building made it into town safe and sound, settling in its permanent location on Wolverine Road.
Explore the Mackenzie Delta
Considering Inuvik’s location alongside the magnificent Mackenzie Delta, there’s no better way to experience the natural beauty of the area than a boat tour (or flight-seeing tour) around these narrow waterways.
We took a tour with Tundra North Tours, taking us out on his boat for some fishing. Along the way, we saw beavers making a dam and a flock of arctic swans frolicking in a nearby lake. It’s one of the most beautiful drone shots we got for our Road to 150 videos (see near the top of this article). During our boat ride back to town, we had a big bald eagle show up and lead the way. Beautiful.
Want more? Check out our full guide to things to do in Inuvik!
Where to Eat?
Alistine’s Restaurant: If you only visit one restaurant in Inuvik, make it this one. It’s such a fun-looking restaurant with the kitchen inside an old school bus. There’s also a rooftop patio for sunny days. We actually came here twice as we couldn’t get enough of the delicious fish tacos!
Where to Stay?
MacKenzie Delta Hotel: This was one of the best hotels we stayed at during our trip and a breath of fresh air after a long drive on the Dempster Highway. We had huge spacious rooms, great WiFi, and even a sink, fridge, and microwave. The hotel is beautiful and there’s also a popular restaurant and pub on-site. It’s also located in the heart of town, right across from the Igloo Church.
Tuktoyaktuk Northwest Territories Activities
Located right on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, Tuktoyaktuk is almost as far North as it gets. Once accessible only by plane, boat, and ice road, the new Mackenzie Valley Highway now offers Canada’s only road to the Arctic!
We were granted special permission to drive the new highway before it was open but due to weather, we had to drive up and down on the same day, giving us only 3-4 hours in the small hamlet. Luckily, we took a tour with a local elder, which gave us some good insight into the culture and of course, we jumped in the Arctic Ocean! As of late 2017, the road is now open to the public, making it one of Canada’s great adventures and a fantastic Northwest Territories road trip.
Admire the Pingo Canadian Landmark
In terms of natural attractions, our favourite thing about Tuktoyaktuk was the Pingos! Approximately 1350 pingos (ice-cored hills) dot the coastline around Tuktoyaktuk, with the largest one standing a whopping 16-stories high!
The Pingo Canadian Landmark is a natural area protecting eight of these pingos, all of which are remarkable to see. For many centuries, pingos were used as navigation points for the Inuvialuit people. What’s a pingo you ask? Good question. Pingos originate in drained lakes where the groundwater seeps below the frozen surface, forcing it upwards. Some are growing at a rate of two centimetres per year!
There’s one pingo in town you can hike up for views of Tuk, but there are also tours available from the community, including the chance to see the interior of a pingo, which has been hollowed out into storage lockers for frozen game through the summer.
Jump in the Arctic Ocean!
You can’t come all the way to Tuktoyaktuk and not take an arctic dip! Before you do, however, please note that this area is home to polar bears and it might be wise to ask some locals first, just to make sure there are none in the area.
We did the dip twice. First, we found a place where the water is about 4 feet deep just offshore, allowing us to do a quick dip right away. Another time, we found a beach that starts at just a couple of inches of depth. This is more for people looking to dip their toes, although you could continue walking out until it gets deeper.
The Tuktoyaktuk Sign
It’s not often we recommend getting a photo with the town’s welcome sign, but Tuktoyaktuk is just too unique of a place not to do so. It makes for a great photo opportunity to share with your friends.
Joanne’s Taxi and Tours
Not only does Joanne run a taxi business but they also offer local tours around the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk. It’s a great way to learn about the area, try some local food, climb a pingo, and step into the Arctic Ocean. They were so friendly and we can’t wait to return and learn more from them.
Want more? Check out our full guide to things to do in Tuktoyaktuk!
Exploring the Fun Things to do in Northwest Territories
We were so excited to explore this off-the-beaten-path territory and it did not disappoint! We got to fly to a beautiful lodge on a secluded lake, stand next to amazing waterfalls, drive to the Western Canadian Arctic, and fly over one of the most beautiful national parks in the world. There’s just so much WILDerness to see in the NWT and we can’t wait to return one day and explore further.
For more things to do in the area, check out the following articles…
- Things to Do in the Yukon
- Sailing with Adventure Canada to Nunavut
- Things to Do in British Columbia
- Things to Do in Alberta
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