Editor’s Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
The Northwest Territories is a wilderness paradise, with scores of scenic trails that range from paved semi-urban paths to bushwhacking adventures in the great Northern backcountry. Here are 11 of the innumerable trails through the wild and wonderful Northwest Territories.
Nahanni National Park Reserve is synonymous with paddling, but its alpine and backcountry trail network is next level. The trek to the summit of 1,450-metre-high Sunblood Peak, rising above legendary Virignia Falls, is perhaps the park’s most famous excursion. It’s a 16-kilometre round-trip climb, beginning directly across the river from the Virginia Falls campground, leading northeast through a mature spruce forest and then continuing up an open screen ridge toward the summit.
Erupting from the pancake-flat tundra just outside the community of Tuktoyaktuk, this bulbous, ice-filled mound is the second-largest “pingo” on Earth. Called Ibyuk, it’s 1,000 feet wide at its base and rises to the height of a 15-storey building. A short trail winds to a scenic lookout of this Western Arctic marvel.
THE CANOL TRAIL
There’s wilderness trails, and then there’s the Canol. Possibly North America’s most rigorous backpacking trail, this 355-kilometre trek follows a defunct military road that once transected the Mackenzie Mountains. It is an exercise in self-sufficiency and endurance, requiring three weeks to make it to Norman Wells, while carrying food, survival gear and an inflatable raft to cross numerous swift, glacier-fed rivers.
THE SALT FLATS
What in the world? Just west of Fort Smith in Wood Buffalo National Park lies a shimmering, pearly desert, stretching to the far horizon. A quick downhill trail leads to the utterly otherworldly Salt Plains, where saline minerals leach from an ancient seabed, turning the world white and crystalline. The tracks of various critters (bison, lynx, even rare whooping cranes) that use the area as a salt lick are common sights in the crusty salt flats and under briny pools.
FRAME LAKE TRAIL
Forming a seven-kilometre loop around the shores of Frame Lake in the heart of Yellowknife, the city’s favourite walking trail has a little of everything. The eastern half of the loop is a paved, sedate urban path, that winds around architectural marvels such as the territorial Legislative Assembly, City Hall and the famous Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. The western half of the trail, however, is a taste of Northern backcountry, ascending rocky outcrops, crossing black-spruce swampland (via convenient wooden boardwalks) and rife with local wildlife, including waterfowl, muskrats and foxes.
THE FAIRY MEADOWS
What’s even better than the sky-scraping spires of the Cirque of the Unclimbables? The Fairy Meadows – the flat, lush paradise at the heart of this cathedral of peaks. This green oasis is where big-wall alpinists prepare for their dizzying ascents. But even without the climb, there is enough to stay busy wandering the trails, basking among the alpine wildflowers, gawking at the hawks and marmots, and lounging in the shadow of the gobsmacking summits.
THE TWIN FALLS GORGE TRAIL
Following the rim of the gorgeous Hay River canyon, the easy Twin Falls Gorge trail begins at the community of Enterprise and leads south for eight kilometres through luxuriant boreal forest. The trail features interpretive signage, great views of the yawning limestone chasm, and the marvels of Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park, which include Louise Falls and mammoth Alexandra Falls, where the trail terminates.
The epic Ram Plateau in Nahanni National Park Reserve is a reminder that in the Northwest Territories, nature rules. The plateau is an enormous table of dolomite, ringed by the Mackenzie Mountains and slashed by plunging canyons. On this dramatic mesa, life abounds: Dall’s sheep, bears, mountain caribou, birds of prey, and a gazillion alpine wildflowers.
THE PORTAGE AROUND VIRGINIA FALLS
This isn’t a long trail (just two kilometres) or a difficult trail (boardwalk, downhill). But hoo boy, it sure is a beautiful trail. The portage path starts safely upstream of Virginia Falls, the pièce de résistance of Nahanni National Park Reserve. It features the heart-pounding views of Sluice Box Rapids, where the Nahanni accelerates into a raging torrent. Next up is Mason’s Rock, the great stone sentinel that slices the river in two. Then, it winds to a lookout at the altar of Virginia Falls itself, where acres of water freefall for 30 storeys, detonating at the bottom with terrifying force. The trail ends at the cobble beach below the falls – perfect for picnicking or for launching a canoe downstream, where plenty more beauty awaits.
THE RIM OF SAMBAA DEH CANYON
A stunning attraction on the drive from Fort Providence to Fort Simpson, the Sambaa Deh Gorge gapes where the Trout River slices through thick spruce woodlands not far from the community of Jean Marie River. The river surges through a limestone slot and hurtles over a precipitous drop right under the highway bridge – but there’s plenty more along the network of trails that trace the canyon rim. Upstream about 1.5 kilometres is idyllic Coral Falls, named for the numerous coral fossils in the area. Downstream, meanwhile, the path descends to the water, where Arctic Grayling and Pickerel feed in pristine pools.
In classic Northern shield-country, a 45 kilometre drive east of Yellowknife, the Cameron Falls Trail twists through evergreen forests, across boardwalks and over undulating outcrops. Twenty minutes later, the path opens to a lookout facing the waterfall, where the Cameron River tumbles 17 metres down a slanting stone face. The trail continues upstream, where a bridge permits access to the far side, with excellent picnicking, fishing and (on hot days!) swimming at the base of the falls.