Big nature? Canada’s Northwest Territories is pretty much the definition of it. In fact, some say the NWT captures the entirety of Canada in one place: Arctic tundra, igloos, bears, beavers, moose, lakes, and canoes. Exploring this wonderfully wild landscape is most authentic on foot. Try one of many scenic trail options in the communities of Inuvik, Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Hay River, Norman Wells, or Fort Simpson. Hire a guide to take you into the pristine backcountry by helicopter or bush plane, and start your adventure from there, or strike out on your own — but be sure you’re fully prepared for the wilderness. Here are the five of the best, most accessible hiking trails to explore.
South Loop: Wood Buffalo National Park
Wildlife is the reason to explore Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site straddling southern NWT and Alberta. It is the largest park in North America at 17,300 square miles — that’s bigger than Switzerland — and second largest on the planet. You can see herds of 5,000 free-roaming bison, the only wild nesting area for endangered whooping cranes, the planet’s biggest beaver dam, plus a massive fresh-water delta and otherworldly Salt Plains, a stretch of stalagmite-like mineral deposits dating back 380 million years. Check in at the park HQ, a former trading post at Fort Smith off Highway 5, to find out about trail conditions. Walk the 5.6-mile South Loop along the Salt River, passing salt flats and unusual mineral formations, then tour the sites. If you can, stay late and camp under the starry sky watching for the aurora borealis — the park is the world’s largest dark sky preserve.
Virginia Falls: Nahanni National Park Reserve
An internationally renowned whitewater wilderness paddling destination, remote Nahanni National Park Reserve is also superb trekking country. Plus, it's a National Geographic 2014 Best Trip and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park supports three ecozones, plus sulfur hot springs, tundra, waterfalls, 4,000-foot-deep canyons, ice fields, fascinating geology, and the famed Nahanni River. You can access the park, west of Yellowknife in the Mackenzie Mountains, via car or floatplane.A top option to see it all is to take a Parks Canada guided tour of the easygoing 30-minute hike to the view of 295-foot Virginia Falls. A second option is a one-hour trail walk around the falls, but you’ll want a raincoat to protect you from the thundering mist! Vistas are sweeping and wildlife sightings abundant. Expect to see Dall’s sheep, caribou, black bears, trumpeter swans, and, if you’re lucky, a wolf.
Lady Evelyn Falls: Near Fort Providence Territorial Park
In Fort Providence Territorial Park, you can walk along the mighty Mackenzie River, Canada’s longest at 1,080 miles, or take a day hike to one of a series of beautiful cascades along the Waterfall Route. Three top hikes in the area are the trail between the base of Lady Evelyn Falls and the Kakisa day use area, the trail connecting Sambaa Deh Territorial Park with the fossil-filled Coral Falls, and the easy Twin Gorge Falls Territorial Park waterfall route that starts at Alexandra Falls and continues two miles on a boardwalk through the forest to Louise Falls. Highlights on the Twin George Falls Territorial Park hike are a spiral stairwell and dramatic Hay River canyon views. Don’t miss the nearby Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary wildlife reserve off Highway 3, home to 3,000 bison inhabiting 6,214 square miles, which started as a herd of 18 rescued animals back in the 60s.
Ingraham Trail: Yellowknife
The 43-mile Ingraham Trail is a gem. Passing through several territorial parks, it goes from from Yellowknife to remote Tibbitt Lake, the start of wintertime ice roads leading to some of NWT’s famed diamond mines. The partially paved route reveals aquamarine lakes, picture-perfect fishing holes, rocky outcroppings, and a pink granite dome you can summit. Tackle the whole 19-hour trek, if you are up to the challenge, or rent a boat and try your hand at angling for pike and trout after a short walk through the forests. A popular short hike is the Cameron Falls Trail portion of the trail in scenic Hidden Lake Territorial Park, just east of Yellowknife. A 40-minute gravel-and-dirt out-and-back, it crosses the Cameron River suspension bridge, overlooking the rushing falls.
Canol Heritage Trail: Norman Wells
If you’re up to the challenge, tackle one of the toughest hikes in all of Canada: The legendary Canol Heritage Trail. It takes about three weeks to cover this abandoned 221-mile WWI oil transport road from Norman Wells through the Mackenzie Mountains, tundra, and grasslands to the Yukon. For the intrepid and self-sufficient only, the trail is difficult, requires several river crossings and adept wilderness survival skills, and is accessible only from mid-July to early September. The payoffs, of course, are huge. It’s raw and remote and gorgeous — just like the NWT itself.
Find more adventures at the Northwest Territories Tourism website.