North America

Canada’s Northwest Territories – Defining Adventure

Sombe K'e Park, City Hall, Yellowknife
Photo credit: Northwest Territories Tourism

One of three Canadian territories (the Yukon and Nunavut are the other two), the Northwest Territories is a vast wilderness of uncompromising nature. Stretching from the 60th parallel across the Arctic Circle and into the High Arctic, it takes in some of the world’s biggest and deepest lakes, the massive Mackenzie River, and treeless tundra that seemingly extend forever.

The Northwest Territories is a land of contrasts. It is 1.17 million square kilometres of mountains, forests and tundra interwoven with clean rivers feeding thousands of pristine lakes. Over 40,000 people live amid this rugged yet natural beauty.

And this is the land, of which you have heard so much about, where the world’s best northern lights dance during the dark winter months and where the sun never sets during the summer.

Wildlife viewing opportunities are legendary in the Northwest Territories. Canada’s Northwest Territories is the epitome of a natural balance of nature. You can view rare wildlife species, from white wolves to white whales, and see herds of bison, prowling bears, moose and caribou by the thousands.

Simply stated, the wild and striking beauty of Nahanni National Park has to be witnessed in person. You can canoe, hike, snowmobile and or ride a dog sled. Fort Simpson can provide a good base for exploring this region. Yellowknife, the capital of NWT, is the principal city in the the region and also offers an ideal get going point for countless activities in this rugged and wild land. And two sights not to be missed are two of the best attractions in the NWT – the long summer days of the Midnight Sun, and the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) that can be seen in the night sky from late August until January.

The Northwest Territories is one of three federal territories in Canada. The NWT entered the Canadian Confederation July 15, 1870, but the current borders were formed April 1, 1999, with the creation of Nunavut.

While neighbouring Nunavut is mostly Arctic tundra, the Northwest Territories has a slightly warmer climate and is mostly boreal forest (taiga), although about half of the territory is north of the tree line.

Geographical features include Great Bear Lake, the largest lake entirely within Canada, and Great Slave Lake, the deepest body of water in Canada at 614 m (2,014 ft), as well as the Mackenzie River and the canyons of the Nahanni National Park Reserve, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Northwest Territories reaches for over 1,300,000 km2 (500,000 square miles) so there is a large climate variant from south to north. The southern part of the territory (most of the mainland portion) has a subarctic climate while the islands and northern coast have a polar climate. Summers in the north are short and cool, with daytime highs in the mid-teens, and lows in the single digits. Winters are long and harsh, daytime highs are generally in the mid −20 °C (−4 °F) and lows are around −40 °C (−40 °F). Extremes are common with summer highs in the south reaching 36 °C (97 °F) and lows reaching into the negatives. In winter in the south it is not uncommon for the temperatures to reach −40 °C (−40 °F), but can also reach the low teens during the day. In the north temperatures can reach highs of 30 °C (86 °F), and lows can reach into the low negatives.

Getting Around

One of the best ways to get around the Northwest Territories is by car. This gives you unlimited freedom to choose your itinerary.

Set the Scene

Mackenzie Delta
Photo credit: Northwest Territories Tourism

Picture this … You are driving along the highway and look to your left and see a vast expanse of wilderness, maybe a picturesque sunset and even a herd of caribou going about their business. You look to the right and a black bear is peeping out from behind trees. With uninterrupted views of the wide open space and wildlife, you will be alert to all the new sights and sounds until you come across a sleepy little community that features a camping ground with small restaurant of home cooked delights and a welcoming atmosphere.

Reliable and cost effective, car rental companies will be able to advise you of the best routes to spot wildlife and the best routes to take you from waterfall to river to lake.

Another of the best ways to travel around the Northwest Territories is by plane. Many large and smaller airports abound. Yellowknife essentially began partially as a result of bush pilots, and float planes can land on the territories’ many lakes (they are known to land in Yellowknife Bay.


At the edge of the Arctic, in the heart of the wilderness, lies a city of youth, energy, adventure and prosperity. Yellowknife is a culturally rich capital thriving with diversity, and home to about 20,000 people. Located on the shores of beautiful Great Slave Lake, only 512 km south of the Arctic Circle, the city is known for outdoor recreation, the midnight sun, viewing the aurora borealis and an unusual blend of northern culture.

Yellowknife was first settled in 1935, after gold had been found in the area. The city soon became the centre of economic activity in the NWT, and became the capital of the Northwest Territories in 1967. As gold production began to wane, Yellowknife shifted from being a mining town to being a centre of government services in the 1980s. However, since the discovery of diamonds north of Yellowknife in 1991, this shift has begun to reverse.

The Territories: The Highlights

Inuvik Regional Visitor Centre
Photo credit: Northwest Territories Tourism

Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre: Yellowknife’s premier attraction lays out the entire natural and human history of the territory in a modern, inviting lakefront setting.

Yellowknife’s Old Town: Park your car and explore one of western Canada’s most eccentric neighborhoods on foot, taking time out for a meal at the utterly unique Wildcat Cafe.

There’s no such thing as twilight rates at the Yellowknife Golf Club, where it’s possible to tee off day and night in late June and early July.

A visit to the world’s second largest national park – Wood Buffalo National Park – requires time and patience, but you will be rewarded with the sight of the world’s largest free-roaming herd of bison.

Nahanni National Park: A day trip by floatplane is fine, but a guided trip down the South Nahanni River is what draws most visitors to this remote and mountainous park.

You won’t want to miss “Tuk,” a tiny village perched on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, but accessible during a day trip from Inuvik.

With approximately 240 potential Aurora viewing nights in the year, the Northwest Territories is the best place in the world to see these dazzling lights. One option is to dogsled, snowmobile, or drive to the beautiful lake-front town of Aurora Village and experience the power and wonder of the Aurora.

The Territories is made up of countless lakes and waterways. It’s an ideal spot to drop a lure and wait for the trophy-sized fish to bite. Spend an afternoon wrestling a sly Northern pike or reeling in a 40 lb. trout. Experienced (and entertaining) guides from Yellowknife will provide unforgettable experiences.

For a rush of adrenaline you can explore the pristine northern landscape on a dogsled. In Yellowknife or Inuvik, you can book a tour.

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