The Northwest Territories (NWT) is a vast wilderness area that is a part of Northern Canada. Summer in the NWT offers open water, camping, hot weather and the midnight sun. Autumn offers vivid colours in the mountains and bountiful berry-picking in the Barrenlands, and excellent opportunities to see the Aurora Borealis. Winter is an even better time to see the Northern Lights when the sky is clear and the nights are long. Springtime is ideal for snowmobiling, dogsledding, ice-fishing, and skiing.
The Northwest Territories is divided into five regions, which roughly correspond to the territories of the original native inhabitants:
- South Slave (South of Great Slave Lake). The main community in this region is Fort Smith.
- North Slave (North of Great Slave Lake). The main community in this region is the capital, Yellowknife.
- Deh Cho. The main communities in this region are Hay River and Fort Simpson.
- Sahtu. The main community in this region is Norman Wells.
- Beaufort Delta/Arctic Coast, which can be further broken down into the Gwich'in and Inuvialuit settlement areas. The main community in this region is Inuvik.
- 1 Yellowknife — the territory's capital and largest settlement, with several scenic walking trails, and the territorial museum
- 2 Hay River — a destination for ice fishing and sport fishing
- 3 Inuvik — the most populous town in the Canadian Arctic, almost 200 km north of the Arctic Circle, at the inland end of the Mackenzie Delta and the northern end of the Dempster Highway
- 4 Tuktoyaktuk — an Inuvialuit village, the only village on the Arctic Ocean connected by road to the rest of the country
- 5 Enterprise — an important stopover on the road from Alberta to Yellowknife, Hay River, and other NWT settlements
- 6 Fort Smith — the gateway for visitors to the Wood Buffalo National Park
- 7 Délı̨nę - Erected in 1825 by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) as Fort Franklin, the staging area and winter quarters for Sir John Franklin's second Arctic expedition of 1825–1827. Sir John Franklin's diary records that his men played ice sports very similar to what we now call hockey. As such, the modern-day town promotes itself as one of the birthplaces of the sport of ice hockey.
- 1 Aulavik National Park — on Banks Island, accessible only by chartered plane, it is known for the Thomsen River, one of the most northerly navigable rivers in North America
- 2 Nahanni National Park Reserve — UNESCO World Heritage site; the South Nahanni River, one of the most spectacular wild rivers in North America, also accessed by chartered plane
- 3 Naats'ihch'oh National Park Reserve — intended to protect the South Nahanni River watershed, it has no services, and is accessible only by chartered float plane
- 4 Thaidene Nene National Park Reserve — lakes, rivers and waterfalls, a striking archipelago of islands, peninsulas, landscape formations shaped by ancient ice sheets, dramatic red granite cliffs; it has no services, and is accessible from Łutselk'e which has scheduled flights from Yellowknife
- 5 Tuktut Nogait National Park — 170 km north of the Arctic Circle in the northeast corner of mainland Northwest Territories; scheduled flights from Inuvik
- 6 Four Corners (Canada) — where the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and the territories of Northwest Territories and Nunavut meet, hundreds of kilometres from any road or railway
Although the name is plural, NWT is a single sub-national jurisdiction within Canada.
About 37% of its 42,000 residents (2016) are First Nations indigenous people, 10% are Inuit (formerly known as Eskimo), and 7% are Métis.
Its terrain includes boreal forest (taiga) and tundra, and its most northern regions form part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
The Northwest Territories was created to encompass all of the Canadian territories to the west and north of Ontario (hence the name ‘Northwest’ Territories).
All of the land which drained into Hudson's Bay once belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company as "Rupert's Land". That land later became part of NWT, which covered a vast area. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, NWT lands were transferred to provinces, or separated to create the Prairie provinces. For instance, all of Lloydminster used to be part of NWT; it was divided on longitude 110°W upon the creation of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
For a century, the name was a bit of a misnomer, as the Northwest Territories contained the Arctic Archipelago, which extended far east. The Yukon Territory was carved out of NWT in 1898. The primarily-native Nunavut Territory seceded in 1999.
To some, the name remains a misnomer as NWT is just one of the three Canadian territories, and it is only "northwest" relative to some other jurisdiction – presumably Ottawa or Ontario. A singular name "Northwest Territory" is avoided due to its historic use for an "Old Northwest" that became U.S. states Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota. Some advocate native-language names for the territory but there has been no clear consensus.
From Alberta, Highway 16 leaves from Edmonton to connect to 43 which heads north towards NWT, where NWT Highways 1 and 3 will take you to Yellowknife. The journey is about 1,450 km (900 mi), and there are long distances between gas (petrol) stations. Do your research, and be prepared.
There are no passenger railways in NWT.
One of the best ways to get around the Northwest Territories is by car. This gives you unlimited freedom to choose your own itinerary.
Picture the scene - you're driving down the highway and you look to your left, you see a vast expanse of wilderness, maybe a picturesque sunset and even a herd of caribou (reindeer) 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 offers a camping ground with a small restaurant of home cooked delights and a welcoming atmosphere.
Car hire is a good resource to make the most of in the Northwest Territories. Reliable and cost effective, car hire 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, due to the airports dotting the landscape, as well as the lack of roads and rails throughout many parts of the Northwest Territories. (Indeed, passenger rail service has yet to be extended to the Territories.) Yellowknife essentially began partially through the efforts of bush pilots, and float planes can presumably land on the territories' many lakes (they are known to land in Yellowknife Bay). Airline service can be had to Yellowknife, Fort Good Hope, Fort Liard, Fort Simpson, Fort Smith, Hay River, Inuvik, Norman Wells, and other communities, and bush pilots presumably reach further.
You must see the Aurora Borealis (northern lights). They are best seen in wintertime, when the nights are long. They cannot be seen at all during the short "white nights" around the summer solstice. Tour companies in Yellowknife offer snowmobile, sled dog expeditions, photography workshops and tractor rides to see the lights from places outside of town.
Great Slave Lake, on the shore of which sits the town of Hay River, is the deepest lake in North America at 614 m.
The Igloo Church is Inuvik's best-known building. It was built in 1960 with a distinctive dome and exterior painted to look like an igloo.
The Pingos near Tuktoyaktuk are domes of earth-covered ice found only in the high Arctic.
The Northern Life Museum in Fort Smith exhibits traditional work of the Inuit, Inuvialuit, Dene and Metis. It displays include an authentic northern trading post, a typical northern kitchen from the 1940s, and, a traditional trapper's cabin, a 1965 Polaris Sno-Traveler, and a river bank scene featuring a birch bark canoe. The museum also hosts an outdoor Aboriginal cultural centre that showcases Canada's First Peoples' ways of traditional living before European contact occurred in the early 1800s.
The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife houses the territorial museum and archives.
Within 40 km of Enterprise, you can hike to three sets of waterfalls. In summer, you can see pelicans and endangered whooping cranes nesting near Fort Smith.
Hike or paddle the NWT sections of the Trans Canada Trail.
Yellowknife hosts many festivals year-round, including the Snowking Festival, Long John Jamboree, and the dog sled races in winter, and in the summer, the Summer Solstice Festival, Raven Mad Daze (and 24-hour golf tournament), and Folk on the Rocks, a popular music festival.
Inuvik hosts a Sunrise Festival in January combining native traditions with modern ones. And its Great Northern Arts Festival in the middle of July draws artists come from across the north, other parts of Canada, and Alaska. The Beluga Jamboree in Tuktoyaktuk in April is a large cultural festival full of games, food, and a Jamboree King and Queen competition
Tours are available from Hay River for summer and ice fishing on Great Slave Lake for whitefish, lake trout, and perch. There are also several fly-in lodges that take you fishing in almost untouched wilderness. From Tuktoyaktuk, local guides will take you hunting for caribou, polar bear, beluga whale, fox, and wolverines. (The polar bear populations are strictly controlled through selective hunting to ensure sustainability.)
In winter, you can take dogsledding trips from Yellowknife and other towns.
You can hike to three waterfalls in the region around Enterprise.
Local Inuit handicraft (stone carving, fur mittens). NWT is locally famous for its diamond mining. Purchasing diamonds here will ensure that they are not conflict diamonds mined in conflict regions where the profits are used to war activities.
Northern fish from the Great Bear and Great Slave Lakes includes Northern Pike, Pickerel, Grayling fresh, and Lake Trout. Arctic Char is a specialty of the northern coast.
Muskox are moose steak are specialties, sometimes flavoured with spruce buds, or with locally sourced morels.
If you're brave, look for maktak (beluga whale), reindeer, dry fish or muskrat, which are considered delicacies.
Bannock, a popular tea biscuit, is widely available, often made with delicious local berries and baked over a wood fire.
Yellowknife is really the only place you'll find nightlife of the bars-and-pubs variety, although other settlements may have a bar or two.
Some communities have banned all alcohol while a few others have restrictions on importing and possessing alcohol. Check to see if you are allowed to bring alcohol into the community.
- See also: Winter in North America
There is no 9-1-1 emergency number in most communities in the Canadian high Arctic. Use the seven-digit local numbers for the individual services in each community to summon help in an emergency.
In winter, temperature can get down to -40 °C/F without the winds. The articles cold weather, winter driving and dangerous animals all have advice which will be relevant to many travellers in the Arctic.