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.
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 multiple Canadian territories and 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, the two most favoured options seemingly being to leave the existing name intact or rename the territory to "Bob".
From Alberta, Highway 16 leaves from Edmonton to connect to 44 which heads north towards NWT, where NWT Highways 1 and 3 will take you to Yellowknife. The journey is about 1,450 km, 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.
- Hike or paddle the NWT sections of the Trans Canada Trail.