You don't have to fly to Yellowknife, but it's the way most people get there. And if you do, your appreciation of the city will begin even before you reach the ground, as you look down after the long approach over the deep lake and see how it looks as if the city has been clawed out of the taiga. Nature does not give Yellowknife anything more than what humanity has made it. Here, more so than any other city in Canada's North, even in the Arctic, one can see just what an accomplishment it has been to make a livable place here on the far side of North America's deepest lake.
The city gets its name from the Yellowknifes Dene, the area's First Nations inhabitants, who lived on the peninsula jutting into Great Slave Lake's North Fork where the city is now. Their name came from their use of copper knives they obtained on trading journeys to the Arctic, where the metal was readily available.
European explorers had known of the Yellowknife and their home since the 18th century, but rarely had any reason to venture, much less settle, there. Gold was discovered in the area during the 1890s, but the deposits were not enough to distract the steady stream of wealth-seekers headed for the Klondike gold fields of Yukon and Alaska at the centre of that era's gold rush. By the 1920s, however, a rough settlement had been established there, as bush pilots found it an excellent staging area, storing fuel supplies there for forays further north.
Yellowknife's modern history begins around 1935. A government survey team taking a second look found gold deposits more extensive than the earlier ones, some of which were practically at ground level where they could be easily extracted. Very quickly, Americans and Canadians impoverished by the Depression came to Yellowknife, building ramshackle log cabins and other ad hoc structures to house themselves and the businesses that came to serve them. Within three years, the people of the boomtown had elected a school board—the first democratic act of self-government in the Northwest Territories.
The outbreak of war in Europe at the end of the decade slowed things down for a while in Yellowknife, but afterwards the miners returned, along with scientists, bankers, government officials, and anyone else who thought they might make their fortune, or at least a life for themselves, north of 60. They couldn't all fit in the small frontier town. The federal government built a post office on the high ground above the lake. Fairly soon after, as intended, a commercial district known as New Town (in contrast to Old Town down on the lake) grew up around it. It soon became a city, and in 1967 became the Northwest Territories' capital, taking over from Fort Smith.
A popular songwriter native to Yellowknife wrote that while the streets there weren't paved with gold, there was plenty underneath the pavement. That was true, and by the late 1970s there were modern high-rise office buildings. The four-star Explorer Hotel was built on the high ground nearby to give visiting executives an impressive place to stay, and sometimes served as a meeting place for the territory's new legislative assembly.
At the end of the decade the world began coming to Yellowknife. Roads finally connected the city to the rest of Canada, ending its dependence on the bush pilots who had been its first settlers, although it still relied on ice roads across the lake in winter. Prince Charles came to speak at the dedication of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, the territorial museum. And when the Soviet nuclear-powered Kosmos 954 satellite came crashing to Earth in 1979, the international media reported the story from Yellowknife. Suburban sprawl began to appear in the areas to the south of New Town, around Range Lake.
The territorial assembly moved into its own building in 1982, on the shores of Frame Lake near the Heritage Centre. That would be the peak of Yellowknife's development for some time. The decline in the price of gold on the international markets after the inflationary 1970s ended led to a slow pullback in mining operations. Bathers in Frame Lake were replaced by pollution and leeches. In 1992, during a strike at the Giant Mine, on the outskirts of the city, nine replacement miners were killed when a bomb planted by a striker went off, the deadliest incident of labour-related violence in Canadian history (the miner was convicted two years later). The city began to experience the social problems that follow any decline of a major industry, such as homelessness, increased drug and alcohol abuse, and crime.
Mine after mine closed throughout the 1990s, until Giant itself shut in 2004. The city's literal golden age was behind it, and government displaced mining as the city's largest employer. Even that took a hit at the end of the century, when the eastern two-thirds of the Northwest Territories were split off to become Nunavut, with its capital at Iqaluit on Baffin Island.
But the city was able to reinvent itself, even if it has not been able to completely return to its former prosperity. Tourism, always present in a city surrounded by abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation, picked up some of the slack. It got a boost from abroad, as Japanese visitors found it an ideal place to go on dogsled rides and take in the northern lights, even in the coldest of winters. The cable-TV show Ice Road Truckers, focusing on a family business hauling supplies across the lake, put Yellowknife on the 21st-century media map. With the discovery of diamonds in the 1990s, mining has made a comeback, as enough diamond deposits have been found in the area for the city. In total, four major diamond mines have operated within the territory and the city claims itself "The Diamond Mining Capital of North America".
You will probably see that Yellowknife was a lot more, and is a lot more, whether you come during the long summer days with four-hour white nights in between, or the equally short winter days when temperatures stay well below zero and the auroras light up the night sky.
- 1 Yellowknife Airport (YZF IATA), 100 Idaa Road, ☏ . Daily flights connect Yellowknife with Edmonton (2 hours) and Calgary (2-2.5 hours) in Alberta, Vancouver in British Columbia. Seasonal flights to Yellowknife from Ottawa, Toronto and, Whitehorse (1.75 hours).
Air travel, interestingly enough, is one of the oldest ways of getting to Yellowknife (the city was founded in the mid-1930s, and space for float planes can still be found at the Old Town docks).
Canadian airlines operating to Yellowknife:
- Air Canada, ☏ , toll-free: . Canada's largest airline with hubs in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal. It operates across Canada and services international destinations.
- Air North, toll-free: . A regional airline operating flights within the Yukon and flights in Canada traveling to the Yukon. Operates seasonally to Yellowknife.
- Canadian North, toll-free: , email@example.com. A regional airline primarily operating flights in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, and flights traveling between that region and a few large cities in Canada.
- Westjet, toll-free: . Canada's second largest airline services with hubs in Calgary and Toronto. It operates across Canada and services international destinations.
Railways have not been built to Yellowknife, and passenger rail service is not available in the Northwest Territories at all; the nearest freight railway reaches to the town of Hay River on the south side of the Great Slave Lake. One of the nearest passenger stations is in Edmonton, Alberta, thousands of kilometers to the south.
Yellowknife is at the end of Northwest Territories Highway 3 (Yellowknife Highway). From Alberta, travel north on Alberta Highway 35 (Mackenzie Highway), which becomes Northwest Territories Highway 1 (Mackenzie Highway). Continue to follow the highway past the community of Enterprise and the turn off for the community of Kakisa to the junction with North West Territories Highway 3. Follow Highway 3 to the Mackenzie River crossing at Fort Providence. From Fort Providence, follow Highway 3 past Behchoko (formerly Rae-Edzo) to its terminus at Yellowknife.
A permanent bridge across the Mackenzie River opened in 2012, replacing a seasonal ferry crossing or ice bridge which used to be the sole overland route into the territorial capital.
Yellowknife is on Great Slave Lake. Boating to and in Yellowknife is private (ferries are used at some highway river crossings in the territory, however). There are docks in the Old Town area; one could presumably go across the lake to Hay River or Behchoko in a private boat. The closest destination to Yellowknife is Dettah. The lake drains to the Arctic Ocean via the Mackenzie River.
Yellowknife is quite compact, and the main areas of interest can be easily reached on foot. "New Town" is the current downtown core. It is bordered by 47th street to the north, 53rd street to the south, 52nd avenue to the east, and Veteran's Memorial Way (49th Avenue) to the west. Franklin Avenue (50th Avenue) is the main thoroughfare. The corner of Franklin Avenue and 50th Street is considered to be the city's centre.
"Old town", where the city of Yellowknife was founded, is at the base of the hill on Franklin Avenue, on a peninsula that juts into Yellowknife Bay, and on Latham Island. This area is primarily residential, but remains home to some of Yellowknife's oldest businesses.
- Yellowknife Transit, ☏ . Operates a three route bus service. Fares are $3.00. Buses run every 40 minutes from 7:10AM to 7:10PM, Mondays to Saturday.
- City Cab Ltd, ☏ .
- Aurora Borealis (northern lights) - This is the one thing that you must see (however, it is best seen in wintertime, when the nights are long, and they cannot be seen at all during the short "white nights" around the summer solstice when the sun never dips far enough below the horizon for long enough for it to get darker than twilight). There are many tour companies that offer different ways of seeing the Aurora Borealis, such as by snowmobile, sled dog expedition, photography workshops and tractor rides to various lodges.
- 1 Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, 4750 48th Street, ☏ . Daily 10:30AM–5PM, closed on statutory holidays. The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre houses the territorial museum and archives. Free admission.
- 2 Ragged Ass Road (150 m long between Brock and Hamilton drives near the lakeshore). This otherwise undistinguished short unpaved residential street is known for its name, which started as a joke among prospectors about their lack of success one season, far beyond Yellowknife. Before you get a signature souvenir sign or T-shirt from one of the many shops in town that sells them, you might want to walk down the actual street and take a picture of the official sign, now that the city has finally acknowledged its existence, so you can confirm to people you tell the story to back home that, yes, this street actually exists.
- The many art galleries in town feature the works of local and northern artists.
- 3 Pilots Monuments, 3511, 3513 Ingraham Dr, Yellowknife. Open 24 hours. Sitting on top of a hill, this monument gives tribute to bush pilots who opened up Northwest Territories, delivered food & medicine and transported people.
- Great Slave Lake
- Old Town
- 4 Northwest Territories Legislative Building, ☏ , toll-free: .
- 5 Buffalo Airways Hangar Tour, 108 Berry Street, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. No tours on Mondays.. You can go on a guided tour of the hangar of the family-run airline that was showcased in reality television show Ice Pilots NWT. Featuring a fleet of vintage aircraft from the World War II era (DC-3, C46, Electra and others), the hangar is the place where technicians keep these old warbirds flying. You might even come across one of its DC-3 which participated in the D-Day campaign by dropping paratroopers over Normandy. Free (advanced booking and photo ID are required).
Yellowknife is an outdoor enthusiast's dream. There are several scenic walking and hiking trails within the city boundaries. The Ingraham Trail (Highway 4) connects Yellowknife to many lakes, rivers, and hiking routes that draw campers, hikers, paddlers, fishermen and women, and hunters.
The winter months are dominated by winter sports: hockey, curling, skating, cross-country skiing, broomball, volleyball, and indoor soccer.
A small but active amateur arts community brings theatre, dance, and choral works to the community. Apart from some excellent amateur performers,the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre (NACC), the main venue for the performing arts, endeavours to bring professional level entertainment.
The Snowking Festival, Long John Jamboree, and the dog sled races are annual winter events (occurring in March). In the summer, visitors can take in the Summer Solstice Festival, Raven Mad Daze (with its 24-hour golf tournament), and Folk on the Rocks, a popular music festival. Raven Mad Daze is a festival to celebrate the beginning of summer with bands on city blocks, vendors selling food and drinks, and silly string is available for those who are pumped up and into the spirit. It's held in Downtown Yellowknife where all vehicle traffic is rerouted to other surface streets.
Or take a tour from one of the many tour companies around Yellowknife, such as Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures or Becks Kennels. They offer many programs. These include dog sledding, aurora viewing, shoreline breakfast/lunch, wildlife viewing, and fishing trips.
- 1 Enodah Wilderness Travel - Trout Rock Lodge, Great Slave Lake, ☏ . Fly in wilderness lodge on Great Slave Lake. Fishing, bird watching, Aurora packages. Day trips or overnight.
- 2 Beck's Kennels, 124 Curry Drive, ☏ . Dogsled tours. Kennel owned and operated by World Champion dog racer, Grant Beck. Winter activities: Aurora by dog sled, traditional dogsled tours and learn to drive your own dogteam experience. They also offer overnight dogsled adventures. November 1 - mid May. Summer and fall activities: Aurora tours and dogsled on wheels. August 1 - October 31.
- 3 Northern Arts and Cultural Centre.
There are many jobs available in Yellowknife, and wages are significantly higher than in the south.
- A Canadian diamond
- A painting by a local artist
- An Inuit stone carving
- A hand-made birch bark basket
- Caribou-skin mittens
- A northern parka, trimmed with fur
- A single spring roll from Corner Mart after a night of ogling teenagers at the Raven
- A world-famous breakfast hotdog from Gas Town (only served until 11AM)
- 1 Centre Square Mall.
- 2 Buffalo Airwear, 108 Berry Street (Within the airport compound), ☏ , email@example.com. M-F 9AM-5PM, Sa noon-4PM. Closed on Sundays and holidays. Get aviation themed souvenirs from Buffalo Airways, the airline that still uses DC-3 and other World War II era warbirds in revenue service for cargo delivery to northern remote communities and as waterbombers.
- Old Town Glassworks.
- 1 Gold Range Bistro, 50th Street, ☏ . Local café with great ordinary food and lots of good people where the locals eat. Famous for their plate-sized eggroll.
- 2 Wildcat Café, 3904 Wiley Road, ☏ . Caribou, fish, steaks in a Gold Rush atmosphere. It was built in 1937. It is a popular eatery and perhaps Yellowknife's best tourist attraction and most expensive, second only to Bullock's.
- 3 Bullock's Bistro, 3534 Weaver Dr, ☏ . Relaxed, cramped, extra-casual bar and restaurant in circa 1930s cabin. The menu features fish, game, and salads. The fish is as fresh as this morning, and the seemingly hectic grill manages to produce fine results with it. Don't expect anything fancy in service or presentation, but you'll enjoy the lively and authentic atmosphere. Make sure your wallet is well-stocked before coming: a simple plate of fish and chips and a bottle of self-serve beer costs between $30 and $40.
Twist Resto-Lounge and Shout are some of the best places to drink north of 60. The manager (Flint) at Twist has been featured by MSN Travel and ranked as the top bartender in Canada. Though be sure to bring a well-stocked wallet as even the soft drinks cost a small fortune.
The NWT Brewing Company is the only micro-brewery in the territory and their pub serves food and many of their northern-named beers on tap. They have won awards for their Kicksled Cream Ale.
The Elks Club hosts scotch night every Tuesday, where a shot will set you back a most-reasonable $3-fiddy.
- 1 Super 8 Motel - Yellowknife, 308 Old Airport Road, toll-free: .
- 2 Bayside B&B, ☏ . View of the Back Bay from the wrap-around deck.
- 3 Discovery Inn, 4701 Franklin Ave, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 5 The Explorer Hotel, 4825 49th Ave (NW corner of intersection of 48th St and 49th Avenue, on highest ground), ☏ , toll-free: . Architecturally undistinguished from the rest of Yellowknife's boxy, modernist 1970s buildings, the Explorer stands out by standing on the highest spot in the centre of town. Northern Canada's largest hotel has hosted three generations of the British royal family, including the Queen herself, on their visits to the city, as well as other prominent personages. This level of comfort comes with a fitness centre, two business centres, the Traders Grill restaurant and Trapline Lounge. It will not, however, come cheap. $183+.
- 6 Chateau Nova Hotel, 4571 48 Street, ☏ , toll-free: . 141 rooms and suites with Wi-Fi, flatscreen TV, A/C, kitchenettes. Quarry Restaurant steakhouse open 7AM-2PM and 5PM-9PM, Quarry Lounge open 11AM-10PM.
Driving, particularly away from the main highway, may involve long distances without seeing much traffic. Be sure to check the usual summer driving requirements: spare tire, water, etc. In winter, temperatures can drop to -40 °C/°F and colder. Be prepared! Bring a candle lantern for heat, a thermos of hot water, foods such as chocolate or nuts and a heavy blanket, and mitts (not gloves). If stranded, do not leave your vehicle unless forced to.
Bison are prevalent between the Mackenzie River at Fort Providence and Behchoko. They like to amble on the highway. Take care during night driving along this section.
- Drive south along the Mackenzie Highway (5.5 hours) or fly on First Air (40 mins) to Hay River
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