On a planet containing seven billion people, it's difficult to imagine that there are still places as sparsely populated as the Northwest Territories (NWT). A vast swath of boreal forest and Arctic tundra five times the size of the UK, it has a population of a small provincial town. In the 19th century, gold prospectors passed it over as too remote; modern Canadians, if they head north at all, prefer to romanticize about iconic Nunavut or the grandiose Yukon. More people orbit the earth each year than visit lonely Aulavik, one of the territory's four national parks.
What they're missing is something unique: a potent combo of epic, remarkably beautiful, accessible terrain, singular aboriginal culture and a vibrant, cosmopolitan regional capital. With one of the world's greatest waterfalls and North America's deepest lake, it has enough brutal wilderness to keep a modern-day David Livingstone happy for a couple of lifetimes.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Northwest Territories.
A place of unparalleled natural beauty in the southwestern NWT near the Yukon border, this 30,000-sq-km, Unesco World Heritage national park is bisected by the epic South Nahanni River that twists and foams its way for some 500km through the jagged Mackenzie Mountains. It's accessible via fly-in day trips from Fort Simpson to see the Virginia Falls, and is the dream destination of canoeists; licensed outfitters run canoe and rafting trips from Fort Simpson, starting from $6640 for seven days.
Yes, there is a higher set of falls in British Columbia, but for the sheer gushing power of two mighty torrents of water, falling from a height of 96m (twice the height of Niagara Falls), and for the remote, spectacular setting, Virginia Falls is the most impressive waterfall in Canada.
Established in 1922 to protect a large, dark and distinctly Northern subspecies of bison, and straddling the Alberta–NWT border, is Wood Buffalo National Park – one of the world's largest (44,000 sq km) and comprising a vast expanse of taiga forest, karstic formations and enormous freshwater systems. The park can be accessed by car either via Hwy 5 between Hay River and Fort Smith, or via a gravel road south of Fort Smith.
This wilderness is a major calving ground for bluenose caribou. It's an excellent place to observe birds of prey and has spectacular pingos, beautiful canyons and a magnificent waterfall. Parks Canada in Inuvik occasionally offers six-day adventures in the park (around $7500 per person), using the limited infrastructure at Uyarsivik Lake Base Camp and led by an Inuvialuit cultural guide, and can help you make travel arrangements. Access is by charter flight with Kenn Borek (www.borekair.com) from Inuvik.
Acting as NWT's historical and cultural archive, this well-laid-out museum overlooks Frame Lake. Expertly assembled displays address natural history, European exploration, Northern aviation, diamond mining and, especially, Dene and Inuit history and culture, their symbiotic relationship with their environment and their dependance on game for shelter, clothing, transport and food. Temporary exhibits include exceptional soapstone and whalebone sculpture by Inuvialuit artist Abraham Anghik Ruben. There's a terrific cafe and a good play zone for younger kids.
This seldom-visited park has the world's largest concentration of musk ox, as well as tundra and archaeological sites. This is true Arctic wilderness, with zero infrastructure. Contact Parks Canada in Inuvik for details about visiting, as they run summer trips here. You can also come independently by chartering a flight with Kenn Borek Air (www.borekair.com) in Inuvik, but still have to register and pay the fees at the Parks Canada office.
The Tuk Peninsula has the world's highest concentration of pingos. Some 1350 of these huge mounds of earth-covered ice, that form only in a permafrost environment, dot the land. Two of these, nearest to Tuktoyaktuk, have been designated the Pingo Canadian Landmark. You get great views of the village from one of them.
Flanked by the Britnell Glacier in the northwest reaches of the park, this spectacular lake is surrounded by the granite mountains of the Ragged Range and is the gateway to the climbers' mecca known as the Cirque of the Unclimbables.
Spanning a chunk of northern Yukon, part of the Northwest Territories and bordering Alaska, the tundra and craggy British Mountains of 94,500-sq-km Ivvavik National Park are home to Porcupine caribou, musk oxen, wolves, moose, wolverines, grizzlies and Dall's sheep. As it falls within the boundaries of traditional Inuvialuit lands, it's managed by Inuvik's Parks Canada office, with five-day, all-inclusive trips run in June and July (from $2800). Wilderness operators also organize 10-day rafting trips along the Firth River (around $9500).