The Getaway
20 Things to Do in Yellowknife and the Northwest Territories

Canada's Northwest Territories is home to the Northern Lights Capital of North America, Yellowknife. This city, just 250 miles from the Arctic Circle, is a place where you can eat store-bought chocolate mousse while moose-spotting and where there are seemingly as many diamonds in the sky as in the earth. The midnight sun extends golden hour here in summer, so you can bask in the glow while nibbling on bannock, a local bread. The NWT is awash with natural beauty and cultural richness and draws visitors from Japan and beyond. It's time to don your fur-lined parkas and head north of 60 to a destination that, by all standards, is cool.

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01 The magic of the Northern Lights

The northern lights stream across the arctic sky near Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in Canada.

The Northern Lights have an allure that can be irresistible for some. If seeing the ethereal Aurora Borealis flicker to life beyond an Instagram capture is high on your bucket list, then Yellowknife can make your dream come true. The peak season for witnessing this high-latitude natural light show is between the middle of August and the end of April, and the temperatures change noticeably during these eight months. The city's subarctic climate works well for impressive glow-in-the-dark displays, and viewing locations include but are not limited to Dettah Ice Road and Parker Park. In addition, the opportunity to go on Indigenous-led tours like those by North Star Adventures adds a cultural richness to this once-in-a-lifetime experience. For example, the lights may represent communication from deceased friends and family members.

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02 Exploring the wilderness of the NWT

Wood Buffalo herd browsing along the Yellowknife Highway north of Fort Providence/ Browsing Bison/ Wood Buffalo herd in the Northwest Territories

The Northwest Territories comprise vast, untouched landscapes. You can get a taste of this relative remoteness while doing various outdoor activities, such as hiking and wildlife viewing. Go boating during summer's endless days and dog sledding, ice fishing, and snowmobiling during winter. We'll dive deeper into these wilderness outings in a bit.

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03 Cultural encounters in Yellowknife

This region formally shares its history and culture via several worthwhile museums and art galleries. The Northern Life Museum in Fort Smith highlights natural history and incorporates elements of First Nations, Métis, and Euro-Canadian heritage. You'll learn about gold mining, fur-trapping, and much more besides. At The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, you might see live performances, and at the Dene Cultural Institute in the K'atl'odeeche Reserve, you can swap your shoes for lovely beaded moccasins. Art Galleries that offer insights into the area's traditions and artisanal creativity include Gallery of the Midnight Sun and Down to Earth Gallery.

04 Adventures on Great Slave Lake

Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories of Canada

Great Slave Lake has long been a place of recreation. It makes sense—this is the world's 11th-largest lake and the continent's deepest one. In a body of freshwater approximately the same size as a country like Moldova, anglers can acquire tantalizing trophies and seek solitude. Birdwatchers will have much to tweet about in the North Arm, and sailing enthusiasts can make hay while the sun shines and shines some more. Look out for colorful houseboat communities and spend a night in a floating bed and breakfast.

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05 The historical Old Town of Yellowknife

Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada; 9-13-2018; Photo of Old Town Float Base building with floatplanes parked in front on the Great Slave Lake H.J. Herrera / Shutterstock.com

Yellowknife's Old Town is charming and began as an assortment of tents and log shacks. It has a pioneering spirit, and if you do the town's self-guided heritage walking tour on a relaxed morning or afternoon, you'll see many points of interest, including interesting architecture from the first half of the 20th century and local businesses like the original Sutherlands Drugstore.

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06 Dog sledding through the snowy landscape

Dog sledding in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in Canada

Dog sledding is a culturally important practice in the NWT that goes back millennia. Dogs suited to the icy climate have helped with hunting, safety, and transport over the years, and today, they play a big role in tourism, too. When traveling in the region, make time for a mushing adventure. Smart and fast dogs will pull you along on a thrilling ride, traversing white lakes and rounding frosty corners. You'll be amazed at their athleticism and training.

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07 Ice road adventures

Ice Road Truckers

Between December and April, Dettah and Yellowknife are connected by a temporary road built on the frozen Yellowknife Bay. The ice needs to be 13 inches thick for construction to begin. Of course, this isn't the only ice road in the region. Over 1,200 miles worth of routes spring up during winter to connect otherwise isolated communities, and riding slowly on one of these transient highways offers a unique and beautiful perspective. The Mackenzie Valley road, for example, stretches for over 400 miles, so there's lots to see.

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08 Summer under the midnight sun

There are few places in the world with light outside at midnight. Yellowknife and the NWT are privileged to fall within this category in summer, and several festivals take advantage of the long daylight hours to host one-of-a-kind events. Folk on the Rocks fills the fresh air with the sounds of soulful music, and the Great Northern Arts Festival is a 10-day visual and performance art extravaganza celebrating the region's creatives. It's hard to tell what time of day it is in these parts because you can play a round of golf, go swimming, or hear a chorus of birds into the wee hours. So you can do pretty much whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like it—just don't forget to wear sunblock!

09 Witnessing wildlife in their natural habitat

Big bison in the tree line on highway 3 on route to Yellowknife Northwest Territories Canada in a bison sanctuary

They call the Northwest Territories the polar Serengeti; the land of the frozen safari. Bathurst caribou numbers have dropped dramatically in the last few decades, but you can still see these graceful creatures around Great Slave Lake. Drive through a section of Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary's 4,000 square miles, where the once prolific wood buffalo is afforded a safe haven. Or head onto the Ingraham Trail where you might sniff out some musk oxen. Look for cute beluga whales in the Husky Lakes area, white pelicans at Slave River Rapids, and grizzly bears in the Barrenlands. You'll find 10-foot-tall polar bears close to Ulukhaktok or Sachs Harbour.

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10 The art of Aurora photography

Northern light took in Yellowknife Canada

Many of the Northern Light tour operators can provide guidance on photographing the famous dancing illuminations. You don't even need a fancy camera to get the job done. Open up your smartphone's manual settings and set the shutter speed from 2 to 30 seconds. Adjust your exposure to ISO 200. An SLR camera is optimal for high-quality shots, and you'll want to carry a light but sturdy tripod. Wide-angle lenses will help you capture and frame the whole landscape, and fast lenses are a must. You can go on a dedicated photography tour, too, with other like-minded individuals interested in time-lapses and technicalities.

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11 Indigenous cultural experiences

The ancient past lives on in the 33 Indigenous communities of the Northwest Territories—traditions passed down for generations are still practiced by some. Watch as youngsters play Hand Games, a form of gambling, and learn bush arts at Okpik Arctic Village. Travelers have the privilege of gleaning this knowledge from First Nation guides who have an intimate connection with the snowy land and waters that have sustained them for so very long. How do you survive in this starkly beautiful part of the world? And what of the cultural genocide wrought by the Indian Act of 1876? Operators like B. Dene Adventures and Entrée Destinations can give you some insight.

12 Hiking the spectacular trails of the NWT

 scenic view over the Cameron Falls/ Autumn in Yellowknife/ Northwest Territories

With so few people around, hiking in the Northwest Territories can be a contemplative activity. If this scares you more than excites you, how about an amble in the city? The McMahon Frame Lake trail checks the box for an hour-long paved hike in Yellowknife. Check out the Cameron Falls trail, a 1.9-mile hike that will challenge you without making you feel like you're dying. Along the way, you'll see a slew of feathered cuties. The Ingraham Trail goes all the way to Tibbitt Lake, and a number of campsites provide a place to rest your head. Look to Inuvik, Norman Wells, and Forts Simpson and Smith for more route ideas.

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13 The history of gold mining in Yellowknife

Yellowknife isn't just about golden hour. This town has a longstanding association with gold itself. For more than half a century until 2004, the most precious of precious metals was mined here, and it wouldn't be wrong to say that gold forged Yellowknife. Giant Mine began pouring gold bricks in 1948, and arsenic pollution arose as an issue. While a tragic worker's strike in the nineties spelled the end for the gold mines, diamond mining became the focus and it continues in the 21st century. You can watch diamond polishing demos at Gallery of the Midnight Sun.

14 Paddling the pristine waters

Do as the Indigenous peoples have long done and make the waterways your highway on a paddling excursion. SUP past houseboats or canoes to the Arctic Ocean. Adrenaline junkies can go whitewater rafting too. Jackpine rents out equipment, holds courses, and takes folks out on paddling tours suitable for all skill levels.

15 The vibrant festival scene

The Northwest Territories have much to look forward to throughout the year. We've already mentioned Folk on the Rocks and the Great Northern Arts Festival, but there's also Pond Hockey and midnight golf tournaments, Long John Jamboree, and the month-long SnowKing Festival. Rate the contenders in competitive tea boiling and log sawing and be inspired by the prose and poetry at the annual NorthWords Writers' Festival. Summer also brings the Dark Sky festival, where stargazing takes center stage.

16 A taste of the North: Local cuisine

Venture this far north, and the ingredients are bound to get unusual. The adventurous can sample muskrats, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's cousins, and beluga blubber. On the plant-based side, you can also try birch syrup, cloudberries, and spruce tips.

In Yellowknife, Bullocks Bistro is a firm favorite among carnivores, and Zehabesha serves beloved Ethiopian food, so if you're curious about injera and goat curry, you know where to go. Fresh seafood here includes Arctic Char, Northern Pike, and Lake Trout, and the shore lunches on fishing expeditions are famous. Smoked dry fish is a delicacy you can find at the Hay River Farmers' Market among other places.

17 Staying under the stars: Camping in the NWT

You can rough it with regular camping, go glamping, or drive an RV. The NWT Parks website lists all available campsites and their amenities if you'd like to compare, plan, and book a spot. Renting equipment is as easy as pie. Close to Yellowknife, Fred Henne Territorial Campground is a popular one, and Wood Buffalo National Park is accessible by road throughout the year.

18 The gateway to the Arctic: Tuktoyaktuk

"Tuk," as it's known, is an Inuvialuit coastal community that's the farthest north you can drive in the Great White North. Do a polar plunge, imagine life in a sod house, and snap pics of Ibyuk, a pingo that's likely over a millennium old. Pingos are hills with ice cores, in case you were wondering.

19 Winter sports in Yellowknife

Colorful ice fishing huts on Great Slave lake Derek Robbins / Shutterstock.com

During the cold seasons, this region really comes into its own. You can spend a pleasant day doing an array of winter activities, from ice fishing in heated shacks to backcountry snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. With the right gear and local know-how, you can stay warm while having fun outdoors—there's no such thing as the winter blues. Learn how to steer a team of huskies should you be so inclined, or get the whole family involved in snowshoeing.

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20 The warmth of Northern hospitality

A wonderful night with Kp 5 index northern lights at Aurora Village in Yellowknife.

A mini-break in Yellowknife and its surroundings will be memorable no matter where you stay, but if you enjoy novelty, you'll love the special accommodation options available. Indigenous-owned Aurora Village offers visitors the opportunity to sleep in a luxury teepee while the northern lights are out to play. You could also stay in a yurt in Hay River or on an eco-friendly houseboat. There are also places with a singular focus on serenity and recharging to consider. And the cherry on top of the cake? The Northern hospitality will warm the cockles of your heart.

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