Beyond the Northern Lights: Five Must-Hike Trails in the Northwest Territories

We’ve all heard about the Northern Lights, and many of us have dreamed about traveling north to see them with our own eyes. Some of us are even fortunate enough to have made the journey. Aurora Borealis is one of the great draws to the Northwest Territories, but anyone who has truly explored the region will tell you that the aurora is just the beginning—it’s a beautiful backdrop for the adventure of a lifetime.

There are miles and miles of trails for hiking and biking in the NWT, hundreds of species of flora and fauna for the patient eye, and more lakes and rivers than any fisherman or paddler could ever ask for; if you haven’t made the trip, you’re missing out.

The waiting expanse is enormous, but to get you started on your adventure, here are five must-hike trails you cannot afford to miss as you explore Canada’s wildest wilderness:

Words: Miller Wilbourn

Virginia Falls

Photo: Darren Roberts/NWT Tourism

Start slow in Nahanni National Park Reserve with a short hike to see the thunderous Virginia Falls. Beginning at the trailhead, you’ll walk just 2 km along the portage trail and boardwalk past striking vistas of the river and rocky peaks before you reach the falls. The trail begins upstream from the falls and traces the path of the South Nahanni River, passing roaring rapids and the famous Mason Rock, a behemoth stone that splits the river in half.

article continues below

Continue for a spectacular view of Virginia Falls—thousands of gallons of rushing water dropping almost 100 meters to crash into the river below as it continues racing southeast. Not bad for a 30 minute walk. Next you have the choice to either launch a canoe a safe distance from the falls and continue exploring downstream, or turn back and plan your next hike.

Total Length: 4 km
Camping: No
Climbing: No
Difficulty: Easy
Random Fact: Virginia Falls is almost twice the height of Niagara Falls.


Cameron Falls

Photo: George Fischer/NWT Tourism

The trek to Cameron Falls is another short hike, just 20 minutes walking each way (after a 45 kilometres drive east from the town of Yellowknife). But those 20 minutes walking through the evergreens and across the Canadian Shield bring you to a stunning view of the waterfall from a bluff just a few more steps downriver. Stop here for a picnic and check out the sound and sight of the crashing water or bring your fishing pole and wade into the river, when the water is warm enough.

You can walk to Cameron Falls as a stand-alone hike, take some time to enjoy the falls, and then return to Yellowknife, if you only have an hour or two. But c’mon, we can do better than that. If you’re looking for a longer hike, the Cameron Falls Trail is only a slight detour from the longer Ingraham Trail, which we’ll tackle next.

Total Length: 2.4 km
Camping Options: No
Climbing Options: No
Difficulty: Easy
Random Fact: You may see muskrat, beaver, or even bear along the trail.


Ingraham Trail

Photo: James Mackenzie/NWT Tourism

The Ingraham Trail stretches from Yellowknife to Hibbitt Lake, 69 kilometres away, and passes through several of the territory’s parks along the way. Previously an old highway, the trail will take you past seven different lakes, each with a boat launch and full of opportunities for fishing, canoeing, and swimming—maybe just a quick dip unless you have ice in your veins. Prelude Lake and Reid Lake (spaced about 30 kilometres apart on the trail) both offer especially good fishing and canoeing.

With an early start, you can accomplish this 19-hour hike in a day, but there are a ton of campgrounds and spots for some fun along the way, so take your time! Make it a two or three day trip. Since the trail is mostly paved, you can make the trip by car too, especially if you’re hauling a boat. Camp at Tibbitt Lake once you finish the 69 kilometres trek and with a little luck and planning you may be rewarded with the dazzling sight of the Northern Lights dancing along the horizon, reflected on the surface of the lake.

Total Length: 69 km
Elevation Gain: 305 m
Difficulty: Moderate
Mountain Bike-friendly: Yes
Camping Options: Yes
Random Fact: The trail is named for Vic Ingraham, a man who lost both legs in a heroic rescue of a crewman from a burning ship on Great Beaver Lake in 1933.


Canol Heritage Trail

Photo: J. F. Bergeron/NWT Tourism

Make sure you’re packed and prepared before you embark on this 335 kilometres journey from Norman Wells, to the border of the Yukon territory. Built to transport oil during World War II, the route was abandoned after only a year of use and has since been taken up by outdoorsmen and women who wish to test themselves across a broad expanse of the Canadian wilderness. And man, is it a test.

Beginning at Norman Wells, NWT, the trail traverses the Mackenzie Mountains, affording an unparalleled experience of the enormity of the mountains and the beauty of the landscape. Hikers will be sure to encounter plenty of wildlife in the largely deserted region, including mountain caribou, black bears, Dall’s sheep, wolverines, and mountain goats.

Numerous river crossings and miles of remote trekking make the trail one of the most challenging in North America. Seriously, this one is not for the inexperienced or faint of heart. Miles from any town, travelers must either arrange for airdrops along the way or shoulder the weight of food and supplies (including an inflatable boat) for the journey that will last two to three weeks. It’s just you, the trail, and a vast, indifferent wilderness out there—you won’t find that kind of solitude easily again.

Total Length: 355 km
Difficulty: Expert
Mountain Bike-friendly: Yes
Camping Options: Yes
Random Fact: The Canol Heritage Trail is the 8th longest hiking trail in Canada.


Cirque of the Unclimbables

Photo: Darren Roberts/NWT Tourism

The Canol Heritage Trail is simply a prelude to the holy grail of NWT mountain climbs. To access the Cirque of the Unclimbables, nestled in the Ragged Range of the Logan Mountains near the border of the Yukon Territory, you’ll need to charter a floatplane or helicopter from a nearby town, likely Whitehorse. After disembarking at Glacier Lake, a long day’s hike up a talus slope will bring you to the Cirque and the climbing adventure begins. And it is definitely a long day’s hike, especially with all of the gear you’re hauling.

The Cirque is a group of granite peaks and rock walls, offering what many regard as some of the finest alpine climbing in North America. The Lotus Flower Tower is the most famous of the peaks, and climbers come from around the world to make the grueling, scenic ascent. Besides the ten major peaks of the Cirque, there are plenty of opportunities for bouldering as well. Whether you’re hiking up from Glacier Lake, resting at the Cirque, or just finishing your ascent of the LFT, the views are breathtaking–there is no better way to dive into the wilderness of Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Total Length: 4-6 hours
Difficulty: Expert
Camping Options: Yes
Climbing Options: Yes
Random Fact: The Lotus Flower Tower is named one of the “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.”


For more information, or to plan your trip visit: