Introduction to Northwest Territories

(continuer en français) – Last updated: February 18, 2023

The Northwest Territories covers an immense area but is virtually unsettled. Just over 40,000 people are scattered in small traditional communities. Apart from the capital Yellowknife, many villages are not connected by road, and can only be reached by floatplane if there is no other option.

The Northwest Territories in its current boundaries was formed in 1999. In the past, the name covered all of western and northern Canada, the lands granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company. At the time of the creation of the Canadian Confederation, the United Kingdom transferred control to Canada.

Northwest Territories


The capital city of Yellowknife began as a mining town in 1939, and since then the growth of the administration has taken over from the mine, and there are now more than 20,000 residents. The heroic early days are still visible in many parts of the already “old town” dominated by a rocky hill, The Rock. The contemporary downtown is scattered around several lakes such as Frame Lake (more).

Yellowknife, Visitor Centre

A surprisingly large tourist office for an area with so little tourist activity. These offices are always an effective source of information. The one in Yellowknife also has an exhibit of local wildlife that is often difficult to spot in the wild. From polar bears to caribou, you can see them up close and learn about them, as well as the rest of the region.

Yellowknife, Mining

Yellowknife was built on mines, especially gold mines in the 1930s. The Giant gold mine was in operation from 1948 to 1999. In addition to 220 tonnes of gold, its operation produced thousands of tonnes of toxic dust. To prevent the dust from spreading into the atmosphere, the buildings are now hermetically sealed and decontamination is underway.

Wood Buffalo National Park

Canada’s largest national park is located primarily in Alberta, but is accessed from Fort Smith. Wood Buffalo National Park is home to approximately 5,000 wood bison, a subspecies found only in northern Canada. They are free to roam in and out of the park, under the rather distant control of rangers. A few dirt roads allow you to go deeper into the park in search of them (more).

Fort Smith

Fort Smith was ideally situated on the bank of the Slave River at rapids that were impassable to boats. Even the First Nations established a portage trail to the present site of Fort Smith to bypass the rapids. In 1874, the Hudson’s Bay Company built an outpost for the fur trade at Fort Smith (more).

Fort Smith Mission

In 1876, the Catholic Church established a mission at Fort Smith. Taking advantage of its privileged location on the route to communities further north, even in the Arctic regions. The mission grew so much that the bishop took up residence there in 1926. The modest church of St. Isidore, built in 1923, became a cathedral. From his residence, the bishop administered the missions in the whole western Arctic.

Fort Resolution

The oldest town in the Northwest Territories, it was established in 1791 on the shore of Great Slave Lake as a fur trading post. Most of the inhabitants are of Métis or Deninu Kue descent. The Roman Catholic Church is the oldest building in town, dating from the early 19th century. Many of the houses are from Pine Point, a nearby lead mine that closed in the 1980s.

Fort Simpson

Fort Simpson was originally a trading post on the MacKenzie River in 1804. With the paving of the Mackenzie Highway, access is now easier, although a free ferry across the Liard River is still required to reach Fort Simpson. Visitor numbers are increasing, particularly for access to Nahanni National Park from the small local airport. The current population is 1200 (more).

Hay River and falls

The Hay River flows from Alberta to Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. Its waters then flow into the Arctic Ocean. The river is confronted by waterfalls such as Louise Falls and Alexandra Falls. The latter are the most spectacular at 105 feet, 32 metres, high. It is a welcome stop on the long Hay River Highway.

Sambaa Deh Falls

The drive on the Mackenzie Highway is long and monotonous, only the river crossings bring a little variety. The Trout River, for example, looks wide and calm upstream, it was a ford for fur traders and First Nations. Downstream, the waters suddenly enter a narrow canyon and rush into the Sambaa Deh Falls. There are no crowds, no barriers, only a sign to warn of the danger.

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  1. I’d love to visit the NWT someday. The scenery looks incredible and I bet there are no shortage of great wildlife viewing opportunities. It’s neat how there is even so much natural beauty in a city like Yellowknife. That visitor centre looks pretty impressive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For someone like me who is not a wildlife expert, seeing animals in the wild is not obvious, it is mostly about the landscapes. But from time to time, there are indeed unexpected encounters, not always easy to photograph.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been very fortunate to visit Yellowknife a few times during my career. During the last trip, I spent more time there and had a look around during the summer solstice. Aside from the light keeping me awake, this was the perfect time to get a feel for the community. And the food at Bullock’s Bistro and the Wildcat Café was spectacular. Thanks for sharing. Have a great Friday. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have also experienced the solstice when it never really gets dark, it allows to catch up in the evening the backlog from the day. Given the climate, life in summer and winter are very different. Thank you for sharing your experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Stunning natural beauty. Your photos, especially the middle one from Wood Buffalo National Park, which I did not know until now is Canada’s largest park, are beautiful. Were you at the falls at a particularly high flow period or do they always look so dramatic?

    Liked by 1 person

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