A road trip to the most beautiful waterfalls of the Northwest Territories
You’re looking for a real insider tip for every road trip fan? Consider the Deh Cho Route in Canada’s Northwest Territories! Unimpressed by the stress and hustle and bustle of civilization, it leads through Canada's wild Northwest, past magnificent natural sites and secrets from days long past. On this true wilderness route, you will encounter hulking bison in herds so large they stall traffic. Or glimpse a black bear and her cubs before they scurry back into the woods. You can stop for a hike, a picnic or a night at any number of clean and quiet territorial parks along the route.
With a total length of 1,800 kilometers, it leads through the North of Alberta and British Columbia as well as the Southern Northwest Territories. On hardly used, but well-maintained highways and gravel roads, it follows the Mackenzie, the Liard and the Alaska Highway in the footsteps of those traders and pioneers who explored Northern Canada centuries ago. They came to trade furs with the native peoples, navigating the waterways that have been used by the Indigenous for countless generations. "Deh Cho" – that's how they call the Mackenzie River, the mighty stream that winds its way through the Northwest Territories from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean across seemingly endless expanses and fed by a quarter of the water masses of all of Canada. The world around the Deh Cho Route is characterized by water: Mackenzie, Peace, Hay and Liard Rivers dominate the scenery along with a hundred other untamed rivers.
"Mile Zero" of Mackenzie Highway (Alberta Highway No. 35) is one option as a starting point for this adventurous road trip through the wilderness of the North. In Grimshaw, Alberta, about 500 kilometers northwest of the provincial capital Edmonton, the Deh Cho Route starts in northern direction. After another 470 kilometers, you reach the Northwest Territories border, pretty much exactly at the 60th parallel. Here, it gets formal: Every visitor who crosses the threshold to the far North for the first time receives a North of 60 certificate at the Visitor Center. Here, travelers can also get useful information and great tips for their ongoing journey. Beyond the border, the Deh Cho Route continues north on the Mackenzie Highway (now NWT Highway No. 1) and is now also called the Waterfall Route as numerous rushing waterfalls, cascades and rapids line the way.
Just 45 minutes later, not far from the small town of Enterprise, you can feel the power and roar of the mighty Hay River as it plunges more than 30 meters at Alexandra Falls in Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park. Just four kilometers downstream, a small wooded trail leads to a second waterfall – the no less impressive Louise Falls. What is it, exactly, that makes us love waterfalls? They're mesmerizing – watching the current tumble, tasting the billowing spray, feeling the ground rumble under our feet.
Here lies one of the most beautiful and popular campgrounds in the Northwest Territories, offering a wonderful view of the 15-meter cascades in the Hay River Canyon.
Enterprise itself is the official gateway to the Northwest Territories. Here, check out Winnie's Dene Art Gallery with its wide range of local crafts – from cozy moccasins trimmed with beaver fur to birch bark baskets with intricate designs made from porcupine quills. Enterprise is a perfect base for a side trip to the small town of Hay River on the shores of Great Slave Lake. If you arrive here on a Saturday, be sure to head to the local Fisherman's Wharf market on Vale Island (open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in summer) for the catch of the day and plenty of local color. Enjoy some time at the beach at Hay River Territorial Park Campground. From Enterprise, you can also do another side trip to Wood Buffalo National Park, home to the world's largest herd of wood bison still living in the wild.
Back on the Deh Cho Route, you continue west parallel to the Mackenzie River, which crosses a wide plain. A worthwhile detour to the small Dene settlement of Kakisa leads directly past the scenic Lady Evelyn Falls. Landscape architects could hardly have planned this waterfall in a better way than nature has built it. The Kakisa River cascades down the crescent-shaped rocks like an almost 18-meter curtain of spray.
A little further on the Deh Cho Route, at the junction of Highways No. 1 and 3, we recommend another detour, leading to the NWT’s capital Yellowknife. With only 19,000 inhabitants, it is the largest city in the Northwest Territories and can be described as a real pioneer town. In its historic Old Town, the atmosphere of the gold rush around Great Slave Lake can still be felt today.
Continuing on the Mackenzie Highway, you can hear the thunderous roar of the Sambaa Deh Falls in the Territorial Park of the same name.
If you’re feeling adventurous, hike roughly two kilometers upstream from the park and find another waterfall that gushes happily: the Coral Falls are less pompous, but you have them mostly to yourself. Watch out: with a little luck, you can find interesting fossils around here. Nearby, the small Dene settlement of Jean Marie River invites to a stopover with a picnic by the river, a kayak tour or a photo session with a disused, historic tugboat that lies on the shore.
In Checkpoint, at the intersection of the Mackenzie and Liard Highways (NWT Highway No. 7), another detour north is due. The route leads to the historic town of Fort Simpson, which lies at the confluence of the Mackenzie and Liard Rivers and developed out of a former trading post of the Hudson's Bay Company. Fort Simpson is also the starting point of an excursion into Nahanni National Park, which – like Wood Buffalo National Park – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most beautiful parks in North America. By floatplane – other than boat or canoe, by the way, the only means of transportation to get into the park – you can fly to the imposing Virginia Falls. These are the showpiece waterfalls of the North! A liquid avalanche is rolling endlessly and leaves visitors speechless. Every day, about 100 million tons of water of the South Nahanni River fall down a 96-meter face. If you don’t have weeks to explore it by paddle, book a trip with a local pilot while in Fort Simpson to see the many jewels of the NWT from the sky.
Take a flightseeing tour to experience the massive Virginia Falls, which makes Niagara look cute. One three-hour tour option allows you to fly up to—and around—the falls. Or, you can choose to stop for a hike at the falls and then make a trip to a secluded beach on Little Doctor Lake for a dose of Northern serenity before returning to Fort Simpson.
Another option includes a full-day of flightseeing that starts with a trip to Virginia Falls before continuing on to Glacier Lake to observe the jaw-dropping Cirque of the Unclimbables. You will then fly over Rabbit Kettle Lake and its large Tufa Mounds, before a stop at Little Doctor Lake.
Prepare for your trip by clearing the memory on your camera or phone because you won’t be able to stop snapping photos.
Back in Checkpoint you head south again. In Blackstone Territorial Park you can enjoy another phenomenal view of the Nahanni Mountains. The route then continues along the Liard Highway and past the town of Fort Liard. If you missed the excursion into Nahanni National Park in Fort Simpson, you will have another opportunity to book a sightseeing flight over the park from here. But now, unfortunately, it's time to say "Good bye, Northwest Territories!". The Deh Cho Route continues through the province of British Columbia to "Mile Zero" of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek, before you return to Grimshaw or Edmonton via Grand Prairie in Alberta.
Further information on the Northwest Territories can be found at www.spectacularnwt.com.