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The coolest Highways of the North: Winter Roads in Canada’s Northwest Territories


Ice Road - Credit: Destination Canada

Once winter arrives, the road map of the Northwest Territories changes dramatically. That’s because a temporary network of ice roads forms on the frozen lakes and rivers, temporarily doubling the length of regular highways in the region! Almost 2,000 kilometres of winter roads are plowed through barren landscapes that are impassable in summer. For thousands of residents, this makes winter the only time of the year when their remote and isolated villages can be reached by land.


The Northwest Territories’ winter roads connect 12 villages, giving them temporary access to the outside world. Each year, they are built and maintained by the territory’s Department of Transportation. Some of them are quite short, like the ice road to Nahanni Butte crossing the Liard River only a few kilometres to Highway No. 7. Others, however, are truly of an epic character with an incredible length. For example, the Mackenzie Valley winter road runs for hundreds of kilometres from Wrigley to five remote communities, including Colville Lake – with 651 kilometres the furthest from the trailhead.


The ice road season is short, lasting from late December to early April. Nevertheless, exceptions prove the rule: the road from Inuvik to Aklavik has been in operation for as long as five months in some years. Most ice roads are made of ice that’s 1.20 metres thick and strong enough to support a jumbo jet. Don’t you worry if the ice cracks and roars under your vehicle – the extra portion of moose goulash from last night is certainly not to blame! However, the winter roads are nothing like the normal highways of the Northwest Territories. They are often narrow, rutted and can rarely be driven at speeds above 50 mph. Since the days up here in the North are dark and bitterly cold in winter, and there are only a few connecting roads, non-essential travel isn’t recommended.


Those who do travel in the Northwest Territories during the cold season can look forward to icy adventures and fascinating experiences on the following winter roads:



Yellowknife-Dettah Ice Road


This short, scenic drive across Yellowknife Bay starts with a turn off from School Draw Avenue and onto the Big Lake. Dettah, a Yellowknives Dene First Nation community of roughly 180, sits at the mouth of the bay. All manner of winter transportation uses this road: charter buses, snowmobiles, Bombardiers and Sno-cats. Since the road is extremely wide, pulling onto the shoulder to snap photos and investigate bald patches of ice is easy. Peering down at the cracks gives an idea of how thick the ice is below. Drivers are always cautioned to go slowly and to stick to the road. In Dettah, six kilometres later, the Yellowknives Dene Artisan Shop in the Chief Drygeese Centre, sell locally made arts, crafts and clothing.


Length: 6 kilometres | Operation Time: Ø December 18th – April 19th | Vehicles per day: Ø 479




When residents head out on this winter road, they make sure they do so in a reliable vehicle and that they've stocked up on supplies and warm clothing. The Tlicho winter road connects the communities of Wekweètı̀, Whatı̀ and Gamètı̀in the winter with Behchokǫ̀. The road begins just outside Behchokǫ̀ on Highway 3 and weaves through forest until reaching Marian Lake. This extremely long lake becomes the road and if it's overcast or snowing, the horizon disappears. At the north end of the lake, the road rolls along a series of steep portages over small water bodies until getting back onto solid land. The road is narrow, so drivers have to be aware not to block traffic if they plan to pull over and take a break. Along the way, it is not uncommon to spy moose, great grey owls and caribou. Soon, the road forks at a turn off to the east for the community of Wekweètı̀, followed shortly by a turn off to the west for the community of Whatı̀. The road keeps north for Gamètı̀, as the trees get smaller and smaller.


This adventure is not taken lightly, as the drive can take anywhere from three to five hours one-way and cell phone coverage ranges from spotty to non-existent.


Length: 194 kilometres | Operation Time: Ø February 20th – April 19th | Vehicles per day: Ø 49



Inuvik-Aklavik Ice Road


Although construction of the the winter road to Tuktoyaktuk ended with the opening of the all-weather road in 2017, the Western Arctic still offers a pretty (and pretty legendary) ice road. The Inuvik to Aklavik winter road across the Mackenzie Delta offers stunning views, including the Richardson Mountains, along its 117-kilometre route, north of the Arctic Circle. Residents make sure to maximize sunlight on this drive, since there isn't very much of it early in the winter. Once April hits though, and each day is eight minutes longer than the one before, the road is buzzing with traffic as residents from across the region head to Aklavik for the annual Aklavik Jamboree, a fun-filled weekend of races, events and activities.


Length: 117 kilometres | Operation Time: Ø December 24th – April 29th | Vehicles per day: Ø 54



Wrigley-Fort Good Hope Winter Road


This is another winter road that drivers need to make sure they are prepared for. There are long stretches without cell phone coverage and there is only gas services in a few of the communities. Plus, with the short winter days, this most certainly isn't a there-and-back kind of day-trip. But this is the only way residents in the Sahtu region can get in to their tight-knit and picturesque communities by road. Starting at Wrigley, a community of 150, this road follows the path of the Deh Cho (Mackenzie River) north to Tulita, and then Norman Wells, and finally Fort Good Hope. (The road also branches off to the communities of Délįne and Colville Lake.)


This isn't for the dilettante. Residents who drive the Mackenzie Valley winter road are well-stocked, well-prepared and all-wheeled for this most epic of the Northwest Territories’ ice road adventures.


Length: 482 kilometres | Operation Time: Ø December 31st – March 24th | Vehicles per day: Ø 85



Further information on the Northwest Territories can be found at www.spectacularnwt.com.

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