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The quintessence on Canada’s Northwest Territories - a pocket guide


Paddling the Nahanni River - Credit: Colin Field & NWTT

The Northwest Territories is one of the most spectacular parts of Canada – encompassing a variety of landscapes, cultures, notable landmarks, and ways of living. In many ways, the open wilderness and welcoming communities make it feel familiar to anyone who’s travelled within Canada. The Northwest Territories is also remarkably unique – a place where wonder and adventure are within reach and where wild questions have wild answers.


If you’ve ever wondered what makes each region in the Northwest Territories different or when is the best time to see the Northern Lights, here’s your pocket guide to the Northwest Territories.



Where is the Northwest Territories on the map of Canada?


The Northwest Territories is the central territory in Canada’s North, with the Yukon to the west and Nunavut to the east. Despite being smaller in area than Nunavut, the Northwest Territories has a much larger southern border and neighbours British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan along the 60th parallel.


Being just above these provinces, the Northwest Territories is more accessible than people imagine. There are major highways that connect the Northwest Territories to cities in the Yukon, BC, and Alberta (some of these highways make up world-renowned road trips that attract visitors from around the world) and flights connect Yellowknife to these cities as well as major cities out east like Toronto and Ottawa.


Credit: Angela Gzowski

What are the regions of the Northwest Territories?


There are five distinct regions in the Northwest Territories – all with different defining features and unique cultures and histories. These are the South Slave Region, North Slave Region, Dehcho Region, Sahtu Region, and Western Arctic Region.


Each of these regions is truly unique. From the bustling capital of Yellowknife and the colossal arms of Great Slave Lake – where amazing fishing awaits – in the North Slave Region to the formidable and enduring mountainous landscapes of the Sahtu or the geological wonders of rising pingos in the Western Arctic, every region in the Northwest Territories is a place of spectacular and uniquely diverse beauty.


Waiting to explore the entire territory, Nahanni National Park - Credit: Darren Roberts Photography

When to visit the Northwest Territories


From the magical energy you’ll feel under the summer’s Midnight Sun to the sheer number of unforgettable winter experiences – there’s really no wrong time to visit the Northwest Territories. When planning your trip, there are a few key seasons to consider if you have a specific experience in mind.


The Northern Lights are visible during two seasons – Fall Aurora from mid-August to early October and Winter Aurora from late-November through to early April. The fishing season typically kicks off in June when the waters finish thawing and open up, which also marks the start of the canoeing and kayaking seasons.


Finding the best time to take a trip to the Northwest Territories depends on what you want to experience – a winter wonderland with dazzling Aurora or the picturesque beauty of a thriving and verdant North under the summer sun.


Fishing under the midnight sun - Credit: Corey Myers

What is the average temperature?


The topics of weather and temperature are some of the most frequently asked questions about the Northwest Territories. Given what most people know about Canada’s North and our spectacular winters, it’s important to know ahead of time what temperature and weather you can expect when visiting the Northwest Territories.


The Northwest Territories is not the bitterly cold wilderness that some people imagine – not unless you choose to really embrace your adventurous side and test your mettle. In the winter, the average temperatures in the South Slave Region shift between a high of -14°c (6°f) and a low of -23°c (-10°f). Farther north, Yellowknife enjoys average winter temperatures between a high of -18°c (0°f) and a low of -26°c (-14°f) while the town of Inuvik in the Western Arctic Region experiences average highs of -20°c (-4°f) and a low of -28°c (-19°f).


If you visit the NWT in the winter, getting a first-hand experience of a true Northern winter is part of the allure, and you’ll quickly find that residents will readily extend some Northern hospitality and offer you their winter gear, handy tips, and even a seat at their wood-burning stove. Northerners know that staying active is a surefire way to keep warm – all the more reason to mush around with a dog team or participate in lively cultural activities at winter festivals.


Summer is a whole different story – under the Midnight Sun, the NWT becomes a land of energizing sunlight and cool lakeside breezes. Hay River in the South Slave Region enjoys average summer highs of 21°c (70°f) and lows of 11°c (52°f). In the capital, Yellowknife’s summers are very similar, and even the Western Arctic becomes a summer paradise, with Inuvik’s averages between a high of 20°c (67°f) and a low of 9°c (47°f).



How many official languages does the Northwest Territories have?


The Northwest Territories has been the home of diverse and thriving Indigenous cultures since time immemorial and recognizes 11 official languages – Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun, Inuvialuktun, Gwich’in, North Slavey, South Slavey, Tłı̨chǫ, Chipewyan, Cree, English, and French. These are the languages of the different nations and people that live across all the regions of the Northwest Territories. Just like traditional ways of living, the knowledge of these languages thrives in communities where the knowledge is passed down through generations by elders, artists, and knowledge holders.


While it’s perfectly possible to experience the Northwest Territories without knowing all these languages, you’ll find many opportunities to pick up a few words at local visitor centres or galleries, or by asking local guides or Indigenous tour operators. Whether it’s the traditional name of a community or just a friendly greeting, you can experience the culture and diversity of the Northwest Territories through its many languages.



How do I get to the Northwest Territories?


By road or by air, the Northwest Territories is more accessible than people think.


For road travellers, three southern highways link to the Northwest Territories. Drive up the Alaska Highway through the Yukon to reach the legendary Dempster Highway to the Western Arctic hub of Inuvik and the coastal town of Tuktoyaktuk. Alberta Highway 35 heads north through the boreal forest to connect with NWT Highway 1 south of Hay River. From British Columbia, take Highway 77 to the pioneering Liard Trail, running parallel to the Mackenzie Mountains and ending in Fort Simpson.


Flying into Yellowknife is easy with major airlines coming from Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Whitehorse. Several airlines also connect Yellowknife to regional hubs through regular flights.


It’s never been easier to get to the NWT and travel around to interconnected communities across the territory. Chartered planes can take you to smaller communities, distant wilderness lodges, or remote drop-off locations for those looking for complete serenity and immersion. All major communities in the territory, and many of the smaller ones, are linked by year-round highways. Most of these routes are paved, and can be navigated by standard passenger cars, RVs, and other vehicles. Be sure to check road conditions and warnings on the Highway Conditions Website before heading out.


Floatplane - Credit: Angela Gzowski

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

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