Travelling by foot in the North allows you to slow down and smell the wild roses—and no matter where you are, there’s opportunity to hit both newly established trails and ancient routes. We’ve picked 12 near-urban day-hikes and iconic adventures from across the territories, with a bit of something for everyone.
The Chilkoot Trail
An adventure through ghost towns, rainforest and snowy alpine
The historic Chilkoot Trail begins near Skagway, Alaska and crosses through three distinct climate zones, an international border and two Klondike-era ghost towns. For prospectors in the great Gold Rush of 1896-1899, it was an arduous 53-kilometre chunk of the trail that would lead to Dawson City. Today, it’s a well-trod path used by everyone from runners, who finish it in a day (the fastest time being five hours and 27 minutes, run by Geoff Roes) to more casual hikers and families who cross it over three to five days.
Dan Hudson, a Canmore, Alberta-based visual artist, was one of three artists who took the trail last year in a government-sponsored wilderness art residency. He spent two weeks exploring the area with his partner. “Because we had so much time I think we went to pretty well [every campsite],” says Hudson. He and his partner were able to stop and make a given campsite their home base for local exploration as they crossed through rainforest, boreal forest and snowy alpine terrain, and the extra time gave him plenty of opportunity to stop and take out his paints. But far from the romantic ideal of the artist wandering alone into the wilderness to hone their craft, Hudson says his adventure was actually very social. “Most people are hiking in the same direction, so one of the things we really enjoyed that we also didn’t expect was the social aspect,” says Hudson. “As you’re going along, there are areas to cook so you get to know people who are in the camp, and then maybe you see them the next night at the next camp or along the trail, so you get to know people pretty well. That was a really nice part of it.”
He had prepared for the trip by reading history books on the area by Pierre Berton and Berton’s mother, but on the trail he found himself thinking about the routes that existed before that—trails that had been used for thousands of years by indigenous groups involved in a trade network that criss-crossed the continent. No evidence of that traffic is visible to the naked eye today, overrun as it was by the brief period of bonanza madness. “The Gold Rush, in two years, completely altered that landscape,” says Hudson.
“One of the really cool things, being an artist, especially if you spend time out on the landscape doing some drawing or doing some photography, is you realize how fast things change,” says Hudson. “You first arrive at a landscape and you think nothing is going on. The longer you stay there and stay still, the more you realize just how much the world changes and how quickly.” The Chilkoot in itself tells stories of change: the change brought by the Gold Rush and afterwards, as that period became a distant memory, and the changes that small differences in elevation can cause to make such a small area contain multitudes.
Grey Mountain: A view of Whitehorse and its sprawling wilderness suburbs
If you have just one day in Whitehorse free of obligation, this hike is the perfect way to spend it. There is a parking lot at the trailhead, and the hike will take you up to the summit of a mountain that looms right over the city. You can either go 2.5 kilometres to the summit and soak in the view of Whitehorse, Marsh Lake and Lake Laberge or continue along the ridge to make a day of it.
Goldensides: Dip your toe into Tombstone Territorial Park on this roadside hike
If you’re passing through Tombstone on your way down the Dempster Highway, or if you’re in Dawson City and want to get out of town for a day, Goldensides is a great introductory trail to experience a bit of the park. The route is clear and the incline is enough for you to work up a bit of a sweat in a short amount of time. And it’s worth it to go all the way to the end of the trail. At the top, you have full views of two completely different worlds: one in which a lonely road weaves through the tundra-like mountains, and one in which these mountains extend off forever into the horizon, full of potential for any adventure.
The many faces of Nahanni
An adventure every day in the NWT’s iconic wilderness playground
Each day on the Nahanni is a completely different landscape, a completely different experience,” says Dorothy Stearns, a park manager. Towering mountains, sweeping plateau panoramas, dramatic canyons, the awesome Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls) are all short hikes from popular drop-off locations or stops along the river route. But because NahanniNational Park Reserve is a designated wilderness area, you won’t find much for marked trails. The routes are essentially natural paths that “wildlife and people have made,” says Stearns. Keep in mind, these hikes aren’t for beginners: medical help for a twisted ankle could be days away in such a remote setting, so heading out without a guide is recommended only for the experienced backcountry hiker. Here are just a few of the wonders you’ll see in the Nahanni.
Cirque of the Unclimbables: Fairies and giants await
A nine-kilometre hike that follows Brintnell Creek from the South Nahanni River will take you to Glacier Lake. There you can set up camp and trek along the lake and into the Cirque of the Unclimbables to marvel at the granite giants, explore the lush, alpine Fairy Meadows and more.
GahnĮhthah MĮe: The path to a sacred place
This four-hour hike is a cultural pilgrimage to the massive tufa mounds—“a place of great significance to the Deh Cho First Nation and one of the major geologic landforms that contributed to Nahanni’s destination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” says Stearns. The experience begins with a fire-feeding ceremony and traditional Dene prayer. Due to the significance of the area, park staff must accompany visitors.
Sunblood Mountain: A hike from the falls
After gaping at the flow of the South Nahanni River plummeting 92 metres at NaĮlĮcho (Virginia Falls), grab your day-bag, paddle across the river and set out on an eight-kilometre-return hike through spruce and pine forest and up scree slopes to the top of Sunblood Mountain.
Scow Creek: The highs and the lows
This eight-kilometre trek up into the Headless Range provides a breathtaking view of Deadman Valley and Second Canyon. “You get a bit of the feel of the plateau country when you’re up on top of the Scow Creek and you’re just looking over the plateaus,” says Stearns.
Big Hill Lake: A day trip off the highway
You’re better off parking along the shoulder of Yellowknife’s Ingraham Trail than chancing your vehicle up a pothole- and boulder-ridden dirt road to the trailhead, but at least this will help get you used to the main feature of this hike: obstacles. Not to say any of them are too daunting, but every stage of the trail to Big Hill Lake presents a new challenge. You go from steep uphill to balancing on ridges to hopping across crevasses to chancing makeshift boardwalks across marsh. Finally you’re faced with the choice of crossing a boulder field or scaling a small rockface to get to the trail’s namesake. But it’s beautiful every step of the way, and the lake itself is a small slice of paradise. Sloping rockfaces to the water make it great for a swim and a picnic, and the lake is home to plenty of trout and jackfish. Just don’t overdo it on the cold brews—you’ve still got to hike back.
Trans Canada, Fort Smith: Hike this small Northern town
The Trans Canada Trail follows the banks of the Slave River from Fitzgerald, Alberta over the 60th parallel to Fort Smith, NWT. If you’re driving through, there are sections you should check out to get out of the car and breathe a little fresh air. The Mountain Portage Loop will give you a view of some of the river’s famed rapids as well as a nesting area for white pelicans, and it is graced by sandy beaches and warm waters. And once you’re in Fort Smith itself, a 5.6-kilometre trail stretches from Queen Elizabeth Campground to Axe Handle Hill. If you’ve got time to spare, this is the best way to see the town.
Where the glaciers cut a path
On his initial trip, Lewyckyj took a boat up from Pangnirtung to hike the gravelly pass (cut relatively recently by retreating continental glaciers) to Summit Lake, where he and two friends set up camp near Thor Peak and its thousands of feet of unbroken granite face. The second time, he came in from the north via a three-hour boat ride from Qikiqtarjuaq to trek south.
“The hike itself is not physically demanding in the sense that you’re not going thousands of feet up and down and things of that nature,” says Lewyckyj. But it’s cold, even in summer. “Most of the crossings, your feet go numb halfway across and some of them get downright dangerous.” The time of day is important when considering a crossing: at night and in the morning, when temperatures cool down, glacier run-off slows down. (Part of the Penny Ice Cap is said to be a relic of the Laurentide Ice Sheet that covered most of Canada 20,000 years ago.) “In the morning, you get up and the stream might be a trickle or something very small; by mid-afternoon, it might be five or ten times more water,” he says. A slight misstep could put you in cold water, and hypothermia is suddenly a risk.
But the risk, if you’re prepared for it, is worth enduring for the beauty. After days of rain his last time in, Lewykyj saw the clouds beginning to part at Summit Lake, “so I climbed as far up as I felt comfortable going” to sit in the sun and get a panoramic view of the whole valley, with Thor Peak in the distance. “I think I actually ended up falling asleep for a while.”
“We put up with a lot of pain and discomfort to get some of these short moments of brilliance, of just pure beauty, relaxation,” he says.
It’s like two different hikes. The northern part of the Akshayuk Pass in Auyuittuq National Park is colder, wetter and the trail less defined than the more popular southern portion. “You feel like you’re alone in the world,” says Nestor Lewyckyj, an experienced hiker who returned to do the entire 97-kilometre pass five years after first hiking the southern part.
Sylvia Grinnell Park: Not far from the city
Crest a hill on the outskirts of town, take a few steps toward the Iqaluit Kuunga and suddenly the city is gone. Before you: a sometimes-gravelly, sometimes-blooming tundra valley expanse to explore. You can follow the beaten path, by taking one of the established hiking trails. There’s the River Valley Route that follows the Sylvia Grinnell River (Iqaluit Kuunga) inland. You can’t go wrong heading out on your own either. Marvel at Iqaluit’s giant tides—some of the greatest in the world. Or follow the sound of crashing water to the river’s waterfalls, where you can try to snag an Arctic char. If you get skunked, wander toward Frobisher Bay to watch and learn: Iqalungmiut set up summer camps along the river and are true pros, as evidenced by the abundance of char drying on racks outside their tents.
Ovayok Park: A hike where giants sleep
Roughly 15 kilometres from the Kitikmeot hub, but visible from town, stands Ovayok, the 200-metre tall esker also known as Mount Pelly. Drive the rough road out to the park and then set out on one—or all—of the five hiking trails. Learn about the legend of Ovayok—the giant whose body turned to stone—and check out Inuit and pre-Inuit relics left behind by the people that have lived in the area going back thousands of years. And if you’re lucky, you might even see a muskox or ten from up there.