From historic landmarks and traditional communities to adventurous diversions and wildlife-filled preserves, the three summer road trips stops explored here all foster a true appreciation of Canada’s genuinely untamed northern wilderness.
There’s still gold in the hills surrounding Dawson City, the former Yukon capital and the southern gateway to the Dempster Highway, which winds 730 gravelly clicks north to Inuvik, NWT. These days, however, shiny nuggets are far from the only draw. The vestiges of the late-19th-century Klondike Gold Rush are still prominent: There’s the Yukon Gold Panning Championships, which draws crowds each July; and Diamond Tooth Gerties saloon, where live can-can shows remain a staple and the Sourtoe Cocktail, made with a real mummified human toe, is still served. Tours of Robert Service‘s home, meanwhile, provide insights into the life and work of the poet known as the Bard of the Yukon, while the nearby summit of Midnight Dome offers an ideal vantage point to watch Northern Lights dance across the sky.
After filling their tanks, checking their spare tires and purchasing provisions for the 369-kilometre drive to Eagle Plains – where roofed lodgings and dining are first available – northbound road-trippers are soon treated to gorgeous views of Tombstone Territorial Park, where they can choose to camp amid jagged peaks and moss-carpeted valleys where moose and caribou roam.
Fort McPherson, a 175-year-old Mackenzie Delta trading post and National Historic Site, is often the first stop for northbound motorists who have crossed the Arctic Circle. The collision of cultures here is enthralling, with the Nitainlaii Visitor Centre delivering a fascinating introduction to local Gwich’in customs and a tiny Anglican graveyard providing the final resting place of the Lost Patrol, a Northwest Mounted Police unit that perished here in the winter of 1911.
The Dempster Highway ends 190 kms later in Inuvik, which is set spectacularly on the wildlife-rich delta of the Mackenzie River. This is the jumping-off point for all sorts of adventures in the Western Arctic: Whale-watching by kayak, wildlife-spotting by airplane and, if the Dempster has whetted motorists’ appetites, a 138-km northward drive to the Arctic coast on the two-year-old Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway.
Labrador Coastal Drive
The action often starts as soon as road-trippers sail out of Newfoundland’s St. Barbe Harbour aboard the MV Apollo car ferry. Nicknamed “Iceberg Alley” for the frozen giants that often crowd the waters separating the Labrador Peninsula from the island of Newfoundland, the Strait of Belle Isle also shelters seabirds, whales and seals, which are often spotted during the 90-minute voyage to Blanc Sablon, Que.
The 160-km Labrador Coastal Drive to Mary’s Harbour starts just east of there in L’Anse-au-Clair, where the Gateway to Labrador Visitor Centre orients drivers in a restored turn-of-the-century church. The town’s fine sandy beach provides a relaxing rest stop, while the nearby Florian Hotel is one of several comfortable lodging options along a route that’s also dotted with eateries specializing in fresh seafood. Just past there is the Point Amour Lighthouse Provincial Historic Site, where Atlantic Canada’s loftiest lighthouse looms over its rocky, treeless surroundings.
Turning back to Quebec, the Isle de Perroquets sanctuary provides a platform and viewing scope for spotting puffins on the rugged coastline explored by Jacques Cartier in 1534. A little further along the highway in Rivière-Saint-Paul, the Whiteley Museum celebrates the invention of the cod trap.
Hundreds of glacial erratics line the route as it winds north towards Red Bay, home of the world's first industrial-scale whale fishery. These days, the Red Bay National Historic Site Orientation Centre exhibits artifacts such as Basque clothing and utensils (the original whalers settled here from the Basque region of France and Spain) and a reconstructed 430-year-old whaling chapula.
Surrounding the St. Mary’s River, which spills over the nearby White Water Falls, the community of Mary’s Harbour is the principal gateway to the ferry-accessed Battle Harbour National Historic District. Once known as the capital of Labrador, this 250-year-old fishing station features beautifully refurbished residences and mercantile buildings, a reconstructed 19th-century wharf, and an interpretative centre offering guided tours.
Deh Cho Travel Connection
Revolving restaurants are all well and good when it comes to waterfall viewing, but I’ll take a slippery slab of rock every time.
Turning sideways to inch along a gravelly ledge, we pick our way toward a smooth finger of granite being sideswiped by the churning South Nahanni River. Stopping just short of Virginia Falls’ final plunge, we check our footing, turn to our nodding, smiling tour guide and take turns snapping selfies that prove exponentially rarer and more daring than anything we could capture atop Niagara Falls.
About twice the height of its much-more-famous Niagaran counterpart, 96-metre Virginia Falls thunders for a much smaller audience, owing to its remote location in the stunning Nahanni National Park Reserve on the Northwest Territories’ western fringe. While a few hardy souls hike or paddle into the UNESCO World Heritage site, most visitors arrive as I did – by chartered floatplane – with most of those taking off from the Mackenzie River aerodrome near the village of Fort Simpson.
NWT’s sixth-largest settlement – Fort Simpson, population 1,200, give or take – is also the northern-most point of the Deh Cho Travel Connection, a 3,000-kilometre driving loop that also winds through Northern Alberta and northeastern British Columbia. Similar to the two other summer road trips explored here, it encompasses enough historic landmarks, traditional and modern communities, adventurous diversions, and wildlife-filled preserves to foster a true appreciation of the authentic, untamed northern wilderness that most Canadians never visit.
Linking the Mackenzie, Liard and Alaska highways, this epic loop is named after the Mackenzie River, which is known as the Deh Cho, or “big river” in the Slavey language. It typically takes at least a week to complete by car, with towns and villages such as High Level, Alta., Hay River, NWT, Dawson Creek, B.C., and Fort St. John, B.C., offering roadside lodging and dining along the way.
The eastern half of the loop, between Grande Prairie, Alta. and Fort Simpson, NWT is ideal for visitors who prefer to catch their own dinner, with goldeye, northern pike and walleye abounding in spots such as Notikewin Provincial Park and the Twin Lakes Recreational Area.
Crossing from Alberta into NWT gets new arrivals a “North of 60 Certificate” at the 60th Parallel Information Centre, where Highway 35 becomes NWT Highway 1. This is also where the “Waterfalls Route” begins, and for good reason: Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park is home to 32-metre Alexandra Falls, which plunges into a limestone canyon that gets even deeper when three-tiered Louise Falls proceeds to slice through 400-million-year-old rock formations. Then there’s Sambaa Deh Falls Territorial Park, set on a bluff overlooking the Trout River, where the aptly-named Coral Falls is renowned among fossil hunters.
The Waterfalls Route gives way to the Heritage Route when the Mackenzie Highway turns north toward Fort Simpson. While there are many other worthy side trips along the Deh Cho, the 64-kilometre spur to Fort Simpson is an absolute must, if only to arrange a float-plane trip into Nahanni.
After soaring over the sea of muskeg lining the Belgium-sized preserve, my Simpson Air flight buzzes up the quartet of canyons leading to Virginia Falls. We crane our necks to admire the kilometre-high walls of First Canyon and double-check our seatbelts when Second Canyon’s colossal Pulpit Rock provides a natural obstacle for the pilot.
Virginia Falls looms into view minutes later. Our pilot flies over the park’s thundering centrepiece, comes in for a landing on the rippling river well above it and guides the De Havilland Beaver over to a set of wooden docks. From there, a boardwalk winds through pristine boreal forest before our group descends into selfie heaven.
Returning to the Liard Highway after a Fort Simpson stopover, most Deh Cho motorists head south onto the Alaska Highway and into the town of Fort Nelson, B.C., where the Heritage Museum displays pioneer artifacts and taxidermic triumphs while exploring the history of the rugged route right outside its doors.
South of here, the scenery takes centre stage once again, notably around the roadside hamlet of Pink Mountain, which is named after a nearby peak that glows pink at sunrise. This effect becomes even more pronounced during the spring wildflower bloom, when fireweed blossoms carpet the slopes and attract thousands of rare Arctic butterflies.
Looping back towards Grande Prairie, the Deh Cho’s final leg passes through Dawson Creek. “Mile 0” of the Alaska Highway shows off its road-trip credentials in the Station Museum and celebrates its artistic side in the Northern Alberta Railways Park’s Dawson Creek Art Gallery.
The writer was hosted by Simpson Air, which did not review this article.