It’s unlikely that you’ll encounter any traffic jams while road tripping in the South Slave Region of the Northwest Territories, but roaming herds of wild bison are another story.
They’re just part of the majestic natural wonders you’ll find driving the section of the territory situated south of Great Slave Lake and north of the Alberta border - pristine waterfalls, crunchy salt flats and driftwood-strewn beaches are all in your path.
As for the human touch, knowledgeable museum staff and helpful campground attendants are ready to share local lore and history with anyone who visits.
Entering the territory on Highway 1, coming north out of Alberta, you’ll soon approach the community of Enterprise.
But five minutes south of town you’ll want to stop at Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park. It’s one of the most popular parks in the territory and home to 32-metre-tall Alexandra Falls and the three-tiered Louise Falls. Take in the rushing water from one of the safe and sturdy overlooks, or descend the 138-step spiral staircase to the top of Louise Falls. If your cooler is full, stop for lunch at the picnic grounds in the park, or camp overnight at Louise Falls Campground, which has useful information about this site’s importance to the local Dene culture.
From Enterprise, it’s just a 30-minute drive to Hay River, on the shores of Great Slave Lake. This is the territory’s second-biggest town, with a population of 3,500, and it hosts an active commercial fishery. If you’re here on a Saturday in the summer, be sure to check out the Fisherman’s Wharf, which operates from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. On offer: “to die for” fish and chips, as well as local arts and crafts, and market-garden produce, according to Michelle Keizer, Tourism Development Officer for the South Slave Region.
A stop at the Hay River visitor information centre will arm you with everything you need to know about nearby campgrounds and other accommodations, as well as information on how to get a fishing licence, where to do the best beachcombing and more. The Hay River Museum, housed in a former Hudson’s Bay Company store, also provides a wealth of information about the history, heritage and culture of the area.
About 160 kilometres due west, where the Slave River flows into Great Slave Lake, lies Fort Resolution, the oldest continuously occupied town in the territory.
On your way here you’ll pass Pine Point, an abandoned mining town that’s been stopped in time, and Little Buffalo River Crossing Territorial Park, a great place to camp for the night.
There’s no museum in Fort Resolution but, according to Ms. Keizer, someone at the local band office is usually willing to share some lore with interested visitors. Just past town, check out Mission Island, a peninsula with historic log cabins and other structures, where the community often holds festivals and events.
Bid farewell to Great Slave Lake and backtrack about 100 kilometres to Highway 5, which leads southeast into Wood Buffalo National Park and onwards to Fort Smith.
Aside from spotting bison, bears, lynx and wolves, the Salt Plains in this park are a huge draw. They’re the result of saline minerals surfacing from an ancient seabed, and they act as a great, shimmering salt lick for the park’s wildlife.
Ms. Keizer recommends ditching your shoes and taking a barefoot hike.
“It’s such an incredible feeling,” she said. “You’re exfoliating your feet just walking through the salt and the mud. It’s like a natural spa.”
Carry on to Fort Smith, home to about 2,500 Métis, First Nations and non-Native people. The town is known for its world-class whitewater paddling along the Slave River and offers excellent hiking and cycling on the riverfront Thebacha Trail.
The Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre holds one of Canada’s best collections of northern Native and early non-Native settlement material, with more than 17,000 artifacts on hand. A birch-bark canoe, furs, beadwork, and a reconstructed trapper’s cabin and trading post are just some of the highlights.
Back west of Enterprise are two more South Slave communities that should be on your route. Kakisa, on Kakisa Lake, between Enterprise and Fort Providence, is a tiny Dene community that’s home to less than 50 people. It’s also the location of Lady Evelyn Falls, a 17-metre-high phenomenon where the Kakisa River cascades over an ancient coral reef. The Lady Evelyn Falls Territorial Park has 23 powered campsites, showers, potable water and an interpretive centre.
Bison are not an uncommon site throughout the South Slave Region. But if you haven’t seen one yet, you’re almost guaranteed to do so near Fort Providence, the historic Dene community at the headwaters of the Mackenzie River, just west of Great Slave Lake.
The one-tonne beauties are known to roam freely in town and munch on residents’ lawns here because Fort Providence is the western tip of the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary.
Be respectful and patient with these giant creatures that have lived in these parts long before we did.
Just remember: Your road trip wouldn’t be complete without at least one bison jam.
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