Northern Alberta and the adjoining southern portion of the NWT were first opened up to trade courtesy of the mighty rivers that flow through these parts. Traders, particularly the Hudson’s Bay Company, used routes along the Peace, Hay, Slave, Liard and Mackenzie rivers to maintain remote outposts and foster commercial relations with local Aboriginal people. Some of these far-flung communities have survived to the present day, and the circuit of roads connecting them has become known as the Deh Cho Trail, which local tourism organizations promote extensively (t 867 873 7200, t 1 800 661 0788, w dehchotravel.com) in a bid to lure travellers away from the Alaska Highway.
The southern parts of this 1800km loop weave their way through an all but uninhabited landscape of rippling hills, rivers, lakes, lonely farms and open prairie. Yet most of the route passes through a monotonous mantle of forest and after hours of motoring through it, the region’s very modest communities appear as exceptional highlights. In truth, they offer very few attractions worthy of a stop. The sheer untrammelled wilderness is a boon for adventurers, especially anglers or boaters. Kayakers and canoers will find extraordinary rapids and waterfalls, and long-distance lake and river systems invite expeditions. But for most outdoor enthusiasts, the main reason to travel the Deh Cho Trail is to reach a trio of attractions off it: the impressive wilderness of Nahanni National Park, the bison and crane sanctuary of Wood Buffalo National Park and Yellowknife, the capital city of the NWT and one of Canada’s most accessible and reliable places to enjoy the Northern Lights.
The Deh Cho loop incorporates the initial leg of the Alaska Highway before branching off near Fort Nelson onto the Liard Highway. This is a long, largely gravel road passing within sight of Nahanni National Park and close to Fort Simpson, from where the Mackenzie Highway (Hwy-1) pushes its way east and then south beyond the Alberta border (as Hwy-35) to Peace River. A number of highways there allow you to complete the loop back to BC.
With gorges deeper than the Grand Canyon and waterfalls twice the height of Niagara, the vast Nahanni National Park Reserve (reserve office t 867 695 7750, w pc.gc.ca/nahanni) ranks as one of North America’s finest national parks and one of the most rugged wilderness areas anywhere in the world.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nahanni is close to the Yukon border in the heart of the Mackenzie Mountains and surrounds the South Nahanni River, a renowned 322km stretch whose whitewater torrents, pristine mountains and 1200m-deep canyons have attracted explorers and thrill-seeking canoeists alike – this is home to one of the world’s best whitewater runs. Unless you fit one of these categories or you fork out oodles of dollars for guided trips by boat or sightseeing by air, getting close to the best areas is difficult: the park is roadless and wild and there are no formal trails, although heavy use has made some routes well defined.
A reservation and fee system is in place for people wishing to use the river: the day-use fee is $24.50. There are strict quotas on visitors, so check the latest details whether you intend to visit independently or with a tour. For full information, contact the reserve office or the tourist office in Fort Simpson.
As for tours, operators in Fort Simpson cater to all levels of demand, from day-trippers wanting air tours of the big set-pieces to self-contained canoers and walkers on month-long expeditions who require no more than a drop-off or pick-up by air. Day-trips will likely depend on availability, so book well in advance. If you are in a party of fewer than three and just turn up, contact the airlines and ask to be put on a waiting list – they will contact you if they find others to fill a trip.
Even experienced, self-sufficient explorers should note it saves considerable time, hassle and money to take a three- or four-week tour with a licensed outfitter in Fort Simpson. The spectacular Virginia Falls is the most popular day-trip in the park.
Canadian River Expeditionst 867 668 3180, t 1 800 297 6927, w nahanni.com. Offers one- to two-week rafting trips ($5130/$5725 plus park fee of $147.20).
Nahanni Wilderness Adventuret 403 678 3374, t 1 888 897 5223, w nahanniwild.com. Offers a variety of multi-day rafting, canoeing, kayaking and hiking excursions on the Nahanni (starting at $4695 plus $147.20 park fee).
North Nahanni Naturalist Lodget 1 867 695 2116, t 1 888 880 6665, w nnnlodge.ca. Offers other tours of the region and accommodation in a pleasant backcountry lodge (beginning at $1500 for five days).
Simpson Airt 867 695 2505, t 1 866 995 2505, w simpsonair.ca. Offers floatplane day-trips at a slightly cheaper price, as well as a combined flight and cabin rental on Little Doctor Lake ($1500/two days, $2500/week).
Wolverine Airt 867 695 2263, t 1 888 695 2263, w wolverineair. Take groups of three for a day-trip by floatplane to Nahanni for $2200, with stops at Virginia Falls (1.5hr stopover), Glacier Lake (1hr stopover) and for a few minutes at the idyllic Little Doctor Lake at the edge of the mountain range.