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.