Photograph by John Sylvester, All Canada Photos
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Hikers take a break—with a sweeping view—in Nahanni National Park Reserve.
Photograph by John Sylvester, All Canada Photos

Nahanni National Park Reserve

Soar west from Fort Simpson via Twin Otter floatplane to Nahanni National Park Reserve—expanded sixfold in 2009 to span almost 12,000 square miles. At the 62nd parallel, this land of the midnight sun in Canada's Northwest Territories covers the vast plains and limestone karst lands of the Ram Plateau in the Mackenzie Mountains. You can descend into Canada's deepest ancient river canyons, reaching 3,000 feet, untouched by the last ice age, and home to the Dene people for thousands of years.

"From the Moose Ponds, the high alpine lakes that are the source of the Nahanni, to Nahanni Butte, a tiny village just 750 feet above sea level where the Nahanni and Liard Rivers converge—these canyons encompass some of the most diverse landscapes and ecosystems on the planet," says veteran guide Neil Hartling. Canada's most revered river for expeditions, the Nahanni also brims with the lore of Klondike gold prospectors, trappers, European adventurers, and their gory misfortunes in places like Headless Creek and Deadmen Valley.

What to See: Stand at the thundering precipice of 302-foot-high Virginia Falls, almost twice the height of Niagara Falls. See rare orchids thriving in its billowing mist. Watch from the 4,757-foot summit of Sunblood Mountain as Dall sheep leap from crag to crag. Examine Rabbitkettle's volcanic Tufa Mounds, or luxuriate neck-deep with mud masks in Kraus Hotsprings. "The Nahanni's first canyon, the steepest and deepest of them all, culminates at the hot springs," Hartling says. "That's where prospector and trapper Gus Kraus lived before the Nahanni became [part of] a national park reserve. In the winter, when it was 40 below outside, his dirt floor was so warm [from the geothermal heat] that he could walk around in bare feet."

When to Go: Mother Nature rules. Late June to mid-August is prime. Serious spring flooding can happen well into June. Severe weather is also common late in August.

Where to Stay: Purists camp on the Nahanni's shores, sharing campfire tales like that of the McLeod brothers, found decapitated here in 1905. The Nahanni Mountain Lodge on Little Doctor Lake was originally built by pioneer Kraus and his wife, Mary, of Kraus Hotsprings fame. It's accessible by floatplane only.

How to Get Around: Parks Canada highly recommends paddlers go with a registered, licensed outfitter. Nahanni River Adventures offers trips of various lengths and skill levels, with hiking, rafting, and paddling options. Park reservations and registration are required. More comfy day-trips via floatplane leave from Fort Simpson, Fort Liard, and Muncho Lake in northern British Columbia, offering a 90-minute to two-hour flight to Virginia Falls and surrounding areas.

What to Eat: Expedition paddlers dine on local delicacies like arctic char, Taku River salmon, and caribou—a no-fuss presentation, just a plate in hand riverside, but with a guaranteed spectacular view.

What to Read Before You Go: Dangerous River: Adventure on the Nahanni, by Raymond M. Patterson (TouchWood Editions, 2009), chronicles the author's expeditions up the then unexplored Nahanni River in the 1920s.

Fun Fact: Late Canadian Prime Minister and veteran paddler Pierre Trudeau first protected this wildly diverse waterway with national park reserve status in 1972, paving the way for Nahanni to be designated the world's first UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. Trudeau's eldest son, Justin, helped with the park's recent expansion.

Toronto-based writer Liz Beatty is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler. Her work has appeared in Toronto Life, Experience magazine, and others. She also writes for In the Hills magazine.