Photograph by Mike Beedell, Parks Canada Agency/Reuters
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Hikers explore Ram Plateau in Nahanni National Park Reserve.
Photograph by Mike Beedell, Parks Canada Agency/Reuters

Nahanni National Park Reserve

Location: Northwest Territories
Date Established: 1972
Size: Over 413,000 acres

In the summer of 1928, American adventurer Fenley Hunter paddled up the South Nahanni River hoping to find a huge waterfall that seemed largely the stuff of Dene legend at the time. Hunter thought he would never make it. Halfway upstream he wrote: “The Nahanni is unknown and will remain so until another age brings a change in the conformation of these mountains. It is an impossible stream, and a stiff rapid is met on average every mile, and they seem countless.”

The subsequent decades have proved Hunter wrong. Multiday canoeing, kayaking, and rafting trips on the South Nahanni, and to a lesser extent on the Flat and Little Nahanni Rivers, are now the main attractions in Nahanni National Park Reserve.

Park Facts

Continental Divide The park is more than seven million acres of wilderness that rolls out of the ice fields, mountains, alpine tundra, and boreal forest along the Continental Divide separating the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Paddlers' Paradise For experienced paddlers, the South Nahanni is what Everest is to mountaineers—remote, breathtaking, and mystical. The river may not be the most difficult in the world, but neither is it for the faint of heart. It plunges through a series of four spectacular canyons, churning up rapids, boils, and whirlpools with sinister names such as Hell’s Gate, or misleading ones like Tricky Current and Lafferty’s Riffle, which can be equally challenging.

Virginia Falls While river trips are recommended only for skilled paddlers or those travelling with licensed outfitters, visitors of all ages can fly into Virginia Falls, which is twice the height of Niagara.

Legends and Lore Nahanni is rich with legends of lost gold, murder, and headless men, along with airier lore of tropical gardens and Dene spirits that dwell in the vents of the river valley’s tufa mounds and hot springs.

World Heritage Site Undisturbed by roads or seismic lines, Nahanni was, along with Yellowstone, one of the first parks to be listed as a World Heritage site.

Animal Life Grizzly bears, black bears, moose, mountain caribou, trumpeter swans, and upland sandpipers are among the 42 species of mammals and 180 species of birds found in the park.

How to Get There

You can get to Nahanni by flying to Fort Simpson via Yellowknife, and then to the river by floatplane from Fort Simpson. Alternatively, you can make the 18-hour, 913-mile drive from Edmonton to Fort Simpson in two days along the Mackenzie Highway. For those driving north from Edmonton looking for a hotel, High Level in Alberta is the best stopover. Twin Falls Park, 45 miles north of the Alberta/Northwest Territories border, offers good camping.

Note: One can drive to Fort Simpson via the Alaska and Liard Highways.

When to Go

The South Nahanni is in a serious spring flood up until early June and sometimes later. The risk of severe weather toward the end of August makes it unwise to go any later, so the best time is between June and August.

How to Visit

Take a day trip from Fort Simpson, Fort Liard, and Muncho Lake in northern British Columbia; trips involve a 90-minute to two-hour flight to Virginia Falls and the surrounding area.

A Parks Canada interpreter is usually on hand at Virginia Falls to give visitors a briefing about the area and what they can see. You can then take a very easy 30-minute hike to the Virginia Falls viewpoint, which offers a breathtaking view of Sluicebox Rapids and the waterfall. The more demanding portage trail around the falls takes about an hour. Pack a rain jacket or an extra sweater if you choose to do this. While it might be sweltering at the top of the falls, the temperature drops by at least 10 or 15 degrees down below in the mist.

You can also plan canoe, kayak, and raft trips—they’ll take from eight days to three weeks. Parks Canada highly recommends that people go with a registered, licensed outfitter. Starting points are the Moose Ponds (21 days), Island Lakes (14–18 days), Rabbitkettle Lake (10–14 days), and Virginia Falls (7–10 days). The ending points are Blackstone Territorial Park for campers and Lindberg Landing for those who want a cozy cabin. (Deregistration takes place at the Nahanni National Park Reserve Office in Nahanni Butte.) Both are located on the Liard River near the confluence of the South Nahanni.

If you wish to paddle on your own, Nahanni River Adventures (a licensed outfitter) has a guide which you should bring along with your 1:250,000 topographical maps. Advanced reservations and permits are required. Visitors must register and check out at the beginning and end of their trip.

—Text adapted from the 2011 National Geographic book Guide to the National Parks of Canada