When it comes to Canada’s Northwest Territories, it’s often Yellowknife that comes to mind. I mean, other things that come to mind are likely polar bears, cold weather, northern lights, and Inuit culture, but in terms of places, Yellowknife is often the most known. Not only is Yellowknife the capital of the Northwest Territories, but it’s also home to the biggest airport, a variety of hotels and amenities, and cool things to do.
Whether you’re looking for a secluded fishing vacation or a chance to see the magnificent aurora borealis, we’ve got you covered in this travel guide of Yellowknife, which includes what to do, where to stay, how to get there, and more.
Although situated in Canada’s deep north, Yellowknife is unique in that it sits in a transitional nature zone where the northern fir forest begins to turn into a treeless tundra. In fact, Yellowknife, which consists of both an old town and a modern town, is surrounded by a landscape of birch, poplar, and dwarf firs, as well as the shores of Great Slave Lake.
Although it’s fairly known now as a diamond and gold mining city, its history dates back thousands of years with the First Nation Peoples. It wasn’t until the 18th century when the Europeans arrived, due to the gold rush of 1934. Today, it is the largest community in the Northwest Territories and is often referred to as the nerve centre of Northern Canada.
Getting to Yellowknife
Yellowknife is a small city located on the Northern shores of Great Slave Lake, about 500 kilometres north of the Alberta border. It is accessible via Highway 1 from Alberta or highway 7 from British Columbia. The highway is paved from Alberta and mostly gravel coming from BC.
Getting to Yellowknife by Car
For those doing a road trip to Yellowknife, you’ll be coming from Alberta or BC. If you’re coming from the Yukon, you will need to cut through BC as there are no roads through Nahanni National Park. It is a fairly straight-forward and simple drive. Our only recommendation would be to know the range of your vehicle and to make sure you have sufficient fuel.
If you’re coming from Alberta, you’ll want to make sure you stop along the way to see both Alexandra Falls and Louise Falls, which are located in Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park. They are quite close to Hay River, which is a good place to grab a bite to eat, fuel up, and perhaps stay the night. The distance from Edmonton to Yellowknife is almost 1,500 kilometres and will take around 17 hours.
If you’re coming from BC, the last decent-sized town you’ll see is Fort Nelson. From here the distance is 1,000 kilometres, but it can still take upwards of 15 hours due to the gravel road you’ll hit once you enter the Northwest Territories. If you’re coming this way, we highly recommend stopping in Fort Simpson to take a flight-seeing tour over magnificent Nahanni National Park. Words cannot describe how incredibly beautiful this place is. It was also the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world!
There are interesting drives around Yellowknife as well, such as Ingraham Trail (Hwy. 4) to Tibbitt Lake, and Hwy. 3 northwest to Behchoko, also on Great Slave Lake. The same road goes to the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary.
Getting to Yellowknife by Plane
While the drive makes for a great road trip, most people arrive via plane. Yellowknife is home to the biggest airport in the Northwest Territories. Yellowknife Airport (YZF) has regularly scheduled passenger service and serves up to 600,000 passengers each year. It is served quite regularly from cities such as Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver. It is also served by regional airlines that come from Whitehorse and other smaller communities throughout Canada’s north.
Yellowknife is fairly easy to explore on foot (and the odd taxi), but rental cars are available for those wanting to venture out further. The airport is approximately 15 minutes from town. We find that you’ll always save money on rental cars by booking in advance. Examples of rental car companies available are Budget, National, and Hertz. However, you can also inquire in-person upon arrival.
If you’re not renting a car, there are also hotel shuttles, which most hotels partner together to offer. This makes it super easy to get to your hotel without any worries. In addition to rental cars and hotel shuttles, there are also taxis for those seeking maximum convenience. The two taxi companies are Aurora Taxi and City Cabs. Expect to pay around $15-20 to get from the airport to the city.
Best Time to Visit Yellowknife
The best time to visit Yellowknife will largely depend on what you’re looking to do. Generally speaking, the most popular time to visit is in the summer months when the temperature is quite warm. This is a popular time for road trips, fishing, hunting, boating, flight-seeing tours, and more. However, it is not the best time to see the Northern Lights as the sun barely goes down during the summer season. Generally, the best time to see the Nothern Lights is in the fall or winter months when the days are shorter. If you’re looking to do winter activities, then you’ll likely want to visit between December and March when the lake freezes over and you can drive the ice road or partake in a number of winter activities such as ice fishing, snowmobiling, and dog-sledding. Just make sure you dress for the weather in Canada.
What to Do in Yellowknife
Now for the exciting part. All the cool things to do and places to see in Yellowknife, NWT. We’ll include activities that year-round, as well as activities that specific to the winter and summer months.
Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre
With exhibits and artifacts dedicated to the cultures and history of the NWT, the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre has become the top attraction in Yellowknife. The museum displays and preserves important documents, photos, sound recordings, artifacts, and other materials related to the history of this vast northern region as well as the culture of the Dene First Nations people and the pervasive influence of the fur trade. For good knowledge of the territory, make this museum your first stop.
Cameron Falls Trail
While it’s not located right in Yellowknife, it’s only about 50 kilometres away and is a popular and easy hiking trail. Part of the reason Cameron Falls Trail is popular is because of its beauty and because of how easy it is. In fact, it’s not even a hike. It’s only a 20-minute walk but it is impressive to see in both summer and in the winter. Plus, if you do want more adventure, there are longer hikes as well, such as the trail to the Cameron River Ramparts Waterfalls, which are about 9-kilometres from Cameron Falls.
Yellowknife and the surrounding area is a great place to see from a plane. Luckily, there are a number of operators offering flightseeing tours in floatplanes, allowing you to not only get up in the sky for a birds-eye-view but also an opportunity to land on remote lakes. In fact, one of the most popular things to do in Yellowknife, albeit expensive, is to fly into remote fishing and hunting lodges where you can enjoy pristine and secluded nature while also having delicious meals prepared for you.
Old Town Yellowknife
Yellowknife is divided into a new town and an old town. As you may have guessed, the old town is where all the history is. With the discovery of gold in 1934 and Yellowknife’s first gold rush the following year, eager miners built their camps on the shores of Great Slave Lake. These days, you’ll find some of those old heritage buildings in Old Town Yellowknife, as well as the popular Ragged Ass Road where you’ll find a good view of the city from Bush Pilot’s Monument.
Bush Pilots Monument
As mentioned above, the Bush Pilots Monument is a great place to go for a view over Yellowknife. It also features a monument commemorating the pilots that helped open Canada’s northernmost regions to the rest of the country. It’s also referred to as “The Rock”.
See the Northern Lights
One of the most popular places in Canada, and perhaps the world, to see the magnificent northern lights is in Yellowknife. This is because Yellowknife is only 400km south of the Arctic Circle. Things certainly have to line up in your favour to make it a night to remember, but when they do shine bright in the sky, it’s something you will never forget. Although you can simply look up to the sky and see them when they are out, it’s often a better idea to join a tour and go to someplace remote, away from the city lights and in a place where things are just more quiet and serene.
Ways to View the Yellowknife northern lights
- DIY: Since the Northern Lights dance in the sky, you can see them yourself for free. This works especially well if you have a car and ask the locals for a good spot to go. You can also see them right from the city if the conditions are right, but it’s always better to get as far away from city lights as possible.
- Fixed Location Tour: If you’d rather go with a tour, these ones will take you out to a fixed location, such as a lodge or a camp, where you’ll be away from the city lights but still with some creature comforts like a warm place to hang out and some snacks and drinks.
- Aurora Hunting Tour: For more adventure, you could also go on an Aurora hunting tour, which involves getting in a warm van and driving around to find the best spots to see the lights. This offers probably the best way to see the lights as you’re able to chase them around. Even though they dance across the sky, that doesn’t mean they’ll be right above you. So, you chase them!
- Aurora Village: This is a fixed location option, but considering its popularity, we thought we’d mention it separately. For those seeking maximum comfort, this is a good option as it features heated seats that swivel 360-degrees, a number of teepees that provide shelter and warmth, a gift shop, and even dog sled rides.
Yellow Dog Lodge
Words can barely describe how awesome our stay was at Yellow Dog Lodge. It’s a beautiful lodge nestled between two secluded lakes and just a 15-minute flight from Yellowknife. It’s a great way to combine a scenic flight with a stay in what feels like the middle of nowhere. When we were there, it was just us and the incredible staff. They brought us around both lakes by boat, helped us catch lake trout and northern pike, made campfires for us on secluded islands, prepared a hot tub heated by wood fire (talk about a great way to admire the stars), and cooked us delicious meals every day. As if that’s not perfect enough, there’s also a floating raft that you can spend a night on. We had them park it in a secluded bay and we were surrounded by complete silence. The only thing we could hear was our echo bouncing off the thick forest all around us. We made a wood fire on the barge and woke up to an eagle flying overhead. Simply incredible.
Northern Arts and Cultural Centre
Home to the only such facility in the territory, the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre and its 313-seat theatre features northern, national, and international performances, including music, dance, and theatre. If you happen to be in the area during an event, it would be a great way to experience the local culture, and from what we hear, there’s no bad seat in the house.
Buy Arctic Art & Crafts
Despite the city’s small size, Yellowknife is home to a thriving art scene. Whether you’re looking for a commercial art gallery or local community groups, the city is a great place to find local art as well as art from across the Canadian Arctic. One of the most popular places to visit is the Gallery of the Midnight Sun, which is conveniently located in Old Town. Another gallery, which is just walking distance from this one, is the Down to Earth Gallery, which also offers workshops. If that’s still not enough, you can also visit Northern Images, which is part of the Arctic Co-operatives that represents 32 community groups in Canada’s north, including crafts, sculptures, prints, and books. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also Old Town Glassworks, which features artwork made from recycled glass.
Considering the fact that Yellowknife sits on the shores of massive Great Slave Lake, there’s ample opportunity to go for a boat trip. When touring around or flying over, you’ll notice many colourful houseboats that people reside in during the warmer months and the lake is also home to the Commissioner’s Cup, one of the world’s longest freshwater sailing races. In the summer, however, there are some companies offering boat tours around the lake or you can rent your own and do it yourself.
Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories
Legalities and politics are often a bit boring but if you’re looking for insight into the local government, as well as an opportunity to see some beautiful architecture, check out the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories. Self-guided audio tours are always available but at certain times, you can also jump on a free guided tour of the building, which will help you learn about how this massive region is managed.
Take a Yellowknife Tour
While you could easily explore Yellowknife on your own, you won’t get all the insight and stories as you would from a local. That’s why My Backyard Tours takes people around to learn about the city, including the Old Town and the downtown areas. What people tend to like about this tour is the insight provided into the local communities and the way of life in one of Canada’s harshest climates.
Snowking’s Winter Festival
If you’re planning to visit Yellowknife in the winter, you might want to time your trip for the annual Snowking Winter Festival, which takes place in March and draws visitors from all over the country. You’ll find a large snow castle, musical concerts, ice sculpting classes, and a variety of arts and entertainment for kids and adults alike. There’s even a three-day dogsled race on the lake!
Dettah Ice Road
Unless you’re from the far north, there’s a good chance you’ve never driven on an ice road before. Well, luckily for you, you can have the opportunity in Yellowknife. Connecting Yellowknife with Dettah, the Dettah Ice Road is created when the Great Slave Lake freezes over. This 6.5 km ice road is popular with tourists, as not only is it a unique experience, but it’s also a great place to snap beautiful photos. Typically, the ice road opens in December or January and closes in April.
When visiting Northern Canada in the winter, perhaps there’s nothing more iconic than a dog-sledding tour. Many people visiting Northern Canada dream of riding through the forest on a sled pulled by a bunch of strong eager dogs. Visitors have the option of mushing their own sleigh or relaxing in the warmth of a sleeping bag and having the guide do all the hard work. It’s a great way to learn about the practice and to also enjoy the thrill of being pulled by a bunch of dogs who are just so excited to be out for a run.
Where to Stay in Yellowknife
Mid-Range Hotels: A great option for those seeking quality mid-range accommodations is the Explorer Hotel, which is also the top-ranked hotel in the city. It’s conveniently located, has modern décor throughout, and is fairly priced. Another good option is Chateau Nova Yellowknife, a three-star hotel with bright contemporary decor, comfy beds, a sauna, and a fitness room.
Budget Hotels: A good option for those on a budget are B&B’s. The highest-ranked B&B on TripAdvisor is Bayside Bed & Breakfast. Another option is Aurora Jenny’s B&B, which is also close to downtown. Their basic rooms come with hardwood floors, desks, free Wi-Fi, private bathrooms, and a delicious buffet breakfast. If you’d prefer a hotel, the best hotel with a fair price is the Super 8 by Wyndham, which features great service, clean rooms, and a free breakfast.
Where to Eat in Yellowknife
Bullocks’ Bistro: If a restaurant can also be an attraction, this is it. We came in expecting fish n’ chips and left with a full tummy of grilled Arctic Char, fried halibut, curry seafood chowder, and caribou! It was incredibly delicious and the place has so much character. This is the most famous restaurant in Yellowknife and a must-visit when you’re here. Look for our Must Do Canada business card on the wall.
Savannah’s Family Restaurant: As one of the most popular restaurants in Yellowknife, you’ll find everything from classic meals like hamburgers and wings to some East Indian food as well, such as samosas, curry goat, and injera.
Zehabesha Traditional Ethiopian Restaurant: Surprised? We were too. We definitely did not expect to see a highly-ranked and popular Ethiopian restaurant in Canada’s north. But, that’s one of the special things about Canada. We have the best food from all over the world. You’ll find yetsom beyayantu, curry chicken, beef stew kikl, and much more.
NWT Brewing Company & The Woodyard Brewhouse & Eatery: I think we all like a good beer now and then and when you do, why not go right to the source. Home to the only brewery in the city, this is where you’ll find fresh beer as well as pub food such as pizza, hamburgers, and nachos.
Exploring Yellowknife and Beyond
As you can see, there are no shortages of incredible experience in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. However, if you’ve made it this far, you may be looking for even more adventure! For more things to do in the area, check out these other articles below.
- Things to Do in the Northwest Territories
- Things to Do in the Yukon
- Exploring Tuktoyaktuk
- Tips for Driving the Dempster Highway
- Things to Do in Alberta
- Things to Do in British Columbia