On the northern shores of Great Slave Lake, just south of the Arctic Circle, lies Yellowknife, a jumping off point for Quark passengers flying to Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge. This vibrant city of 20,000 in the Northwest Territories (NWT), was founded during the Gold Rush and quickly became an economic hub.
Downtown Yellowknife. Photo Credit: wikipedia user: Trevor MacInnis
Today, you'll find all that glitters is not gold: diamonds are Yellowknife's style now. A fascinating and eclectic mix of people live, work, and travel through here, often on their way to fly-in fishing camps or diamond mines in the Far North.
Despite its utility as a port for travel further north, Yellowknife is a destination in itself and a great pre- or post-extension to your arctic holiday; you might want to stay a few extra days instead of passing through. Exploring its streets, you might hear conversations in any of the 11 official NWT languages going around you, though Dene Suline, Dogrib, South and North Slavey, French and English are most common. This is the land of the Midnight Sun, where twilight lasts all night from late May until early July.
Beluga Diorama at the Prince of Whales Northern Heritage Centre. Photo Courtesy of PWNHC
Plan to spend at least two extra days in Yellowknife before or after your Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge expedition, if you can, to experience everything this ethnically diverse, remote city has to offer. Here are some of the best things to do in Yellowknife, depending on your interests:
1. Explore the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre
The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre is a massive museum on the Frame Lake shore, just north of the city center, which displays documents and objects showcasing NWT heritage. Spend at least a couple of hours exploring its vast collections and 10 incredible landscape dioramas that illustrate the connection Northerners feel with the land. Tip: There's a great cafe here. You'll be well taken care of!
2. Tour the Legislative Assembly
Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories. Photo Credit: Hans Lagerweij
The Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories, also located on the shore of Frame Lake, offers free, one-and-a-half hour tours Monday to Friday. You might choose to take the self-guided audio tour, available in all 11 official NWT languages as well as Japanese. Each tour offers in-depth insight into northern Canadian government and history and allows you to view the facility's fantastic collection of northern art.
3. Hike Frame Lake and Niven Lake Trails
Frame Lake Trail Map
Yellowknife and surrounding areas are a naturalist's playground, though you'll want to stick to the trails in this remote region. It's not uncommon to encounter black bears. Visit the Northern Frontier Visitors Centre for a trail map and practical advice on which of the many hiking trails might best suit your level of physical activity. The Frame Lake and Niven Lake trails are beautiful hikes within the city itself.
4. Experience the NWT Diamond Centre
Diamond mining is an integral part of the northern economy and experience. At the NWT Diamond Centre on 49th St., you'll learn the stories of the Diavik and Snap Lake mines, located north of the city. In interpretive exhibits, you'll explore the incredible geology of the north, the process of mining and polishing diamonds, and the technology that makes it all possible. Polishing demonstrations take place Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2:30-3:30pm.
5. Tour the Buffalo Airways Hangar
Explore the facility made famous by the TV show Ice Pilots NWT with a free tour. Hangar tours are by appointment only; call 867-765-6023 to book yours. Buffalo Airways also offers DC-3 flightseeing tours around the Yellowknife area.
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6. Gone Fishin'
Photo Credit: Great Slave Lake Safaris facebook page
The NWT and particularly Great Slave Lake are a haven for those looking to land a big one. You'll need a fishing license, available through most outdoors stores in the area. Once suited up, you can stop on the side of the road and start angling for arctic grayling, lake trout, northern pike, walleye, or inconnu. You might choose to take a guided fishing expedition with a company like Great Slave Lake Safaris, winners of the World Shore Lunch Championship in 2015.
7. Tour the Old Town on Foot
Photo Credit: Old Town Glassworks facebook page
Enjoy a walking tour of Yellowknife's Old Town, the history and heart of the city. Wander amongst floating homes docked in the bay, browse small, locally owned shops, or grab a bite at unique restaurants while watching float planes land and take off. You can download apps such as Soundwalk or Balado for self-guided audio tours, which greatly enhance the experience with cultural and historical perspectives.
For a guided experience, contact Rosie Strong at Strong Interpretations, who provides a unique combination of historical and natural interpretative tours. She has a tremendous amount of experience and is recognized as one of the NWT's premier interpretative guides.
8. Take an ‘Old Town Glassworks' Workshop
Take a one- to two-hour workshop and create your own NWT souvenir from recycled glassware under the watchful eye of a local glass artist. If your confidence in your artistic abilities is lacking, the team can create a custom piece for you (additional charges may apply). Contact Old Town Glassworks.
9. Learn the Aboriginal Way of Life
The Dene and Our Land: Dene Cultural Experience tour is a unique and immersive way to learn about the Dene people. In the course of this four-hour tour, you'll explore Yellowknife, and the nearby First Nations communities of N'Dilo (pop: 200) and Dettah (pop: 210). Enjoy traditionally cooked meals, hear stories passed down through generations, or try your hand at cultural activities like hand games and drumming.
10. Watch the Aurora Borealis Dance
Photo credit: VisitYellowknife.com
Yellowknife is considered one of the best places in the world to view the Northern Lights. Here, as nights grow longer, brilliant green, red and mauve hues dance across the sky. In early autumn, you can view the Northern Lights from inside the city; tours outside the city limits are offered by a number of providers as winter approaches. You might even choose to return in winter, when the lights are at their most spectacular.
Bonus: Narwal Dinner Theatre Cruise on Yellowknife Bay
The Floating Dinner Theatre offered by Narwal Northern Adventures runs every Thursday from mid-June to mid-August. You're whisked off into 29-foot voyageur canoes for a traditional meal of soup and bannock, then treated to lively entertainment with music and dramatic presentations of historic northern events. This is a fantastic option for history buffs and those in search of an immersive northern cultural experience.
Special thanks to the experienced and helpful staff at the Northern Frontier Visitors Centre for sharing their experience and recommendations with us.
Want to learn more about planning your own adventure at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge?
- Read more Arctic Watch stories from expedition experts and travelers like you
- Get the Arctic Watch Adventure Guide
- Download your free Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge: Adventure and Wildlife at 74°N brochure