Exploring Nahanni National Park Reserve: A Visitor's Guide

Nahanni National Park
Nahanni National Park Fil.Al

The South Nahanni River (Naha Dehé) has carved a wildly beautiful valley through the Mackenzie Mountains, an area that Canadian authorities have deliberately kept unspoiled as Nahanni National Park Reserve. Labyrinthine karst ridges of the South Mackenzie Mountains are full of caves and gorges, hollowed out by water as softer minerals were dissolved from the limestone. There are no roads or tourist accommodations within the park, which was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1978.

Nahanni means "people from over there" and is supposed to refer to a vanished First Nations community. Gold prospectors traveled up the Liard River on their way to the Klondike, and they were also drawn to this valley in the early 1900s, when the three McLeod brothers came here and word got around that gold nuggets the size of grapes had been found. Three years later the headless bodies of two McLeods were found in the valley, from then on known as Headless Valley. The vein of gold was long sought in vain, and Albert Faille spent a lifetime trying to find out about the brothers, but what exactly befell them remains a mystery. Other people also disappeared (by 1969 as many as 44 of them), and the South Nahanni became somewhere to be avoided.

Most visitors come to Nahanni National Park Reserve to canoe or raft portions of the river. Trips generally vary from one to three weeks in length and require a high degree of paddling skills. Consequently, most visitors book their trips through commercial outfitters. Be sure to find a licensed company.

South Nahanni River

South Nahanni River
South Nahanni River Mike Beauregard

The Nahanni River flows through the Selwyn, Mackenzie, and Franklin Mountains before running into the Liard River, a tributary of the Mackenzie, at Nahanni Butte. On its way, the river passes through awe-inspiring gorges, over wonderful waterfalls, and through hot mineral springs, their heat producing vegetation that is unusual for these climes.

The 200 kilometer trip up the Nahanni River from Nahanni Butte to Virginia Falls is an unforgettable experience of the great outdoors, taking in a change in level of 200 meters.

Canoeing this intense stretch is suitable only for those with whitewater experience. (A permit must be obtained from park authorities.) From Nahanni Butte the first stretch is about 80 kilometers upstream, where the river divides itself into a number of "splits." There are sulphurous hot springs (about 37°C) here, and exceptional plants such as ferns, roses, and wild cherries grow in the ground that never freezes. The river then runs between the towering walls of the first canyon (up to 1,200 meters high), passes through Deadmen Valley, and cuts into a dizzyingly high, second canyon. At a third canyon, the river makes a 90° turn through what is known as "the Gate", guarded by the mighty Pulpit Rock. Beyond the canyons come the foaming torrents of Hell's Gate then, finally, after the fourth canyon, the river rounds a bend to give a sudden, breathtaking confrontation with the famous Virginia Falls.

Virginia Falls

Virginia Falls
Virginia Falls Mike Beauregard

In a magnificent setting, and twice as high as Niagara, Virginia Falls plunge 90 meters into a cauldron of foam encircled by rocks. From the Albert Faille Portage that bypasses the waterfall, a road takes the canoeist to the rim of the cataract, where there is a beautiful view of this great natural spectacle.

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