Nahanni National Park Reserve: 6 Top Highlights

Written by Chloë Ernst and Michael Law
Sep 14, 2020

In Nahanni National Park Reserve, the South Nahanni River (Naha Dehé) has carved a wildly beautiful valley through the Mackenzie Mountains. 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.

No roads or tourist accommodations lie within the park, which was added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Nahanni National Park
Nahanni National Park | Fil.Al / photo modified

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.

Discover more reasons to explore this area of the Northwest Territories with our list of the top highlights in Nahanni National Park Reserve.

1. Paddle the South Nahanni River

Canoeing on the Nahanni River
Canoeing on the Nahanni River

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."

Sulfurous hot springs (about 37 degrees Celsius) can be found 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-degree 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.

2. Virginia Falls

Virginia Falls
Virginia Falls

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, which 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.

3. Climbing

Cirque of the Unclimbables
Cirque of the Unclimbables

Nahanni has long been a popular spot for climbing and for good reason. The granite spires that jut from the earth provide challenging routes all backed with spectacular scenery.

The primary area for climbing is the Mackenzie Mountains' Ragged Range. The Cirque of the Unclimbables is legendary in the climbing world and the Lotus Flower Tower is one of the most desired routes to bag.

Depending on how much you want to spend, access is through a combination of float plane and hiking, or direct access to the base area via helicopter.

4. Fishing

Arctic grayling
Arctic grayling

Although many people focus on the paddling, the fishing opportunities in Nahanni National Park Reserve should not be overlooked.

Whether you are an avid fisherman or brand new to the sport, don't pass up the opportunity to wet a line. The fish up here grow to incredible sizes and due to low fishing pressure, they are abundant and easy to catch.

Species available in the Mackenzie River and North Nahanni River are arctic grayling, bull trout, dolly varden, and walleye. Cli Lake offers up lake trout, pike, and whitefish. On Cli Lake, the fish get big - the average weight is 10 pounds.

Other lakes to consider, although access is difficult, include: Glacier, Hole-in-the-Wall, Rabbitkettle, and Little Doctor.

5. Hiking

Landscape in Nahanni National Park
Landscape in Nahanni National Park

Hiking outings are generally combined with river trips, as the best trails leave from the river. The park does not have established, well-marked, or maintained trails, they are primarily trails through the bush that have evolved over the years into a semblance of a route.

Some of the most notable trails are the routes up Ram Creek or Sheaf Creek to the spectacular Tl'ogotsho Plateau.

You can also plan your own trip into the wilderness by working with local outfitters. Destinations include the aforementioned Tl'ogotsho Plateau, Fairy Meadows, and Vampire Peaks.

For a more curated hike, consider staying at the North Nahanni Naturalist Lodge. Day trips through to multi-day helicopter-supported excursions to some of the park's more remote and spectacular areas, including the Nahanni Karsts and Ram Plateau, are available.

6. Flightseeing Trips

Aerial view of Cirque of the Unclimbables
Aerial view of Cirque of the Unclimbables

The rugged splendor of Nahanni makes many spectacular parts of the park inaccessible except for the hardiest of hikers.

The best way to see these areas is to take a flightseeing excursion over the park. Typical examples of tours run as follows: Virginia Falls flyover scenic tour, two to three hours; Virginia Falls full day, five to six hours with two stops; and an extended version that includes Glacier Lake, running six to eight hours. Trips just to Glacier Lake are also available. On these flights you'll probably be sharing the flight with climbers headed to the granite peaks of Cirque of the Unclimbables.

Tours take place using a Cessna 206 floatplane or a helicopter.

Map of Nahanni National Park Reserve: Top Highlights