Inspired by my cheap trip to Maui, I decided to look and see if any other areas recently affected by natural disasters were offering travel discounts to lure back tourists. That led me to looking at Yellowknife in Canada´s Northwest Territories which was forced to evacuate for over a month due to nearby wildfires. Indeed, I found a deal for under $500 USD to go up to Whitehorse for a day and then to Yellowknife for 2.5 days before heading home. This may not seem like a deal, but fares to the upper reaches of Canada can cost well over $1,500 depending on the location.
Yellowknife is known as one of the best places on earth to see the Northern Lights and early October is also the tail end of one of two seasons to see them (the other being winter). With 2 nights, I would have a high chance of seeing them. As chance would have it, I ended up seeing them on my night in Whitehorse.
October 5, 2023: The Ingraham Trail
After a gorgeous 2-hour flight from Whitehorse on Air North, I landed at Yellowknife Airport just before noon. Like in Whitehorse, the Yellowknife baggage claim has a taxidermy polar bear, this one chasing a seal.
I picked up my rental car but was shocked to learn that the contract includes 0 free kilometers and that I would have to pay 40¢ CAD for each kilometer driven. The counter agent told me it’s not a big deal because “Yellowknife is a tiny town”, but in reality, it would probably double my bill. I get that the purpose of this is to ensure that the cars stay in Yellowknife, as otherwise people might take the cars on very long road trips, but 0 free kilometers is ridiculous. On the bright side, my car had one of the legendary polar bear shaped license plates from the Northern Territories, a very sought-after collector´s item.
Yellowknife is one of the world´s most remote cities. It lies on the north shore of Great Slave Lake, the 10th largest lake on earth. The name comes from the Slavey tribe who lives in the region. Only a single road connects Yellowknife and the rest of Canada. To reach Edmonton, the nearest city of any relevance, the drive takes 25 hours.
The Ingraham Trail (aka Northern Territories Highway 4) extends northeast from Yellowknife into a wilderness area containing many smaller lakes. It was originally built as part of a highway that would encircle Great Slave Lake, but only this portion was completed. In the winter, an ice road connects the end of the road to some of the world´s largest diamond mines and is overrun by heavy trucks. But outside those months, the Ingraham Trail is considered Yellowknife´s recreational backyard with plenty of hiking and fishing spots as well as some cottages used as weekend second homes. While I would have preferred to wait until tomorrow to spend all day hiking, the weather forecast for the rest of my time in Yellowknife called for snow.
My first stop along the road was Cameron Falls at kilometer 45. Here, I took an 1,800-meter trail to the region´s most spectacular waterfall nestled amongst the forest and lakes. The falls themselves were not flowing very strong, but I could see this being spectacular in the spring.
My second stop was the end of the Ingraham Trail. The final 10 kilometers were dirt. I was expecting a grand sign at the end, but the road unceremoniously ended with a turnaround at a lake. In the winter, this is where the 300 km ice road begins.
Along the way back I stopped at Prelude Lake Territorial Park where I did a gorgeous hike along the nature loop. The trail traveled over rocks, into sandy areas, through forests and ended with spectacular views of the lake. This was the most beautiful hike of the day.
Back in town, I checked into my most unusual AirBNB. The hostess, Tina is a professional dog groomer. My room is on the top story of the house/pet salon. She also has a side room that is also rented out on AirBNB. Five dogs live in the main house including a miniature schnauzer!
Tina is originally from southern Canada but moved up here for a summer and loved the lifestyle. In the warmer months, she takes her RV and goes into the wilderness for weeks at a time. In the winter, she goes snowmobiling. One of the main activities to do in Yellowknife, especially in the winter, is hunting. This spring, she shot a bison and finally was able to tan the hide. While I couldn´t tolerate the cold, I very much respect her lifestyle.
After an hour-long chat, I was very hungry and so I headed into town. Based on Tina´s recommendation, I went to Bullock´s Bistro, the most famous restaurant in town. The legendary shack founded more than 30 years ago serves up fresh fish caught each day from the Great Slave Lake. The menu changes hourly based on how the catch is going. I ordered the inconnu. It was served pan fried topped with a teriyaki glaze served with a side salad and fries. I do not say this lightly, but this was the most delicious fish I have ever had.
Given that this is the undisputed most famous restaurant in town, every tourist eats at Bullock´s, and it is constantly packed. The walls are covered in signatures and business cards of patrons. After the epic dinner, I signed my name on the ceiling because I am tall.
October 6, 2023: Yellowknife
Having seen the surrounding countryside, it was time to explore the city itself.
Yellowknife is the largest city and capital of the Northwest Territories. The name comes from Dene tribe which used to be called the Yellow Knife Indians. The town was founded by gold prospectors in the 1930´s and very quickly the Dene tribe moved in side by side with the miners. The discovery of more gold and diamond mines fueled Yellowknife´s growth. By 1953, Yellowknife was considered large enough to become an official city.
In 1967, Yellowknife was declared the permanent capital of the Northwest Territories, which had previously met in each town on a rotating basis. This status prompted even more growth. Today, Yellowknife contains 50% of the 45,000 people who live in the Northwest Territories. Mining remains the key industry.
My first stop for the day is the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories. The Assembly governs the territory which has an area the size of Spain, Portugal and France combined. The current borders were set after Nunavut separated and became its own territory in 1999. This was done to allow the Inuit to have greater control of their lands. The building is famously built in the shape of an igloo.
The Legislative Assembly chamber lies in the center of the building and is decorated in what I can only describe as Arctic kingdom meets the Golden Compass. The centerpiece of the brightly lit snow-colored chamber is a polar bear skin lying directly in the middle of the room. The Legislative Assembly does not have political parties; rather, important community members are elected and together they govern by a consensus. This works because the population is so small. Since they were in session, I was able to sit in the gallery and watch some of the proceedings.
The indigenous presence here was much stronger than in the Yukon Legislative Assembly which I visited 2 days prior. First, most signs/documents/warnings written on the walls are in the 11 official languages of the territory (English, French and 8 indigenous languages). Additionally, the robes used by the speaker and pages are indigenous inspired instead of the traditional British robes worn elsewhere.
At 10:30, I took the daily public tour which took us to a committee room, and some behind-the-scenes galleries. Normally the tour goes into the legislative chamber, but they were in session.
Next to the Legislative Assembly is the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Museum. Billed as a treasure trove of artifacts and culture of the north, I was less than impressed. Yes, the museum had exhibits but it took me just 30 minutes to see it all and the exhibits were not so compelling. Canada has many fantastic museums, but this was not one of them. On the bright side, it was free so it´s hard to complain too much.
For lunch I headed back to the old town, this time to visit the one brewery in the entire Northwest Territories. It apparently has won multiple awards. Per tradition, I ordered a flight and send a picture of it to my friend Joe Craig. For the food, I got a brisket served on a pretzel roll that was spectacular. While delicious, the food and drink together cost $50 CAD which seemed excessive. I later learned that Yellowknife is the 3rd most expensive city in Canada (after Toronto and Vancouver) due to the high energy costs and difficulty in importing things.
Old Town Yellowknife has many of the city´s “tourist attractions”. Next to the brewery are two gift shops, one of which has local art. Behind the brewery is Ragged Ass Road, which besides the funny name is just a normal residential street.
Additionally, there is the Bush Pilots´ Monument which has nice views of the region.
Downtown Yellowknife located 2 kilometers from old town is mostly office and commercial. There are tall buildings. It is also full of questionable mostly indigenous people loitering around. I witnessed one drunkard berating somebody so badly I called the police. In one of the mostly abandoned malls is the official tourism office. There, I was given a certificate for having crossed the 60th parallel. When I asked the worker about things to do in Yellowknife, it took her more than a minute of thinking before she could name something I had not yet done. That something was a diamond shop that shows a 10-minute video about their production to tourists. Despite being “local” diamonds, they are priced the same as you would find in a normal jewelry shop.
The diamonds are mined 500 kilometers north of Yellowknife. The open pit mine is on an island in the middle of a lake (the visual is insane). Next to the mine is the airport to fly in the workers. Most of the diamonds are transported via ice roads in the winter.
With that, I had done literally everything there is to do in Yellowknife. So, I got an early dinner and went back to the AirBNB to relax. Tina was getting ready to head off for two weeks in the wilderness. She said that there were no guests arriving tomorrow and I could stay as long as I needed. Around 20:00, the RV pulled away.
October 7, 2023: Loose Ends
After a lot of walking, my foot was in pain. I figured it might be a stress fracture or tendonitis but either way I needed to stay off my feet. So, I spent the morning sleeping in and relaxing in the AirBNB.
Around noon, I met David, the other AirBNB guest who had been staying in the side shed for a week. David lives in Nashville and came to Yellowknife to see the Northern Lights, which he managed to accomplish on his second night. That left 6 days to explore Yellowknife without a car. He managed to get around my taking taxis and by going on Tinder dates. One of those dates happened to be with the next-door neighbor. He said that everybody knows everybody. While lacking on sights, he said he enjoyed getting to experience the small-town lifestyle.
We decided to get lunch and went back to Bullocks because it is so good. We then stopped at a souvenir shop and then went to the airport.
Yellowknife´s star attraction is the Northern Lights – this is supposed to be one of the best places on earth to see them and there are plenty of tour operators who will drive you around the wilderness for a big chunk of change. However, I saw got lucky and saw them for free in Whitehorse.
Yellowknife does not have as many activities as Whitehorse, but most tourists can probably spend 2 days here without getting bored: one day on the Ingraham Trail and one day in town. If you are here in the summer or winter, there are more outdoorsy activities to do such as swimming/boating on the many lakes or snowmobiling on the ice roads to indigenous communities. From a human standpoint, Yellowknife is also interesting to meet the locals and learn how people live in such an isolated place. Everybody is very friendly.
Yellowknife is considered one of the most expensive cities in Canada and I agree. It is impossible to get a meal of any kind for under $20 CAD- my trip to the brewery was $50 and a fish at Bullocks is $35-45 for just the entree. Lodging costs are generally high for low quality (I think my situation with Tina was special). The auto rentals are also ridiculous with the 0 free kilometers. Even 50 or 100 km/day would be reasonable.
Given the high costs, I feel the reward is low. Because there is only one road in and due to the rental car cost structure, it is very hard to add on another destination to Yellowknife. Flights are very limited.
If I had to pick a northern Canadian destination, I would pick Whitehorse because there is more to do in the city and because the surrounding territory has so much to offer. That said, if your goal is purely to see the Aurora Borealis or go somewhere that none of your friends have seen, then Yellowknife is your spot and with an open mind you will have a great time.