Synonymous with the gold rush of the late 19th century, the Northwest Territories is also known for its beautiful, diverse landscapes. It is also home to some of the coldest winter temperatures in Canada. For those who enjoy winter-weather activities, a visit to Yellowknife, the capital city of the Northwest Territories, is one for the bucket list. For those who are hesitant about the cold, fear not. Dress in layers, and head outdoors to take in a dazzling light show — we’re referring to the northern lights — typically visible 240 nights of the year. Enjoy the food, outdoor festivals, and other unique winter activities best experienced in and around Yellowknife.

What Should You Pack? 

Yellowknife winter weather can produce some of the coldest temperatures in Canada. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to encounter days that drop below ‑40°C. The wind can also make conditions feel colder than they are. However, don’t let this discourage you. These colder temperatures make for ideal conditions when looking to participate in some unique winter activities, like driving across the territories ice roads. 

Before you head out to participate in some Yellowknife winter activities, consider packing the following:

  • Thermal base layers — top and bottom! Dress with your regular clothing on top of this layer
  • Wool socks
  • Snow pants
  • A winter jacket — preferably parka style for added coverage
  • Waterproof winter boots — For added safety on slippery surfaces and to stay dry
  • Don’t overlook the toque, gloves, and scarf

Walk Along the Frame Lake Trail

One of the top things to do in Yellowknife is visit the Frame Lake Trail. The trail circles Frame Lake, an 84-hectare freshwater body located between the city’s downtown core and surrounding residential neighborhoods. This seven-kilometer loop is accessible and easy to traverse at all times of the year. The eastern part of the trail is paved and allows visitors to pass by architectural highlights such as the local city hall, the territorial legislative assembly, and the noteworthy Prince of Wales museum. 

The western half of the trail provides a different vibe entirely. Visitors can experience the northern backcountry by climbing up rocky outcrops, checking out the black-spruce swampland (over a wooden boardwalk), and encounters with wildlife such as foxes, coyotes, and more. In the winter months, Frame Lake freezes over, but the loop remains accessible. Feel free to bring along a pair of snowshoes or choose to cross-country ski the route instead.

Take in a Light Show: See the Northern Lights

When it comes to winter activities in Yellowknife, one of the most popular activities is taking in nature’s light show. We’re talking about the aurora borealis, often referred to as the northern lights. Yellowknife offers locals and visitors one of the best opportunities to catch the northern lights thanks to its abundance of clear skies and stable weather conditions. Its northern location and proximity to the arctic circle means plenty of geomagnetic activity in the skies, making conditions for catching a glimpse of these dancing lights more favorable. 

In and around Yellowknife, the northern lights can be visible up to 240 nights a year, with the best opportunities occurring between mid-November to the beginning of April. You may choose to drive in search of the lights yourself or take a guided tour. If you decide to go about the search yourself, you should know that the best time to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis is between 10 PM and 2 AM. Generally speaking, areas with plenty of darkness and vast open space provide the best opportunity. Prelude Lake Territorial Park is a popular spot. Cloud cover and light pollution can spoil a viewing experience. To avoid frustration and disappointment, be sure to check out the Astronomy North forecast before heading out.

Travel an Ice Road from Yellowknife to Dettah

Whether in the comfort of your own car or a rental from the airport, a unique experience is driving on an ice road. In the Northwest Territories, ice roads cut travel time and connect towns that would be more difficult to access otherwise. From Yellowknife, a popular ice road is the one that connects to Dettah, a small first nation community located at the mouth of Yellowknife Bay. The usual journey between Yellowknife and Dettah is approximately 27-kilometers via the Ingraham Trail. Using the Dettah Ice Road cuts that journey down to just 6.5‑kilometers. The ice road itself is impressive. At its strongest, it can handle vehicles weighing up to 40,000kgs. It wouldn’t be uncommon to be driving behind a charter bus or snowmobile along the way. Since the roadway is wide, safely pulling off to the shoulder to grab some photos or look down below the clear ice is easy and a must for first-time visitors. Once you arrive in Dettah, be sure to check out the Yellowknives Dene Artisan Shop, where you can browse, and purchase locally made crafts and clothing. 

When can you drive along the Dettah Ice Road? Typically, the roadway opens in mid to late December and closes in the middle of April. The timing is dependent on ice conditions, so be sure to check before you go. Driving on an ice road before it is deemed safe by the transportation department is illegal.

Join a Team of Huskies for a Dog Sledding Experience

If you’re looking for a more exhilarating experience, consider dogsledding. Powered by a group of powerful yet friendly huskies, there’s nothing like gliding along the snow-covered trails, past white birch, and dark spruce groves. As one of the most popular Yellowknife tourism activities, finding an excursion is easy, with many providers in the area. Depending on your availability, a dogsledding experience can range from half-hour to half a day.

Explore Yellowknife Old Town

Sitting below downtown Yellowknife is a vibrant, historic neighborhood called Old Town. A place where the Canadian Shield meets Great Slave Lake, this area is home to a wide range of log cabins, waterfront mansions, art galleries, restaurants, and even houseboats — that’s right, houses floating on the lake! Although this place is a must-visit whether you take your trip in warm or cold weather, there is something magical about seeing it in the winter. When here, be sure to visit Bush Pilot’s Monument. Sitting atop the highest point in Old Town, this historic site offers an incredible vantage point with 360-degree views of the downtown skyline.

Always follow Canada and local health authority COVID-19 guidelines for travelling or visiting attractions. Learn more about current restrictions and travelling within Canada.

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