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Canada’s Northwest Territories: Awe, Auroras and Frontier Adventure

When it comes to a life goal as popular as seeing the northern lights, Canada’s Northwest Territories have emerged as the prime location for aurora viewing, with regional capital Yellowknife staking its claim as “aurora capital of the world”.

Words by Craig Dixon

As impressive a spectacle as that is, it doesn’t end with shimmering lights in the sky. If your bucket list looks like this get to the Northwest Territories and start ticking: Northern lights. Arctic Circle. Ice road thrills. Luxury lodges in snow-bound wilderness.

Temperatures might dip below zero but that’s when the Northwest Territories shines, especially when the aurora fires up. With a population of about 45,000 in 1.3 million square kilometres of forest, mountains and tundra you’ll never feel crowded. And don’t worry about packing for the big chill: suitable gear is easy to hire.

Clearly the best northern lights spectacle

The Northwest Territories has more cloud-free days than anywhere in Canada so when the solar wind blows in from across the galaxy to set the sky alight in stunning hues, chances are you won’t miss a shimmering moment. In winter this is the world’s wildest destination for the northern lights – settle into a heated teepee under the stars at Aurora Village and take prime position. Drive a husky team out onto the frozen tundra, and you’ll be in the best northern lights viewing zone on the planet and as close to aurora borealis activity as any human on earth.

The wildest little city on earth

Lively “little big city” Yellowknife is a great base for both aurora viewing and wilderness adventure. The lights are seen on average 240 days a year here and prime time is December to March. Clinging to the shores of Great Slave Lake, frozen over for eight months a year, Yellowknife is also the base for bush flights to remote lodges specialising in aurora activities, like Blachford Lake Lodge, which has hosted British royals Prince William and his wife Kate.

When you’re not sky-gazing, the town is also your jumping-off point for snowshoeing, dog sledding, ice cave exploration, snowmobile tours, ice fishing and igloo building. Rev up your ice road trucker fantasy on the frozen Yellowknife-Dettah road.

Into the Arctic Circle

On the edge of the Arctic Ocean, Inuvik is so remote locals joke they have to look south in the sky to see the northern lights. Put your adventure boots on, this is real frontier travel: here you’re at a staging post for the Western Arctic, the storied Northwest Passage and the rugged peninsula that stretches towards the North Pole.

Take the all-weather Mackenzie Valley Highway out of Inuvik for a snowmobile tour to see 3000 reindeer grazing on the tundra or, for the truly intrepid, drive Canada’s new polar highway 140 kilometres to tiny Tuktoyaktuk deep in the Arctic to dip your toes in the Arctic Ocean and meet the Inuvialuit community, Canada’s northernmost people.

More wonders under the sun

Aurora borealis is the big attraction but don’t miss the earthly wonders that unfold beneath the Northwest Territories’ celestial show. Try flightseeing trips from Yellowknife to the mountains, Canada’s biggest lake (Great Bear) largest national park (Wood Buffalo) and longest and wildest river (the Mackenzie). And keep an eye out for bison, reindeer, moose, wolves, wolverine, beaver and lynx.

Visit this stunning wilderness in winter and you’ll marvel at some of the world’s most breathtaking sights and experiences. And if you think that’s a big claim, big is what the Northwest Territories does best: epic thrills under soaring skies with big-hearted locals.

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