48 Hours in Yellowknife: Dancing lights, culinary delights and more reasons to, yes, go north
All the things we'd pack into a NWT weekend, as if the Northern Lights or 20 hours of daylight weren't enough.
While an exotic weekend getaway for many involves a flight south to places dotted with palm trees, those ready for a true Canadian adventure head north to Yellowknife, NWT.
With a growing artisan, microbrewery and tourism scene, Yellowknife is on the cusp of cool, and no, we're not talking about the weather. With open landscapes, clear skies and little light pollution, Yellowknife is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis). In the spring and fall, milder temperatures give way to outdoor adventures and spectacular scenery, while still allowing one to view the skies dance at night. The Aurora are less visible at the height of summer, though this is due to another novelty; this is when the sun shines for upwards of 20 hours per day thanks to Yellowknife's northern latitude. Serviced by major air carriers, it's possible to take on Yellowknife in just 48 hours.
Touchdown: Raise a glass to old town charm
After you've dropped your bags, shake off your travels and walk down Franklin Avenue Hill to Old Town Yellowknife. Here you'll spot art galleries, residences, businesses and historic log cabins from the 1930s when gold miners occupied every part of the rock that forms the area. Stroll down "Ragged Ass Road" and ask a local to give you the story behind the name.
If the craft beer scene is your thing, head to the NWT Brewing Co and The Woodyard Brewhouse & Eatery. With a lively atmosphere and hearty pub fare, you'll rub elbows with locals and visitors alike as you sip a Ragged Pine Pale Ale or Bug Repellent IPA, which are brewed onsite. In warmer seasons, head out to the patio and bask in the evening sun that stretches on for hours.
Take the quick walk up to Pilot's Monument for a 360 degree view of Great Slave Lake and downtown Yellowknife.
Turn in for an evening nap before embarking on an aurora viewing tour (late-August through mid-April is the best time to see the lights). Arrange an experience at an aurora viewing facility, or connect with a local operator such as Sean Norman's Aurora Viewing Tours where you'll drive to find the lights in spectacular settings.
Yellowknife and beyond: Boreal sights and culinary delights
After a late night of aurora chasing, head to the Fat Fox Café for made-from-scratch delights and a cup of java from local roaster Barren Ground Coffee. They make everything in-house here, from the butter chicken and baked goods, right down to their ketchup. While downtown, check out a couple of boutiques on nearby Franklin Avenue, Yellowknife's main street. Visit Bijou Boutique for housewares, jewellery and souvenirs, or layer up at Iceblink, a cozy and contemporary clothing store.
The owners of Zehabesha Traditional Ethiopian Restaurant brought the flavours of their homeland to Yellowknife; expect delicious African fare including lots of options for vegetarian and vegan diners. The Birchwood Coffee Ko is Indigenous owned and operated - try their Bannock 'n' Egger Sandwich or Bush Pudding, a Northern rice pudding with currants and raisins and topped with fresh berries.
Head out of the city and drive the Ingraham Trail and enjoy a short hike on the well-marked trail to Cameron Falls. Here you'll experience walking through the boreal forest, and you'll be rewarded with beautiful views of the cascading falls down the Cameron River. The trailhead is a 45-minute drive from Yellowknife and is accessible most of the year.
For a slightly shorter trip, stop at Prelude Lake, also on the Ingraham Trail, and take the 3km scenic loop trail. Breathe in the cool, fresh NWT air and walk on some of the oldest rocks in the world that make up the unique Canadian shield landscape. Don't want to venture on your own? Connect with Rosie Strong, a local guide who has created unique tours in and around the Yellowknife area. She offers historical tours and hands-on learning, such as discovering the natural foods and medicines that grow abundantly in the boreal forest.
In Yellowknife, head back to Old Town to Bullocks' Bistro, known as much for its rough and tumble look as its incredible fish, fresh caught from Great Slave Lake. Housed in a historic 1930s log cabin, its walls and counters are covered with decades of hand-drawn messages and photos from friends and customers. It can get busy, but it's worth the wait for a steaming plate of house-made fish and chips.
Exploring Yellowknife's art and history: A cultural affair
Check out the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre and nearby NWT Legislative Assembly. The Heritage Centre is home to the archaeological and cultural collections of the NWT government, including paintings, sculptures, clothing, hunting and working tools and geological samples. Sitting on the edge of Frame lake, the Legislative Assembly is a beautiful building to explore. It's also one of the most unique Legislatures in Canada as they govern by consensus, upholding the traditional ways of the people of the Northwest Territories.
If you want to get in another hike without leaving the city, take the 7km Frame Lake trail loop, which starts behind the Northern Heritage Centre. While half of the looped is paved, the western half is a taste of Northern backcountry terrain, with a more rugged trail and giving you a chance to spot a muskrat, coyote or fox.
Before heading to the airport, spend some time in Yellowknife's numerous art shops and galleries, such as the Down to Earth Gallery or Old Town Glassworks, where you can support the local artisan community and select a few keepsakes from your visit.
A prized local handicraft is traditional moose hair tufting, which involves the very delicate and patient work of stitching and trimming small bundles of moosehair to form three-dimensional designs on tanned hide or birchbark.
As you fly up and away, opt for a window seat for a chance to capture a great view of the blue waters (or white ice) of Great Slave Lake and the city of Yellowknife as you make your way home.
Paula Worthington is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer based in Alberta, focusing on quick escapes and off the beaten path adventures. Follow her journeys @p_worthington and www.wanderswild.com.