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Nahanni National Park Reserve is a national park reserve in the Northwest Territories of Canada. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site to protect the South Nahanni River, one of the most spectacular wild rivers in North America.


The Gate

Nahanni National Park Reserve covers an area of 30,050 km² (11,600 sq mi), almost the size of Belgium, approximately 500 km (311 mi) west of Yellowknife. It protects a portion of the Mackenzie Mountains Natural Region. The centrepiece of the park is the South Nahanni River (Naha Dehé). Four canyons reaching 1,000 m (3,300 ft) in depth, called First, Second, Third and Fourth Canyon, line this whitewater river.

The name Nahanni comes from the indigenous Dene language name for the area; Nahʔa Dehé, which means "river of the land of the Nahʔa people", who some now speculate may have been the ancestors of the modern day Navajo people.

  • Nahanni National Park Reserve Headquarters, Box 348, Fort Simpson, NWT, X0E 0N0, +1 867 695-3151, . Winter (September 15 - June 15): M-F 8:30AM-noon, 1-5PM, closed weekends. Summer (June 15 - September 15): daily 8AM-noon, 1-5PM.


The Dene, sometimes called Slavey, peoples have used the lands around Nahanni National Park Reserve for thousands of years. The first human occupation of the area is estimated to have occurred 9,000-10,000 years ago. Evidence of prehistoric human use has been found at Yohin Lake and a few other sites within the park. The local oral history contains many references to the Naha tribe, a mountain-dwelling people who used to raid settlements in the adjacent lowlands. These people are said to have rather quickly and mysteriously disappeared.

First contact with European fur traders expanding into the region occurred in the 18th century, and was increased with Alexander Mackenzie's exploration of the Mackenzie River (Deh Cho), and building of trading posts at Fort Simpson and Fort Liard. During the 19th century, most Dene families left their nomadic lifestyles and settled into more permanent communities, often close to the trading posts. Permanent settlements were established at locations such as Nahanni Butte, Fort Liard and Fort Simpson.

In the late 19th century, the Mountain Indians of the Nahanni region would travel down the Nahanni River each spring in mooseskin boats to trade the winter take of furs. These boats, based on the York boats used by the Hudson's Bay Company, were up to 20 m (66 ft) in length. Constructed from six to ten untanned moose hides sewn together and stretched over a spruce pole frame, these boats would transport entire families, their dogs and cargo of furs down the river during high water. Upon arrival the boat was dismantled and the hides traded along with the furs. Following a visit to the forts, these people would return to the high country with only what they could carry on their pack dogs.

The stories of the Naha, and dangerous landscape that they inhabited, grew in stature with the Klondike Gold Rush as some explorers attempted to use the Nahanni as a path to the famous gold fields of the Yukon, or to try and make their fortune on the Flat and South Nahanni Rivers. Although no significant gold was found, legends of haunted valleys and lost gold emerged after the headless corpses of Métis prospectors Willie and Frank McLeod were found around 1908. The Lost McLeod Mine, a legendary lost mine somewhere in the park, is supposed to have been where the two brothers found their gold. In the years that followed, mysterious deaths of other prospectors added to the legends. The names of park features such as Deadmen Valley, Headless Creek, Headless Range and the Funeral Range, bear testimony to these stories and legends. In later years Albert Faille was a prospector in the area and met writer Raymond M. Patterson. The latter's works brought minor fame to Faille.

In 1964, explorer parachutist Jean Poirel from Montreal jumped at its source 500 km (310 mi) north of Yellowknife, followed by his teammate Bertrand Bordet. Jean Poirel imagined the idea of going down the river with inflatable dinghies, opening the path to a new “rafting” sport. During the following four consecutive expeditions in the valley Jean Poirel discovered more than 250 caverns. The most important contained 116 Dall sheep’s skeletons (carbon-14 dated to 2500 years BC); Jean Poirel named it "Valerie Cavern" after his daughter. He took topographic notes and drew detailed maps, paving the way for the park's creation. During his last expedition in 1972, he escorted Pierre Trudeau, who came in person to evaluate this superb and fascinating region.


There are several different landforms in the park that have taken millions of years to form, and give it a diversity not seen in any other national park in Canada. Sediment left by an ancient inland sea 500-200 million years ago had since become pressed into layers of rock. These layers were stacked about 6 km (3.7 mi) deep and are peppered with fossils, remnants of these ancient sea beds. As the continents shifted, the North American and Pacific Plates collided, the force of which pushed the layers of rock upwards. Ridges of rock bent and broke, leaving behind the ranges seen today. This same action also caused volcanic activity, sending molten lava into but not through the sedimentary rock. While there are no volcanoes in the park, towers of heated rock called igneous batholiths were sent upwards, pushing the sediment further up. The top layer of sedimentary rock was eventually eroded away, resulting in granite towers that form the Ragged Range.

Over the last 2 million years, glaciers have covered most of North America, creating most of the land formations seen today. While previous ice ages affected the park area, the most recent, the Wisconsin Ice Age (85,000-10,000 years ago) touched only the most western and eastern parts of the park. This has left many geological features in the park much more time to develop than most of North America had.

The central feature of the park is the South Nahanni River which runs the length of the park, beginning near Moose Ponds and ending when it meets the Liard River near Nahanni Butte. The South Nahanni is a rare example of an antecedent river. The mountains rose slowly enough, and the river was powerful enough that the river maintained its course over its history, meaning it has the same path today as it did before the mountains rose. As the river was meandering, the canyons it carved also meander. Most visitors only visit the portions from Virginia Falls (Nailicho) down.

There are four main canyons that line the South Nahanni River. The fourth canyon, also called Painted Canyon or Five Mile Canyon due to its length, begins with Virginia Falls, and was created as the falls eroded the limestone surrounding the river, working its way upstream. Third canyon runs through Funeral Range, around 40 km (25 mi) long. Because its walls are composed of a stratum of shale, sandstones and limestone this canyon has long slopes instead of steep, flat walls like the lower canyons. Big Bend, a point where the river does a 45 degree turn, marks the end of Third and the beginning of Second Canyon. At 15 km (9.3 mi) long, it runs through the Headless Range. The final canyon is considered the most beautiful. Beginning after Deadmen Valley, First Canyon boasts the highest, most vertical walls, cutting through very resistant limestone. It ends near Kraus Hotsprings, making it about 30 km (19 mi) long. Following this, the river slows and braids into different channels, passing through the park boundary, and coming together again near the village of Nahanni Butte. Soon after the town, the South Nahanni River joins the Liard River.

Notable mountains in the park include Mount Nirvana, officially an unnamed peak, which at 2,773 m (9,098 ft) is the highest mountain in the Northwest Territories. Slightly further north lies Mount Sir James MacBrien, the territories second highest peak at 2,759 m (9,052 ft), and Lotus Flower Tower (2,570 m (8,430 ft), both of which form part of the Cirque of the Unclimbables. Virginia Falls

Virginia Falls and Mason's Rock[edit]

At Virginia Falls or Nailicho in Dene, the river plunges 90 m (295 ft) in a thunderous plume. Including the Sluice Box Rapids above the falls, it is more than twice the height of Niagara Falls. In the centre of the falls is a dramatic spire of resistant rock, called Mason's Rock after Bill Mason, the famous Canadian canoeist, author, and filmmaker. The falls began downstream at the east end of Fourth Canyon, and over the centuries carved through the limestone rock that surrounds the river. This continuous erosion shifted the falls upstream and created the Fourth Canyon. Due to the mist, the immediate vicinity of the falls is home to several rare orchid species. There is a proposal to rename the falls after former Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau. Downstream from the falls, there are many notable rapids on the river including Figure Eight, George's Riffle, and Lafferty's Riffle.

The falls are a stop on day trips into the park by float plane.

Rabbitkettle Hotsprings[edit]

The Rabbitkettle (Gahnîhthah) Hotsprings and tufa mounds are the largest of tufa mounds in Canada. The largest of the mounds, the North Mound, is 27 m (89 ft) high and 74 m (243 ft) across. The source of the springs comes from deep in the earths crust, near the base of the granite batholiths that form the Ragged Range. The volcanic activity that raised the mountains still heats the water deep below the surface of the earth. The heated water percolates upwards, dissolving calcium carbonate from limestone deposits on its way by. When it reaches the surface springs, the water cools and the calcium carbonate particles are released. These microscopic particles settle to form porous calcite rims around the pools of water. These pools range in size from that of a bathtub to that of a fingernail. This process takes a great deal of time, and it is believed that the mounds themselves are around 10,000 years old, their creation beginning at the end of the last ice age.

These rare and fragile features are protected as a Zone 1, Special Preservation Area, and all visitors must be accompanied by Parks Canada staff in order to minimize impact and visitors to the North Mound are required to be barefoot.


The park is home to a variety of wildlife including Dall's sheep, mountain goats, woodland caribou, wolves, black bears, grizzly bears and trumpeter swans.

The park's sulphur hot springs, alpine tundra, mountain ranges, and forests of spruce and aspen are home to many species of birds, fish and mammals. The park lies within three of Canada's ecozones, the Taiga Cordillera in the west, the Taiga Plains in the east and a small southern portion in the Boreal Cordillera.

According to Parks Canada there are 42 mammal, 180 bird, 16 fish and a few amphibian species found in the park. In the State of the Park Report 2009 the NWT government showed ten species that the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) had listed as special concern, threatened, or endangered that Nahanni National Park Reserve provides seasonal and year-round habitat for. These include common nighthawk, grizzly bear, olive-sided flycatcher, peregrine falcon, rusty blackbird, short-eared owl, wood bison, woodland caribou, wolverine and yellow rail. In addition the bull trout (Dolly Varden) and the Nahanni aster are listed but without a status and the Canada warbler and western toad are listed as possibly existing in the park.

Mammal species found in the park include; black bear, Mackenzie Valley wolf, moose, shrew, vole, Arctic ground squirrel, marmot, mink, beaver, pine marten, lynx, snowshoe hare, river otter, muskrat, and red fox.

Birds include the American kestrels, bald and golden eagles. loons, red-necked grebes, sharp-shinned hawks and trumpeter swans. It also includes the only known nesting site of the whooping crane.

Fish found in the park include, Arctic grayling, burbot, inconnu, lake trout, lake chub, lake whitefish, longnose dace, longnose sucker, mountain whitefish, northern pike, round whitefish, slimy sculpin, spoonhead sculpin, spottail shiner and trout-perch.


The park is mostly boreal forest, with a variety of ecosystems ranging from lowland wet areas to alpine tundra. The main tree species are white and black spruce, lodgepole pine, jackpine, subalpine fir, larch, balsam poplar, trembling aspen and white birch. The varied ecosystems resulting from varied altitudes, hot and cold springs, and river influence results in a diversity of vegetation.

The diverse range of soils offers several specialized and uncommon habitats. More than 700 species of vascular plants and 300 species of both bryophytes and lichen can be found in the park, giving it a richer variety than any other area in the NWT. Nahanni aster is a very rare subspecies of aster found only in the park.


The climate is cold and highly variable and visitors should be prepared for extremes. July and August are generally warmest with temperatures between 0°C to 30°C, with frost possible at night toward the end of the period. The river begins icing in September.

Get in[edit]

There are no public roads in Nahanni National Park Reserve, visitors must access the park via air or hike in.

To get to the river, a floatplane is necessary. There are a number of charter companies providing service to the Nahanni.

Companies operating from Fort Simpson:

Other regional airlines:

A complete list of operators can be found on the Parks Canada website.

Fees and permits[edit]

Northern Park Backcountry Excursion/Camping Permit valid at Nahanni, Auyuittuq, Ivvavik, Aulavik, Quttinirpaaq, Sirmilik, Tuktut Nogait and Vuntut National Parks (per person, 2018):

  • Daily $24.50
  • Annual $147.20

Fishing permit:

  • Daily $9.80
  • Annual $34.30

Get around[edit]

Map of Nahanni National Park Reserve

You can travel down the river via canoe or kayak.


  • Rabbitkettle Hotsprings, source of the largest known tufa (a kind of limestone) mounds in Canada.
  • Virginia Falls, with a vertical drop twice that of Niagara Falls.
  • Several river canyons up to 1200 m in depth.
  • Caves such as Grotte Valerie which contains ancient skeletons of nearly a hundred Dall's sheep.


  • The park offers whitewater canoeing, kayaking and rafting trips ranging from ten days to three weeks. Make reservations well in advance through the Park Office.
  • While there are no developed trails, route descriptions are available for a few of the more popular hikes.
  • Flight-seeing day trips are available by air charter to Virginia Falls. Day visitors to Virginia Falls can enjoy a picnic as well as a short walk to the viewpoint. A longer portage trail, of moderate difficulty, descends to the base of the falls. Allow two hours return for the hike.

Licensed outfitting companies[edit]

Buy, eat, and drink[edit]

There are no facilities in the park. Bring everything you need with you. While the national park has no restriction on alcohol consumption, the closest town (Nahanni Butte) is a dry community and no one is allowed to transport or in possession of alcohol within a 15-km radius of the town.


There are no formal campsites in the park. If you do backcountry camping, ensure that you practise "no-trace" camping.

Stay safe[edit]

Use a licensed commercial outfitter for whitewater trips.

Go next[edit]

This park travel guide to Nahanni National Park Reserve is a usable article. It has information about the park, for getting in, about a few attractions, and about accommodations in the park. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.