“Hey Bear” “Heyyyy bear”, I called out as I pushed through branches and stepped over a fallen tree, my boots squelching in the soft, moist soil. Fresh moose and bear tracks showed that we were not the only mammals to use this route. Along with my co-guide Daniel and a group of eight guests we were in search of the Broken Skull hotsprings. Would we find a black bear soaking in the springs? This was our third day on the Broken Skull river and our group was eager to explore a side valley of the river and was lured on by the promise of steaming hot water.
The Broken Skull hotsprings is just one of the many gems of the Nahanni watershed that lies off the river. Travelling the Nahanni and its tributaries by canoe or raft remains the most popular mode of transport but there is just as much to explore off the river as there is on the water.
Below are some of my favourite hikes to share with guests on the guided trips we offer along the length of the Nahanni river.*
1. Pıı̨́ ṕ̨ 'enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Gaǫfáá - Broken Skull Hotsprings
This is a must do hike that is all about the hot springs! A 2.5 km hike along a small tributary of the Broken Skull River will lead you to these beautiful, natural pools. As you near the pools you will start to notice the vegetation become more lush; the hot springs create their own micro-climate. We remove our shoes and tread softly as we approach the fragile ground around the pools. If you are there in early summer the ground will be covered with luscious strawberries. The warmth of the springs will not disappoint and after a few days of paddling, the soak will be a welcome chance to revive tired muscles. For the complete experience take an invigorating dunk in the nearby creek between soaks in the piping hot pools!
2. Cirque of the Unclimbables
One of our most popular expeditions allows paddlers to immerse themselves in the Cirque of the Unclimables, the renowned climbing area famous for its granite peaks. Requiring the better part of a week to explore; these are the highest peaks in the northwest territories and are extensively glaciated. This hike away from the river allows paddlers a taste of the alpine’s rugged beauty, a contrast from the idyllic river scenery of the South Nahanni. The first day of the hike takes you along Britnell creek and through the nearby forest where blueberry bushes abound. Arriving at Glacier Lake, the impressive granite spires of the Cirque , including Mount Sir James MacBrien (2, 759m) and Mount Harrison Smith (2,510m) tower above. Loading into canoes for a quick crossing of the lake brings us to our camp for the night. Here you can lounge on a perfect pebble beach and enjoy the blue waters of the lake and the endless views deep into the Cirque. The following morning take your time hiking up the well marked trail into Fairy Meadows. The trail climbs steadily and if the elevation gain doesn’t take your breath away the views certainly will. As you reach the top, drop your pack and marvel in the velvet green meadow dotted with granite boulders the size of train-cars. A small stream cuts it way through the meadow and marmot calls pierce the air from behind the boulders. Taking a rest day is in order in Fairy Meadows, providing a chance to put your feet up or make short excursions from camp. For those who desire to explore the Cirque further there are several fantastic day hikes with it incredible vistas. Opportunities for photography abound. This is the type of place that even before leaving it you are already dreaming of returning.
3. Sunblood Mountain
When you arrive at Nailicho (Virginia Falls) inevitably your eyes are drawn towards the horizon line where the South Nahanni river plunges 92 meters over the falls. Draw your eyes up from the churning waters of the sluice box, the water above the falls, and you will see the faint line of a narrow trail cutting across the scree slope of Sunblood Mountain. This 8 km round trip hike starts on river left, across from the float plane docks at Virginia Falls. The climb is steady but hikers will be quickly rewarded with views of the river from the scree slope. Those who continue on towards the summit will have multiple viewpoints as the hiking trail opens up in the alpine. Downstream of Nailicho, you will get glimpses of the landmarks still to come on your paddling trip. Upstream, you will see the silver ribbon of the South Nahanni as it winds its way through big, lazy corners and cuts along the colourful walls of the Sunblood Range. If there is still energy to burn a tempting alpine ridge will provide vantage points of the alpine playground that exists above the Nahanni’s river valley.
4. Tthetaehtluah - The Gate
The hiking opportunities below Virginia Falls are plentiful. Paddlers can choose from the Gate, Prairie Creek, Dry Canyon as well as longer hikes such as Scow Creek. One of the most iconic features on the South Nahanni river is The Gate and Pulpit Rock. The hike to the top of the Gate is steep but sweet. After crossing the cold, clear water of a small creek you will make your way through a short forested stretch before the climb begins. Even a small gain in elevation allows for impressive views of the Nahanni river as it winds it way through the Gate. As you climb further you will gain views up and down the river valley. Stop and enjoy each look out on your way to the summit. Can you spot The Preacher at his perch near Pulpit Rock? As you climb high above the grey green waters of the Nahanni, the scale of this landscape is once again astonishing. Looking down you may spot your campsite and a small plume of smoke drifting out signaling that another delicious dinner awaits. When the rumble of your stomach interrupts the rapturous view make your way back to camp.
5. Lafferty’s Canyon
My personal favourite since I was a teenager is the hike at Lafferty’s Canyon. Departing from the river, hike up the left side of the dry creek bed into the canyon. Watch for the distinct glacial erratics on the left side of the canyon as you hike up. As the canyon narrows the rocks become more and more interesting. Pick your way along until you get to the narrow mouth of the canyon. Leave your dry clothes and shoes here (and consider putting on your wetsuit) to wade and swim through the emerald pools of the canyon. Water shoes will help you make your way over the smooth ledges of the canyon. On a hot day this is paradise and it is easy to spend an afternoon dipping in the pools and laying on the sun warmed rocks. Beyond the pools a dramatic canyon beckons for further exploration though many turn back after the pools. Hiking back towards camp while the sun warms your back and sets the dryas tufts aglow, the Nahanni’s magic will wash over you.
All of the hikes in the Nahanni are unique and provide a deeper appreciation of the Nahanni’s diverse landscapes, geology and ecosystems. To learn more about the wonders of the Nahanni please get in touch with us today!
This information is not intended to be a hiking guide. If you are travelling without a guide be sure to seek out additional information before embarking.