Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Rafting or Canoeing the Nahanni River

A must-read resource for anyone who has a paddling adventure on the Nahanni River on their bucket list.

Do you dream of paddling the Nahanni River?

The Nahanni River is on every paddling enthusiast’s bucket list. Situated in a mountainous landscape, it flows through Canada’s deepest river canyons, past hot springs and geological features so unique that the Nahanni River was among the first World Heritage Sites to be declared by the United Nations in 1978. Paddlers world-wide consider it to be their ‘Mecca’.

The greatest river journey you’ll ever take

A multi-day river journey by raft or canoe on the Nahanni is an experience you’ll never forget and will inspire stories to tell your friends for years to come. Soak in natural hotsprings and enjoy rewarding hikes, wildlife and wildflowers, all in the land of the midnight sun. Some of the highlights include:

  • Virginia Falls. You’ll be awestruck standing next to Virginia Falls, where the Nahanni cascades down the cliffs of Nahanni National Park to form North America’s most spectacular undeveloped waterfall­–twice the height of Niagara Falls.
  • Canada’s ‘Grand Canyons’. Drifting downriver from Virginia Falls you become immersed in the ‘Grand Canyons’ of the Nahanni, Canada’s deepest river canyons, up to 1200 metres deep.
  • Legends and Lore. The Nahanni River’s reputation as a land of mystery and romance is supported by names like Deadmen’s Valley, Headless Creek, Funeral Range, Burial Range, Hells Gate and Painted Canyon.
  • Wildlife. Inhabited by moose, caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly and black bears and a host of others, the Nahanni River is also rich in human history with legends and lore that are inseparable from its physical beauty.

Where is the Nahanni River?

The Nahanni River is located roughly 500 kilometres west of Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The river is the centerpiece of Nahanni National Park Reserve, a designated UNESCO world heritage site. The Nahanni River, 563 km long, flows from the Mackenzie Mountains in the west, through the Selwyn Mountains, growing as it heads east over the majestic Virginia Falls, and finally empties into the Liard River.

Click the map to view a larger version. (Map produced by Nahanni National Park Reserve, December 2010.)

Getting to the Nahanni River

We begin all of our Nahanni River expeditions in the small town of Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories. You can get to Fort Simpson by flying from Yellowknife or you can make the 18-hour, 913-mile drive from Edmonton to Fort Simpson in two days along the Mackenzie Highway. Your journey north will be a refreshing departure from everyday life. You’ll fly over the largest expanse of wilderness in the world, pass through quieter airports, meet friendlier service personnel, and generally begin to immerse yourself in the wilderness experience that is about to unfold. After loading our gear into the aircraft we begin one of the major highlights of the adventure – the upriver flight. Flying over the majestic Nahanni Range and Ram Plateau, a visually stunning panorama unfolds in front of our eyes. You want to be sure to have your camera on your lap. Past participants have stepped off the plane declaring that “if the trip finished now, I would have my money’s worth!”

A twin otter float plane docked above Virginia Falls in Nahanni National Park

Paddling The Nahanni River

There are four designated landing areas within the park where we begin trips down the Nahanni. All of our rafting trips begin at Virginia Falls. Canoe trips can begin at any of these landing areas.

  • The Moose Ponds. The Moose Ponds are the headwaters of the South Nahanni River, and the starting point for the 90 km of virtually continuous Class II – Class III whitewater.
  • Island Lakes. Situated about halfway between the Mooseponds and Rabbitkettle Lake, Island Lakes offers an alternate starting point below the technically demanding Rock Gardens, and is the starting point for Canoeing and hiking expeditions into the Cirque of unclimbables.
  • Rabbitkettle Lake. From Rabbitkettle Lake to Virginia Falls, a distance of 118 km, the river meanders through a broad valley. There are no rapids on this section.
  • Virginia Falls. At Virginia Falls, the river plunges into the first of four great canyons. The 147 km section from Virginia Falls to Kraus Hot Springs has a number of rapids up to Class III in difficulty.

Moose Ponds to Island Lakes 

Beginning at the tiny Moose Ponds, perched high on the continental divide, the Nahanni River plunges through a backdrop of alpine scenery, winding its way through a maze of boulder-choked rapids which are challenging to navigate. This portion is appropriately known as “The Rocks Gardens.” This stretch offers some of the best whitewater canoeing in the country, and can only be paddled by those with advanced whitewater paddling skills. Our Nahanni Whitewater Canoeing: Moose Ponds Expedition is a three-week long trip beginning at Moose Ponds.

Paddling whitewater rapids on the Nahanni River.

Island Lakes to Rabbitkettle Lake 

Here the river flattens out. Moores’ Cabin and Hot Springs are points of interest. We pass the Broken Skull River. It is along this portion of the river that we have spotted wolves in the past. Glacier Lake is in this vicinity. Island Lakes is another point where you can begin a canoeing expedition on the Nahanni River, beginning upstream of Rabbitkettle Lake, but below the technically demanding Rock Gardens.

Rabbitkettle Lake to Virginia Falls 

We have two canoe trips that begin at Rabbitkettle Lake:

  • Our Nahanni National Park Canoe Quest trip begins at Rabitkettle lake and ends two weeks later at the Liard River. This trip is appropriate for intermediate paddlers who are comfortable on Class II whitewater.
  • Our Nahanni Flatwater Canoeing trip begins at Rabitkettle Lake and ends 7 days later at Virginia Falls. This trip is perfect for novice canoeists.

At Rabbitkettle Lake (Gahnįhthah Mįe) you will have the opportunity to hike the 7 kilometers (round trip) to the tufa mounds of Rabbit Kettle Hotsprings. Here we find unique geological features that help weave together the geological past of the Nahanni. As this is one of the only two spots in the Park where float planes may land it is not unusual to see others here, although once back on the river we are alone. This portion of the river above Virginia Falls (Náįlįcho) is a flat, meandering section that allows opportunity to brush up on techniques. The mountains and U-shaped valley created by the glaciers will dominate the scenery. As the river descends the valley, it begins to meander through lush vegetation. Moose, wolves, black and grizzly bears may be spotted here. The final camp before the falls will be on a small oxbow lake just off the river. This is a great site for wildlife viewing, fishing or hiking in the surrounding mountains.

Hikers checking out the Rabbitkettle Tufa Mounds on the Nahanni River.

Canoeing the flat meandering river between Rabitkettle Lake and Virginia Falls. The slick, smooth surface betrays the whitewater waiting below the falls.

Virginia Falls

All of our Nahanni River trips feature a visit to Virginia Falls. At twice the height of Niagara Falls, it is the crown jewel of Nahanni National Park. The vast expanse of the falls captivates photographers and hikers with a tireless display of powerful drama. Keen and fit hikers may undertake an all-day expedition to the top of Sunblood Mountain for an excellent view of the surrounding area. Others can enjoy exploring the expansive area overlooking the brink of the falls.

Rafters in front of Virginia Falls on the Nahanni River in Nahanni National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Photo by Virginia MacDonald)

Virginia Falls to Lindberg’s Landing (Canyon Kingdom)

All of our rafting expeditions on the Nahanni River begin at Virginia Falls, taking advantage of the fast moving water below the falls. You can choose between our 7-day or 12-day raft/canoe trips departing from Virginia Falls. Both trips cover the same distance, but the 12-day trip allows more time for hiking and exploring. Below the falls are four canyons, the deepest river canyons in Canada. The four canyons have been named by travellers moving upstream, and so paddlers encounter them in reverse.

Fourth Canyon

Fourth Canyon stretches 3 miles downstream from Virginia Falls. Also known as Painted Canyon, its walls are adorned with wind-carved hoodoos and a collage of colours. The broad deep channel provides a roller-coaster ride of standing waves.

Third Canyon

Within third canyon you can scramble to the top of the narrow chasm known as “the gate”. Here the river squeezes to a third of its previous width and sneaks through a gap marked by the pinnacle of Pulpit Rock. A panaromic view of the canyon walls unfolds, punctuated  by the 400-foot tall spire below.

Second Canyon

Second Canyon provides an impressive gateway to Deadmen Valley. It was here in 1905 that the headless bodies of prospecting brothers, Frank and Willie McLeod, were found. The deep-cut canyons of Praire Creek and Dry Canyon enter the valley, cutting through the Nahanni Plateau. The combined visual effect is stunning.

First Canyon

It feels sacrilegious to do anything but float through First Canyon. For this is the inner sanctum of the Nahanni and this must be savoured with respect and reverence. Pillars, flying buttresses, turrets, spires, and ramparts give a heraldic aspect to the twisting walls. The black and grey stone is treeless except for the occasional black spruce clinging to a fragile niche. Over 3400 feet in height, First Canyon is one of the deepest river canyons on the continent. One of the most spectacular campsites in the world lies in the depths of First Canyon. In the shadow of these cathedral cliffs stretches a broad sandy beach, almost a mile long. Backed by tall cottonwoods, spruce, and piled high with driftwood, it is majestic in any weather.

Canoeing through Canada’s deepest river canyons on the Nahanni River in Canada’s Northwest Territories (Photo: Dave MacDonnell).

Kraus Hot Springs

A highlight for many who journey down the Nahanni River with us is a relaxing soak in the soothing 32°C waters of Kraus Hot Springs. We arrive at the springs after paddling through Nahanni’s spectacular First Canyon, the steepest and deepest of them all.  This sulfuric hot spring is an idyllic spa in the wilderness. It smells like rotten eggs but it feels like heaven.

Kraus Hot Springs on the Nahanni River. (Photo: Noel Hendrickson)

Rafting the Nahanni River

Rafting is the perfect way for beginners to experience the Nahanni River. While enjoying a rafting trip on the Nahanni you will still have the opportunity to try out a canoe, as we bring an inflatable canoe on each trip to share among the group for the flat, moving water sections. You can also rent your own dedicated inflatable canoe or kayak.

Our Nahanni River Rafting Trips

Canoeing the Nahanni River

The Nahanni is a mecca for wilderness paddlers. Experienced paddlers have several options for where to begin their paddling trip. However, the Nahanni is a big river with powerful currents, boils and challenging whitewater. We’ve developed a couple of options that allow people without advanced whitewater skills to still canoe the Nahanni River:

  • One option is to join either our 8-day or 12-day Nahanni trips that combine expeditions rafts with canoes. You can canoe most of the river, including smaller rapids and swift moving water. In the big whitewater, we attach the canoes to the rafts, and you enjoy the comfort and safety of our large expedition rafts as we navigate the more challenging whitewater.
  • Another option is to use our “canyon rig” strategy. Above the rapids, we catamaran the canoes together in pairs, which means you have greater stability while going for the biggest waves. On the flatter sections, we disassemble the rigs and canoe conventionally.

Our Nahanni River Canoe Trips

Geographic Highlights of the Nahanni

The Nahanni River’s headwaters lie in the Selwyn Mountains. The river flows through the mountains and gorges of the MacKenzie Mountains and ends in the wide valley flats near its mouth. Geographers describe the river as an antecedent river, meaning “one whose direction of flow was established before the mountains rose”. Before the mountains in this area were created, the Nahanni wandered across a wide plain. When the rock uplifts occurred, the river maintained its course by cutting through the rock strata. This resulted in the formation of canyons believed to be 1.4 million years old. Unlike most of Canada, this area was not completely covered by ice during the last ice age. Because of this, parts of the Nahanni River Valley were not affected by glaciations for at least 300,000 years. It is believed that the scouring and widening of the Nahanni river valley was caused by advancing glaciers 2 million years ago.

The wilderness region surrounding the Nahanni contains rugged mountains and one of the deepest river canyon systems in the world. It also hosts one of the most remarkable karst limestone landscapes found anywhere. Caves, hot springs, tufa mounds, sand blowouts, spectacular plateaux, fossils and countless other geological phenomena are evident along the Nahanni valley.

Weather on the Nahanni

The Nahanni River is located in a semi arid region. Be prepared for a wide range of weather conditions. Summer weather may be hot and dry although (on the rare occasion) it could snow, especially near the end of August. While inclement weather is a possibility at anytime, the weather is usually moderate. The average July temperature is 16°C. and during August is 14°C. Summer precipitation is mainly convective in nature, occurring mainly in the afternoons or evenings in the form of showers or thunderstorms. We provide you with appropriate recommendations for what to pack and wear in our Nahanni trip information.

Flora and Fauna

The flora of the Nahanni River area may be more diverse than that of any other region of comparable size in the NWT. Although white and black spruce predominate, there is a fascinating variety of other vegetation in the region. This is primarily due to the existence of highly specialized habitats like hot springs, mist zones near waterfalls, unglaciated terrain and areas of discontinuous permafrost.

Wildlife in the Nahanni region are diverse and abundant. Moose, woodland caribou, wood buffalo, Dall sheep, mountain goat, grizzly and black bears frequent the South Nahanni River Valley, as do porcupine, beaver and a number of smaller rodents. Because the river is often silty, fishing is not as plentiful however Dolly Varden, lake trout and grayling can be caught in the clearer waters of the many tributaries that join the river. One hundred and seventy species of birds have been recorded in the park including trumpeter swans, bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine and gyrfalcons.

History of the Nahanni River

For thousands of years, the ancestors of the modern day Dene people lived and hunted in the Nahanni. Over time, three distinct regional bands of native people became established in the area. The Slavey people lived along the shores of the MacKenzie and Liard Rivers while the mountainous country to the west was home to two nomadic bands of natives, the Mountain Indians and a small group of Kaska Indians known to the Slavey as the ‘Nahaa’. These were the mysterious Indians referred to as the ‘Nahannis’ by the white fur traders who came into the country in the 1800’s. The South Nahanni River is named after this group of indigenous people.

Alexander McLeod, the Chief Trader at Fort of the Forks, a Hudsons Bay Company Post later renamed Fort Simpson, was the first recorded European to venture into the land of the Nahaa in the year 1823. Others seeking furs and gold soon followed, Macabre incidents and traditional native lore intertwined to weave legends about the Nahanni region. In 1908, the headless skeletons of the McLeod brothers were found along the river in what is today known as Deadmen Valley. Other skeletons and corpses followed and the Nahanni became fertile ground for lurid tales – a place where brave men and women feared to go.

It wasn’t until the late 1920s, when prospector Albert Faille and adventurer R.M. Patterson ventured up the river, that some of the myths were dispelled. Patterson’s book, Dangerous River, brought world-wide attention to the region. Although rumours of gold in the Nahanni still abound, this precious treasure has never been found in any quantity in the Nahanni region.

More to explore

Nahanni River Of Forgiveness

The Dehcho and the Shotagotine Dene are planning a truly daring and historic journey of healing and reconnection with their ancestors.

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Quintessential Canoe Country

Here is our shortened blog version of an article written by Liz Beatty for National Geographic online. We have to admit, we’re pretty happy to hear more kudos for a river we know to be a gem among gems.

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