The Northwest Territories in Canada is famous for diamonds, the gold rush and being very, very, cold. We decided to venture to its capital, Yellowknife during the dead of winter. Our reason for heading to Yellowknife in winter was its reputation as one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. As we were preparing for our trip, though, it became apparent that there are many more things to do in Yellowknife than just viewing the Aurora Borealis. We soon found out that it is a perfect winter getaway for family travel as there are many things to do in Yellowknife with kids. Below are 12 of our favorites (in no particular order).
What Do You Need To Know Before Visiting Yellowknife in Winter
Yellowknife is deep in Canada’s North and very remote. But, it is also a booming town. the Yellowknife population is over 60,000 people, and that number doesn’t include all the temporary or seasonal workers or the tourists. Yellowknife a major hub for mining industries. And on a flight to the capital of the Northwest Territories, you have as much chance of sitting next to a group of tourists from China as you do a businessperson in a power suit or a mechanic cradling his toolbox. Yellowknife has a vibrant art and food scene as well as a huge wilderness tourism industry.
Dressing for Winter in Yellowknife, NWT
But Yellowknife is also very cold. Temperatures in Yellowknife during the winter can easily drop down below -40°. And it can also be windy. And because many of the best things to do in Yellowknife are outdoors, it’s important to dress properly. This goes double if you are traveling with children. Ensure that everyone dresses in layers. Extra clothes can always be removed if you get warm. But you can’t put on something you don’t have if you’re cold. Make sure that everyone has a warm jacket rated to at least -40°. Keep in mind that ski-jackets are not ideal for this kind of weather. Something with a down interior or a thermal material would be better. Snow pants are highly recommended. They will keep you both dry and warm. As will winter hats and gloves. Boots should also be rated for -40°.
Dealing with cold weather isn’t as bad as it sounds if you are prepared for it. In fact, if you dress properly, it’s easy to spend an entire day outside and feel perfectly comfortable and happy. There are a number of outfitters in Yellowknife that allow you to rent cold weather gear. But it’s best to call ahead if you plan on taking advantage of this. They can sell out during popular times.
Our Favorite Winter Activities in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
Watching the Aurora Borealis
Yellowknife is perfectly situated underneath the aurora oval (a zone of maximal Northern Lights activity. This makes the city a prime destination for viewing the Aurora in Canada. Because of this, there is a 90% chance of seeing the Yellowknife Aurora if you visit the city for at least 3-days! Those are pretty great odds!
There are several outfitters in that provide Yellowknife northern lights tours. Although it is possible to spot the Aurora in Yellowknife city, the view is much better from outside the city where light pollution will not interfere. It is also possible to rent your own vehicle and head out of the city on your own. In fact, the Northern lights in Yellowknife are so popular that they have a website set up for tracking the Yellowknife aurora forecast. You can check that out here. There are also a number of Aurora lodges set up outside of the city. These Yellowknife hotels are organized specifically for enjoying the some of the best northern lights viewing that the world has to offer.
Driving on an ice-road
During winter, the temperature in Yellowknife dips into the double-digit negatives. For reference, the average January temperature in Yellowknife is -26ºC (-15ºF). When there is a strong wind, however, it can feel much colder. This cold weather guarantees that the rivers and lakes in Yellowknife freeze over. If the cold weather persists, the ice becomes sufficiently thick that even 18-wheelers can drive on it! The region became famous for its ice roads with the popularity of television shows such as Ice Road Truckers. Driving on the Yellowknife ice roads has become very parts of a Yellowknife tour.
The Yellowknife ice roads allow for easy access to remote destinations. Many of these would normally only accessible by plane. The northern ice roads also cut travel time shorter in between communities such as the nearby Aboriginal community of Dettah that would normally take over an hour to reach by land. The ice roads make for some of the best road trips in Canada. You can read about more incredible Canadian road trips here.
Walking through history in Yellowknife’s Old Town
Old Town in Yellowknife is on a rocky point of land beautifully located on Yellowknife’s Great Slave Lake waterfront. To get a 360º view of Yellowknife and the surrounding area we headed up to the Bush Pilot Monument. From here we could see the town got its start in the. The Bush Pilot monument offers views of the various buildings of historical significance such as log cabins that were from the days of the gold rush. Additionally, Old Town Yellowknife is the part of the city where a majority of art galleries such as the Frozen Rock Studio, Down to Earth Gallery, and Gallery of the Midnight Sun are located.
Old Town also houses some of the best restaurants in Yellowknife such as the WildCat cafe. As well, Old Town is the home of the popular local brewery, NWT Brewing. With names like Ragged Ass Rd. It’s clear that Yellowknife’s vibrant history is still on full display here!
Take part in the local art scene
Old Town in Yellowknife has many galleries that showcase aboriginal art. In fact, one of our favorite things to do in Yellowknife was touring all the art galleries! The boys had a lot of questions about hunting as they saw hides, furs, and carvings made from animal parts. It led to good discussions about the synergy between northern and aboriginal cultures.
Their favorite though was Old Town Glassworks. This gallery is very hands on. Similar to the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, people are allowed to make their own glass creations. The boys’ favorite part was putting on the sticker designs before having their glasses sandblasted. Getting involved in these amazing activities is a great way to experience Yellowknife with kids.
Dog-sledding in Yellowknife
There’s no doubt that we love being outside. And one of the best ways to experience nature in Yellowknife is through a dog sled tour. Dog sledding can be as active as you want it to be. While our boys were happy simply sitting down and enjoying the view, Kevin and I tried our hands at mushing and wrangling the huskies. When we looked up what to do in Yellowknife, we found that there were two main dog sledding outfitters. Of the dog sledding outfitters in Yellowknife, we chose Beck’s Kennels as they had a drive your own dog sled option. It is also possible to join a tour that involves simply sitting down and enjoying the view.
Once the dogs were ready, we were led out of the kennels by one of the dog handlers on a snowmobile. Once we were out on frozen Karn Lake though, the dogs didn’t need any directions. They went full speed ahead and we were able to enjoy the ride. The views on the ride are stunning. silent lake shores are frozen and covered in snow. The only sounds around us were a dog barking or the boys yelling “mush” in an attempt to encourage the dogs to go faster.
Hiking the Yellowknife Wilderness
We couldn’t go to a new place known for its amazing tundra without going for a hike! This would be our first winter hike and it was an adventure. Technically not part of Yellowknife, we chose to hike the Cameron Falls Trail in Hidden Lake Territorial Park. It was an easy drive 47 km east of Yellowknife on the Ingraham Trail. This wasn’t our first hike in the north. You can check out our favorite family hikes in Iceland here.
Due to recent heavy snowfall the previous two days, the trail was harder to navigate than we expected. But the fresh snow definitely added to the fun and made the surroundings look magical. We were happy that our hike with Kevin’s Mom ended better than our last one in Gros Morne National Park, you can read all about that adventure here.
Visiting the Yellowknife Museums in New town
One of your first stops when visiting Yellowknife should be the Northern Frontier Visitor’s Centre. The staff was very helpful in helping plan our visit. The center also has various exhibits about Yellowknife’s history, industries, wildlife, and aboriginal culture. The boys particularly enjoyed the small room on the second floor that predominantly housed a wildlife exhibit.Tip: The second-floor wildlife exhibit room also has stamps that you can use to stamp your passport!
Our favorite museum in Yellowknife was the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. This museum is the Northwest Territories governments official museum and archives. It houses great exhibits about aboriginal culture, Yellowknife’s history and wildlife of the north.
The museum was extremely kid-friendly with many hands-on opportunities. But C and D’s favorite part was the children’s interactive zone on the first floor. Oh, did we mention, entrance at this fabulous place is free!
Tip: The Museum Cafe is known for having an excellent fare. If you have a chance, definitely grab some lunch. But make sure to come early or make reservations. The place fills up fast.
Exploring the Aboriginal communities near Yellowknife
Previously we had visited the aboriginal communities on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, to learn more about aboriginal culture in Canada. We also got to partake in many experiences, such as the boys making their own drum as part of the Great Spirit Circle Trail Experience. You can read about that experience here.
The aboriginal communities in Yellowknife also provide amazing experiences for people to learn more about their culture. We were able to explore the nearby town of Dettah after driving on the ice-road. Within Yellowknife, itself is the aboriginal town of D’Nilo. D’Nilo is located is just past Old Town.
Visiting the Yellowknife Ice Castle and SnowKing Festival
There are many winter festivals held throughout the year in Yellowknife. One such festival, The Snowking Festival, has been held annually in March for over two decades. Although it was not March yet when we visited, we were able to visit the partially built snow castle which is a highlight of the Snowking Festival. The Yellowknife winter festival and snow castle are in Yellowknife Bay, Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife and is reached by driving on an ice road. You can read about Winterlude in Ottawa, one of our other favorite Canadian winter festivals here.
Kite Flying on Great Slave Lake
C had previously tried kite flying when we were in Bermuda. You can read about that adventure here. He had a blast so when we saw kite flying was available via Bluefish Services we knew we had to sign up. The tour is run by lcoal celebrity Greg Robertson, who recently received the Canadian Tourism Lifetime Achievement Award.
Although Greg made it looks easy, Kevin learned that flying a kit on Great Slave Lake was a lot harder than it looked. Especially since we were experiencing a particularly beautiful day with very little wind.
Touring Buffalo Airways
When we learned it was possible to visit the Buffalo Airways hangar, home of the popular television show, Ice Pilots, we knew we had to sign up. The free tour was very informative and the boys learned how water bomber planes work.
Skating, Snowshoeing or Skiing
Being a winter wonderland, there are many opportunities to go skating, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in Yellowknife. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing tours are available and the tour company provides the gear that you need. For do-it-yourselfers, it is possible to rent gear in town so there is no need to bring your own.
One of the most common places to go skating is just outside the Yellowknife city hall. Here, there is an outdoor skating trail. Also, for those that want to have the most Canadian of things to do in Yellowknife with kids, there is an ice rink so one can combine skating with a game of hockey. Our kids are just learning to ski. You can read about learning to ski in Kelowna, British Columbia here.
Other Winter Activities in Yellowknife with Kids
The winter activities in Yellowknife with kids that we picked were targeted for family travel with younger children (our sons are 5 and 3 years old). However, we think all the above activities in Yellowknife would be fun for kids of all ages and is also applicable for multi-generational travel.
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For those traveling with older kids, it is also possible to go snowmobiling in Yellowknife. This is one activity we were looking forward to as we had gone snowmobiling with C in Iceland. Unfortunately, D was too young. Another fun winter activity to explore the town and the various trails is fat biking. You can read about our snowmobile experience in Iceland here.
Best Hotels in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
There are amazing places to stay in and around Yellowknife. From hotels in Yellowknife to the lodges and bed and breakfasts in the surrounding area, there are accommodations in Yellowknife that will fit the needs of all travelers. But hotels in Yellowknife book up fast. You can check out the best prices and availability on these websites:
So, what are you waiting for? With so many winter activities in Yellowknife to do with kids (or without), you should definitely visit this northern Canadian gem.
Having experienced over 20 countries across 4 continents Christina is well versed at travel planning and thrives on sharing that information with others with the hopes of encouraging more families to experience this incredible world that we live in.
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