The Northwest Territories are famous for diamonds, the gold rush and being cold. We decided to venture to its capital, Yellowknife during the winter as it is known to be an excellent place for Northern Lights viewing. As we were preparing for our trip, though, it became apparent that there is so much more to Yellowknife than viewing the Aurora Borealis. We soon found out that it is a perfect winter getaway for family travel as there are many winter activities to do in Yellowknife with kids. Below are 12 of our favorites (in no particular order).
1. Watching the Aurora Borealis
Yellowknife is perfectly situated underneath the aurora oval (a zone of maximal Northern Lights activity) making it a prime destination for aurora viewing. Because of this, there is a 90% chance of seeing these dancing lights.
There are several outfitters in Yellowknife that provide Aurora chasing tours. Although it is possible to spot the Aurora from town, 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.
2. Driving on an ice-road
During winter, the temperature in Yellowknife dips into the double digit negatives. For reference, the average January temperature 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 it’s ice roads with the popularity of television shows such as Ice Road Truckers.
The ice roads allow for remote destinations, normally only accessible by plane, to be reachable. It also cut travel time shorter in between communities.
3. Walking through history in Old Town
Old Town is on a rocky point of land beautifully located on Yellowknife’s Great Slave Lake waterfront. For 360º views of where it all started in the 1930s, we headed up the Bush Pilot monument. Here you can get views of the various buildings of historical significance such as log cabins that were from the days of the gold rush. Additionally, Old Town is the part of Yellowknife where a majority of art galleries such as the Frozen Rock Studio, Down to Earth Gallery, and Gallery of the Midnight Sun are located.
4. Take part in the local art scene
Old Town in Yellowknife has many galleries that showcase aboriginal art. 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 aboriginal culture.
Their favorite stop 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.
There are two main dog sledding outfitters in Yellowknife. We went with 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 workers on a snowmobile. Once on the frozen Karn Lake, the dogs didn’t need any directions. They went full speed ahead and we were able to enjoy the ride. The silence was only occasionally interrupted with the boys yelling “mush” in an attempt to encourage the dogs to go faster.
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.
Due to recent heavy snowfall during 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!
7. Visiting the 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 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.
8. Exploring the Aboriginal communities
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 C making his own drum as part of the Great Spirit Circle Trail Experience.
The aboriginal communities in Yellowknife also provide experiences to help people learn more about their culture. We were able to explore Dettah after driving on the ice-road and D’Nilo is just past Old Town.
9. Visiting the Snow Castle
There are many 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 snow castle is on Yellowknife Bay, Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife and is reached by driving on an ice road.
10. Kite flying
C had previously tried kite flying when we were in Bermuda. 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 Greg Robertson, who recently received the Canadian Tourism Lifetime Achievement Award.
Although Greg made it looks easy, Kevin learned that it was a lot harder than it looked. Especially since we were experiencing a particularly beautiful day with very little wind.
11. 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.
12. 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 a truly Canadian experience, there is an ice rink so one can combine skating with a game of hockey.
Other Winter Activities to do in Yellowknife with Kids
The winter activities to do 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 would be fun for kids of all ages and is also applicable for multi-generational travel.
For those traveling with older kids, it is also possible to go snowmobiling. 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.
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.