Yellowknife



Yellowknife is the capital city of the Northwest Territories, on the North Arm of Great Slave Lake, on Yellowknife Bay. Yellowknife is the main entry point for visitors to NWT. Many tourists come to experience the Northern climate and traditional lifestyle, and to see the Northern Lights.

Understand[edit]

Cabins from the city's early days in Old Town

You don't have to fly to Yellowknife, but it's the way most people get there. And if you do, your appreciation of the city will begin even before you reach the ground, as you look down after the long approach over the deep lake and see how it looks as if the city has been clawed out of the taiga. Nature does not give Yellowknife anything more than what humanity has made it. Here, more so than any other city in Canada's North, even in the Arctic, one can see just what an accomplishment it has been to make a livable place here on the far side of North America's deepest lake.

The city gets its name from the Yellowknives Dene, the area's First Nations inhabitants, who lived on the peninsula jutting into Great Slave Lake's North Fork where the city is now. Their name came from their use of copper knives they obtained on trading journeys to the Arctic, where the metal was readily available.

European explorers had known of the Yellowknife and their home since the 18th century, but rarely had any reason to venture, much less settle, there. Gold was discovered in the area during the 1890s, but the deposits were not enough to distract the steady stream of wealth-seekers headed for the Klondike gold fields of Yukon and Alaska at the centre of that era's gold rush. By the 1920s, however, a rough settlement had been established there, as bush pilots found it an excellent staging area, storing fuel supplies there for forays further north.

Yellowknife's modern history begins around 1935. A government survey team taking a second look found gold deposits more extensive than the earlier ones, some of which were practically at ground level where they could be easily extracted. Very quickly, Americans and Canadians impoverished by the Depression came to Yellowknife, building ramshackle log cabins and other ad hoc structures to house themselves and the businesses that came to serve them. Within three years, the people of the boomtown had elected a school board—the first democratic act of self-government in the Northwest Territories.

The outbreak of war in Europe at the end of the decade slowed things down for a while in Yellowknife, but afterwards the miners returned, along with scientists, bankers, government officials, and anyone else who thought they might make their fortune, or at least a life for themselves, north of 60. They couldn't all fit in the small frontier town. The federal government built a post office on the high ground above the lake. Fairly soon after, as intended, a commercial district known as New Town (in contrast to Old Town down on the lake) grew up around it. It soon became a city, and in 1967 became the Northwest Territories' capital, taking over from Fort Smith.

A popular songwriter native to Yellowknife wrote that while the streets there weren't paved with gold, there was plenty underneath the pavement. This later became an unofficial city motto: "Where the gold is paved with streets." That was true, and by the late 1970s there were modern high-rise office buildings. The four-star Explorer Hotel was built on the high ground nearby to give visiting executives an impressive place to stay, and sometimes served as a meeting place for the territory's new legislative assembly.

At the end of the decade the world began coming to Yellowknife. Roads finally connected the city to the rest of Canada, ending its dependence on the bush pilots who had been its first settlers, although it still relied on ice roads across the lake in winter. Prince Charles came to speak at the dedication of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, the territorial museum. And when the Soviet nuclear-powered Kosmos 954 satellite came crashing to Earth in 1979, the international media reported the story from Yellowknife. Suburban sprawl began to appear in the areas to the south of New Town, around Range Lake.

The territorial assembly moved into its own building in 1982, on the shores of Frame Lake near the Heritage Centre. That would be the peak of Yellowknife's development for some time. The decline in the price of gold on the international markets after the inflationary 1970s ended led to a slow pullback in mining operations. Bathers in Frame Lake were replaced by pollution and leeches. In 1992, during a strike at the Giant Mine, on the outskirts of the city, nine replacement miners were killed when a bomb planted by a striker went off, the deadliest incident of labour-related violence in Canadian history (the miner was convicted two years later). The city began to experience the social problems that follow any decline of a major industry, such as homelessness, increased drug and alcohol abuse, and crime.

Mine after mine closed throughout the 1990s, until Giant itself shut in 2004. The city's literal golden age was behind it, and government displaced mining as the city's largest employer. Even that took a hit at the end of the century, when the eastern two-thirds of the Northwest Territories were split off to become Nunavut, with its capital at Iqaluit on Baffin Island.

But the city was able to reinvent itself, even if it has not been able to completely return to its former prosperity. Tourism, always present in a city surrounded by abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation, picked up some of the slack. It got a boost from abroad, as Japanese visitors found it an ideal place to go on dogsled rides and take in the northern lights, even in the coldest of winters. The cable-TV show Ice Road Truckers, focusing on a family business hauling supplies across the lake, put Yellowknife on the 21st-century media map. With the discovery of diamonds in the 1990s, mining has made a comeback, as enough diamond deposits have been found in the area for the city. In total, four major diamond mines have operated within the territory and the city claims itself "The Diamond Mining Capital of North America".

You will probably see that Yellowknife was a lot more, and is a lot more, whether you come during the long summer days with four-hour white nights in between, or the equally short winter days when temperatures stay well below zero and the auroras light up the night sky.

Get in[edit]

By plane[edit]

Terminal at Yellowknife Airport (YZF)

Airport[edit]

Air travel, interestingly enough, is one of the oldest ways of getting to Yellowknife (the city was founded in the mid-1930s, and space for float planes can still be found at the Old Town docks).

Airlines[edit]

Canadian airlines operating to Yellowknife:

By train[edit]

Railways have not been built to Yellowknife, and passenger rail service is not available in the Northwest Territories at all; the nearest freight railway reaches to the town of Hay River on the south side of the Great Slave Lake. One of the nearest passenger stations is in Edmonton, Alberta, thousands of kilometers to the south.

By car[edit]

Yellowknife is at the end of Northwest Territories Highway 3 (Yellowknife Highway). From Alberta, travel north on Alberta Highway 35 (Mackenzie Highway), which becomes Northwest Territories Highway 1 (Mackenzie Highway). Continue to follow the highway past the community of Enterprise and the turn off for the community of Kakisa to the junction with North West Territories Highway 3. Follow Highway 3 to the Mackenzie River crossing at Fort Providence. From Fort Providence, follow Highway 3 past Behchoko (formerly Rae-Edzo) to its terminus at Yellowknife.

A permanent bridge across the Mackenzie River opened in 2012, replacing a seasonal ferry crossing or ice bridge which used to be the sole overland route into the territorial capital.

By boat[edit]

Yellowknife is on Great Slave Lake. Boating to and in Yellowknife is private (ferries are used at some highway river crossings in the territory, however). There are docks in the Old Town area; one could presumably go across the lake to Hay River or Behchoko in a private boat. The closest destination to Yellowknife is Dettah. The lake drains to the Arctic Ocean via the Mackenzie River.

Get around[edit]

Orientation[edit]

Franklin Avenue downtown

Yellowknife is quite compact, and the main areas of interest can be easily reached on foot. "New Town" is the current downtown core. It is bordered by 47th street to the north, 53rd street to the south, 52nd avenue to the east, and Veteran's Memorial Way (49th Avenue) to the west. Franklin Avenue (50th Avenue) is the main thoroughfare. The corner of Franklin Avenue and 50th Street is considered to be the city's centre.

"Old town", where the city of Yellowknife was founded, is at the base of the hill on Franklin Avenue, on a peninsula that juts into Yellowknife Bay, and on Latham Island. This area is primarily residential, but remains home to some of Yellowknife's oldest businesses.

By bus[edit]

  • Yellowknife Transit, +1 867-873-4693. Buses run every 40 minutes from M-Sa 7:10AM-7:10PM. Operates a three-route bus service. Fares are $3.00. Free transfers between routes.

By taxi[edit]

$4.50 flag rate plus $2 per km.

See[edit]

Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre
Ragged Ass Road sign
  • Aurora Borealis (northern lights) - This is the one thing that you must see (however, it is best seen in wintertime, when the nights are long, and they cannot be seen at all during the short "white nights" around the summer solstice when the sun never dips far enough below the horizon for long enough for it to get darker than twilight). There are many tour companies that offer different ways of seeing the Aurora Borealis, such as by snowmobile, sled dog expedition, photography workshops and tractor rides to various lodges.
  • 1 Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, 4750 48th Street, +1 867-767-9347 x71202. Musem open Tu-Su 10AM–5PM (closed M) and on statutory holidays except Christmas and New Year's Day. The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre houses the territorial museum and archives. Free admission. Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (Q202552) on Wikidata Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre on Wikipedia
  • 2 Ragged Ass Road (150 m long between Brock and Hamilton drives near the lakeshore). This otherwise undistinguished short unpaved residential street is known for its name, which started as a joke among prospectors about their lack of success one season, far beyond Yellowknife. Before you get a signature souvenir sign or T-shirt from one of the many shops in town that sells them, you might want to walk down the actual street and take a picture of the official sign, now that the city has finally acknowledged its existence, so you can confirm to people you tell the story to back home that, yes, this street actually exists. Ragged Ass Road (Q3733484) on Wikidata Ragged Ass Road (street) on Wikipedia
  • The many art galleries in town feature the works of local and northern artists.
  • 3 Pilots Monuments, 3511, 3513 Ingraham Dr. Open 24 hours. Sitting on top of a hill, this monument gives tribute to bush pilots who opened up Northwest Territories, delivered food & medicine and transported people.
  • Great Slave Lake
  • Old Town
  • 4 Northwest Territories Legislative Building, +1 867-767-9130 ext 12017, toll-free: +1-800-661-0784. Northwest Territories Legislative Building (Q10270235) on Wikidata Northwest Territories Legislative Building on Wikipedia
  • 5 Buffalo Airways Hangar Tour, 108 Berry Street, +1 867-765-6023, . Tu-F 10AM-4PM. You can go on a guided tour of the hangar of the family-run airline that was showcased in reality television show Ice Pilots NWT. Featuring a fleet of vintage aircraft from the World War II era (DC-3, C46, Electra and others), the hangar is the place where technicians keep these old warbirds flying. You might even come across one of its DC-3 which participated in the D-Day campaign by dropping paratroopers over Normandy. Free (advanced booking and photo ID are required).

Do[edit]

Yellowknife is an outdoor enthusiast's dream. There are several scenic walking and hiking trails within the city boundaries. The Ingraham Trail (Highway 4) connects Yellowknife to many lakes, rivers, and hiking routes that draw campers, hikers, paddlers, fishermen and women, and hunters.

The winter months are dominated by winter sports: hockey, curling, skating, cross-country skiing, broomball, volleyball, and indoor soccer.

A small but active amateur arts community brings theatre, dance, and choral works to the community. Apart from some excellent amateur performers,the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre (NACC), the main venue for the performing arts, endeavours to bring professional level entertainment.

The Snowking Festival and the dog sled races are annual winter events (occurring in March). In the summer, visitors can take in the Summer Solstice Festival, Raven Mad Daze (with its 24-hour golf tournament), and Folk on the Rocks, a popular music festival in mid-July. Raven Mad Daze is a festival to celebrate the beginning of summer, but it has shrunk in size over the past few years and now features mostly sidewalk sales by local businesses. It's held in Downtown Yellowknife.

Or take a tour from one of the many tour companies around Yellowknife, such as Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures or Becks Kennels. They offer many programs. These include dog sledding, aurora viewing, shoreline breakfast/lunch, wildlife viewing, and fishing trips.

  • 1 Enodah Wilderness Travel - Trout Rock Lodge, Great Slave Lake, +1 867-874-4334. Fly in wilderness lodge on Great Slave Lake. Fishing, bird watching, Aurora packages. Day trips or overnight.
  • 2 Beck's Kennels, 124 Curry Drive, +1 867-873-5603. Dogsled tours. Kennel owned and operated by World Champion dog racer, Grant Beck. Winter activities: Aurora by dog sled, traditional dogsled tours and learn to drive your own dogteam experience. They also offer overnight dogsled adventures. November 1 - mid May. Summer and fall activities: Aurora tours and dogsled on wheels. August 1 - October 31.
  • 3 Northern Arts and Cultural Centre. NACC Theatre (Q7058138) on Wikidata Northern Arts and Cultural Centre on Wikipedia

Work[edit]

There are many jobs available in Yellowknife, and wages are significantly higher than in the south.

Buy[edit]

  • A Canadian diamond
  • A painting by a local artist
  • An Inuit stone carving
  • A hand-made birch bark basket
  • Caribou-skin mittens
  • A northern parka, trimmed with fur
  • A single spring roll from Corner Mart after a night of ogling teenagers at the Raven
  • A world-famous breakfast hotdog from Gas Town (only served until 11AM)
  • 1 YK Centre Square Mall, +1 867-873-9802. Centre Square Mall (Q5062307) on Wikidata Centre Square Mall on Wikipedia
  • 2 Buffalo Airwear, 108 Berry Street (Within the airport compound), +1 867-765-6023, . M-F 9AM-5PM. Get aviation-themed souvenirs from Buffalo Airways, the airline that still uses DC-3 and other World War II era warbirds in revenue service for cargo delivery to northern remote communities and as waterbombers.
  • 3 Old Town Glassworks, 3510 McDonald Drive, +1 867-669-7654, . TU-F noon-5:30PM, Sa noon-4:30PM.

Eat[edit]

Wildcat Cafe
  • 1 Gold Range Bistro, 50th Street, +1 867-873-4567. Local café with great ordinary food and lots of good people where the locals eat. Famous for their plate-sized eggroll.
  • 2 Wildcat Café, 3904 Wiley Road, +1 867-873-8850. Features a different menu every year, depending on which local restaurant wins the contract to run it. Relaxed dining with shared tables in a Gold Rush atmosphere. It was built in 1937. It is a popular eatery and tourist attraction, operating in the summer only, in one of the city's oldest buildings. The Wildcat Cafe (Q7774930) on Wikidata The Wildcat Cafe on Wikipedia
  • 3 Bullock's Bistro, 3534 Weaver Dr, +1 867-873-3474. M-Sa noon-9PM, closed Su. Relaxed, cramped, extra-casual bar and restaurant in circa 1930s cabin. The menu features fish, game, and salads. The fish is as fresh as this morning, and the seemingly hectic grill manages to produce fine results with it. Don't expect anything fancy in service or presentation, but you'll enjoy the lively and authentic atmosphere. Make sure your wallet is well-stocked before coming: a simple plate of fish and chips and a bottle of self-serve beer costs between $40 and $50.
  • 4 Zehabesha, 5030 50 Street, +1 867-873-6400. M-Sa 11AM-9PM, closed Su. Traditional Ethiopian food.
  • 5 Copperhouse, 484 Range Lake Rd, +1 867-920-5500, . Tu-Th 11:30AM-2PM, 4:30-10PM; F 11:30AM-2PM, 4:30-11PM; Sa 4:30-11PM; Su 4:30-10PM (closed M). In the new town. Famous for wood oven pizzas.
  • 6 Sundog Trading Post, 4 Lessard Drive, +1 867-446-8687, . W-Su 10AM-9PM. Panini and ice cream.
  • 7 The Hungry Wolf Restaurant, 5125 51 St, +1 867-873-9653. Tu W 11AM-8PM, Th-Sa 11AM-9PM, Su 10AM-3PM (closed M). Has fish, curry and pasta of the month. Big portion size. $20-35.

Drink[edit]

Coffee[edit]

  • 1 Barren Ground Coffee, 5103 52 St, +1 867-873-3030. M-F 8AM-3PM, Sa Su 10AM-3PM. Cafe with locally roasted coffee. Hot chocolate $3.50, coffee $5+, BLT $11, breakfast sandwich $9.
  • 2 Birchwood Coffee Kǫ̀, 5021 49 St, +1 867-873-5466. M-F 8AM-4PM. Good lunch menu with a variety of drink options. Be sure to try their bannock dishes.

Alcohol[edit]

  • 3 Gold Range Hotel, 5010 50 St, +1 867-873-4441. Best-known drinking establishment in Yellowknife. Weekends feature country-and-western music in an atmosphere that can only be experienced, not described. The Gold Range (Q7736971) on Wikidata The Gold Range on Wikipedia
  • 4 The Black Knight Pub, 4910 49th Street, +1 867-920-4041, . M Tu Th 11AM-11PM, W F Sa 11AM-midnight, closed Su. Somewhat in the tradition of an English pub.
  • The Elks Club hosts scotch night every Tuesday.
  • 5 The NWT Brewing Company's Woodyard, 3905 Franklin Ave, +1 867-873-2337, . Tu W 4-10PM, Th 4-11PM, F Sa noon-midnight. Only micro-brewery in the territory and their pub serves food and many of their northern-named beers on tap. They have won awards for their Kicksled Cream Ale. Though they have a poor management on the waitlist and it's best to call ahead to reserve a table.
  • 6 Harley's Hardrock Saloon, 4919 48 St, +1 867-873-4030.

Sleep[edit]

Caution Note: Ever since the wildfire evacuation in August 2023, availability for hotel rooms in Yellowknife has been tight (especially during peak aurora period, i.e. mid-November to early-April, or whenever there are events happening in the city). It is best to reserve a hotel room far in advance.
(Information last updated 06 Feb 2024)
The Explorer Hotel

Budget[edit]

Bed and breakfast[edit]

  • 1 Embleton House, 5203 52 St, +1 867-873-2892, . Private bedrooms and one suite. Bedrooms: single occupancy $125, double occupancy $140. Suite: single occupancy $170, double occupancy $190.

Motels and inns[edit]

Mid-range[edit]

Splurge[edit]

  • 6 The Explorer Hotel, 4825 49th Ave (NW corner of intersection of 48th St and 49th Avenue, on highest ground), +1 867-873-3531, toll-free: +1-800-661-0892, . Check-in: 4PM, check-out: 11AM. Architecturally undistinguished from the rest of Yellowknife's boxy, modernist 1970s buildings, the Explorer stands out by standing on the highest spot in the centre of town. Northern Canada's largest hotel has hosted three generations of the British royal family, including Queen Elizabeth II herself, on their visits to the city, as well as other prominent personages. This level of comfort comes with a fitness centre, two business centres, the Traders Grill restaurant and Trapline Lounge. Complimentary parking and free airport shuttles are provided. It will not, however, come cheap. $220+. Explorer Hotel (Q24190809) on Wikidata Explorer Hotel on Wikipedia
  • 7 Chateau Nova Hotel, 4571 48 Street (Just north of The Explorer Hotel, beneath the hill), +1 867-766-6682, toll-free: +1-866-722-6682, . 141 rooms and suites with Wi-Fi, flatscreen TV, A/C, kitchenettes. Complimentary parking and free airport shuttles are provided. Quarry Restaurant steakhouse open 7AM-2PM and 5PM-9PM, Quarry Lounge open 11AM-10PM. $250+.

Stay safe[edit]

Yellowknife Post Office

Driving, particularly away from the main highway, may involve long distances without seeing much traffic. Be sure to check the usual summer driving requirements: spare tire, water, etc. In winter, temperatures can drop to -40 °C/°F and colder. Be prepared! Bring a candle lantern for heat, a thermos of hot water, foods such as chocolate or nuts and a heavy blanket, and mitts (not gloves). If stranded, do not leave your vehicle unless forced to. See our page on winter driving for more tips.

Bison are prevalent between the Mackenzie River at Fort Providence and Behchoko. They like to amble on the highway. Take care during night driving along this section.

Do not stop on the Ingram Trail highway to see aurora lights. There are designated aurora viewing parking and pull-off sites along the highway for you to safely see the aurora. Cell phone signal starts to weaken after the 40-kilometre mark on Ingram Trail.

Connect[edit]

  • 1 Yellowknife Public Library, 5022 49 Street (Second floor of the Centre Square Mall). M 9:30AM-8:30PM, Tu W 9:30AM-6PM, Th 9:30AM-8:30PM, F 10AM-6PM, Sa 10AM-5PM, Su (October to April only) 1-5PM. Offers two hours of free wireless per day (more time can be purchased); ask the Circulation desk for a username and password.

Cope[edit]

Go next[edit]

  • Drive to Dettah on ice road on Great Slave Lake in winter (6.4 km) or around Great Slave Lake in summer (21 km)
  • Drive south along the Mackenzie Highway (5.5 hours) or fly on First Air (40 mins) to Hay River
Routes through Yellowknife
High Level via EnterpriseENDS at  S  N  END


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