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 Yellowknife band of the 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. They no longer exist as an organized band.
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 ... and some of them were practically right 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, as intended, a commercial district still known as New Town (in contrast to Old Town down on the lake) grew up around it. It soon became a city, and in 1969 became the Northwest Territories' first capital.
A popular songwriter native to Yellowknife wrote that while the streets there weren't paved with gold, there was plenty underneath the pavement. That was true, and by the late 1970s modern high-rise office buildings had gone up downtown. The four-star Explorer Hotel went up 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 relies 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 actually 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, nine replacement miners were killed when a bomb planted by a striker went off at Giant Mine on the outskirts of the city, 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 down throughout the 1990s, until Giant itself shut its doors 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. And even mining has made a small comeback, as enough diamond deposits have been found in the area for the city to modestly claim itself "The Diamond Mining Capital of North America"
You will see this slogan on banners hanging from street lights all over downtown. But you will probably also 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.
Yellowknife Airport (IATA: YZF). Daily flights connects Yellowknife with Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta, Vancouver in British Columbia, and with communities throughout the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and Nunavut.
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).
Railways have not been built to Yellowknife. In fact, passenger rail service is not available in the Northwest Territories at all; the nearest freight railroad reaches to the south side of the Great Slave Lake. One of the nearest passenger stations is in Edmonton, Alberta, hundreds of miles to the south. There are two bus transfers from Edmonton to Yellowknife according to the Greyhound website.
Yellowknife is located at the end of NWT Highway 3 Yellowknife Highway. Take the Mackenzie Highway (Highway 1) north from Alberta to the Northwest Territories/Alberta border. Continue to follow the highway past the communities of Enterprise, Hay River, and Kakisa to the junction with 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 formerly served as the sole overland route into the territorial capital.
Yellowknife is served six days a week by Frontier Coachlines, which connects with Greyhound at Hay River.
Yellowknife is on the Great Slave Lake; boating to and in Yellowknife is private (ferries are used as highway river crossings, however). There are docks in the Old Town area; one could presumably go across the lake to Hay River, Buffalo River, Dawson Landing, or Edzo in a private boat. (Closer to Yellowknife is Dettah.) The lake, unfortunately for boaters, drains to the Arctic Ocean via the Mackenzie River, and that ocean is notorious for being frozen over.
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 original city of Yellowknife was founded, is located 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.
Yellowknife Transit operates the bus service. +1 867 873-4693. Fares are $3.00. Buses run every 40 minutes from 7:10 AM to 7:10 PM, Mondays through Saturday.
- 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.
- Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, 4750 48th Street, ☎ +1 867 873-7551. Daily: 10:30 am - 5:00 pm, closed on Statutory Holidays. The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre houses the territorial museum and archives. Free admission.
- 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.
- The many art galleries in town feature the works of local and northern artists.
- Pilots Monuments.
- Great Slave Lake
- Old Town
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 such as the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Spring 2007) and renowned flamenco guitarist Juan Martin, who has appeared annually in recent years.
The Snowking Festival, Caribou Carnival, and the dog sled races are annual winter events. 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. Raven Mad Daze is a festival to celebrate the beginning of summer with bands on city blocks, vendors selling food and drinks, and silly string is available for those who are pumped up and into the spirit. It is in Downtown Yellowknife where all vehicle traffic is rerouted to other surface streets.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
There are many jobs available in Yellowknife, and wages are significantly higher than in the south.
- 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).
- Gold Range Bistro, 50th Street. Local cafe with great ordinary food and lots of good people where the locals eat. (In)famous for their plate-sized eggroll.
- Thornton's, 51th Street and 52nd Ave. Tapas and wine specialties. Incredibly good food at reasonable prices for fine dining.
- Fuego's Restaurant, 50th Street. Northern cuisine with international fusion. Caribou, muskox, bison and whitefish are regular features on a dynamic menu that changes quarterly. Has the finest patio in the city: elevated with multilevels. It's terrific in the summer when it doesn't get dark.
- Wildcat Cafe, 3904 Wiley Road, ☎ +1 867-873-8850. Caribou, fish, steaks in a Gold Rush atmosphere. Originally built in 1937, this rehabbed establishment is a popular eatery and perhaps Yellowknife's best tourist attraction and most expensive, second only to Bullock's.
- Tiny Bullock's Bistro, 3534 Weaver Dr, ☎ +1 867-873-3474. 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-n-chips and a bottle of self-serve beer will run between $30 and $40.
Twist Resto-Lounge and Le Frolic are some of the best places to drink north of 60. The manager (Flint) at Twist has been featured by MSN Travel and ranked as the top bartender in Canada. Though be sure to bring a well-stocked wallet as even the soft drinks cost a small fortune. 11 dollar pints at Le Frolic are nothing to sneer at but are much cheaper at Twist, though the food is a tasteless abomination.
The Elks Club hosts scotch night every Tuesday, where a shot will set you back a most-reasonable $3-fiddy.
- Super 8 Motel - Yellowknife, 308 Old Airport Road, toll-free: +1-866-875-7666.
- Bayside B&B, ☎ +1 867-669-8844. View of the Back Bay from the wrap-around deck.
- Island B&B, ☎ +1 867-873-4803.
- The Explorer Hotel, 4825 49 Avenue (NW corner of intersection of 48th St and 49th Avenue, on highest ground), ☎ +1 867-873-3531, toll-free: +1-800-661-0892. Architecturally undistinguished from the rest of Yellowknife's boxy, modernist 1970s buildings, the Explorer stands out by standing on the highest spot in the center of town. Northern Canada's largest hotel has hosted three generations of the British royal family, including the Queen 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. It will not, however, come cheap. $183+.
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 -50C 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.
Bison are prevalent between the Mackenzie River at Fort Providence and Rae\Edzo. They like to amble on the highway. Take care during night driving along this section.