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Nahanni National Park Reserve

Coordinates: 61°32′50″N 125°35′22″W / 61.54722°N 125.58944°W / 61.54722; -125.58944
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Nahanni National Park Reserve
Virginia Falls
Map showing the location of Nahanni National Park Reserve
Map showing the location of Nahanni National Park Reserve
Location of Nahanni National Park Reserve in Canada
Map showing the location of Nahanni National Park Reserve
Map showing the location of Nahanni National Park Reserve
Location of Nahanni National Park Reserve in Northwest Territories
LocationNorthwest Territories, Canada
Nearest cityFort Simpson
Fort Liard
Nahanni Butte
Coordinates61°32′50″N 125°35′22″W / 61.54722°N 125.58944°W / 61.54722; -125.58944
Area30,050 km2 (11,600 sq mi)[2]
Visitors1104 (in 2022–23[3])
Governing bodyParks Canada
CriteriaNatural: vii, viii
Inscription1978 (2nd Session)
Tufa found in Nahanni National Park

Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Dehcho Region of the Northwest Territories, Canada, approximately 500 km (311 mi) west of Yellowknife,[4] protects a portion of the Mackenzie Mountains Natural Region. The centrepiece of the park is the South Nahanni River (Naha Dehé). Four noteworthy canyons reaching 1,000 m (3,300 ft) in depth,[5] called First, Second, Third and Fourth Canyon, line its whitewater river. The name Nahanni comes from the indigenous Dene language name for the area; Nahʔa Dehé, which means "river of the land of the Nahʔa people".[6]: 87  The park was among the world's first four natural heritage locations to be inscribed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1978 because of its picturesque wild rivers, canyons, and waterfalls.[7][8]


There are several different landforms in the park that have taken millions of years to form, and give it a diversity not seen in any other national park in Canada. Sediment left by an ancient inland sea 500-200 million years ago had since become pressed into layers of rock. These layers were stacked about 6 km (3.7 mi) deep and are peppered with fossils, remnants of these ancient sea beds. As the continents shifted, the North American and Pacific Plates collided, the force of which pushed the layers of rock upwards. Ridges of rock bent and broke, leaving behind the ranges seen today. This same action also caused volcanic activity, sending magma into but not through the sedimentary rock. While there are no volcanoes in the park, towers of heated rock called igneous batholiths were sent upwards, pushing the sediment further up. The top layer of sedimentary rock was eventually worn away, resulting in granite towers that form the Ragged Range.[6]: 5 

Over the last 2 million years, glaciers have covered most of North America, creating most of the land formations seen today. While previous ice ages affected the park area, the most recent, the Wisconsin Ice Age (85,000-10,000 years ago), touched only the most western and eastern parts of the park. This has left many geological features in the park much more time to develop than most of North America had.[6]: 9 

The central feature of the park is the South Nahanni River which runs the length of the park, beginning near Moose Ponds and ending when it meets the Liard River near Nahanni Butte. The South Nahanni is a rare example of an antecedent river. The mountains rose slowly enough, and the river was powerful enough, that it maintained its course over its history, meaning it has approximately the same path today as it did before the mountains rose. As the river was meandering, the canyons it carved while entrenching also meander. Most visitors only visit the portions from Virginia Falls (Nailicho) down.[5]

There are four main canyons that line the South Nahanni River, named by prospectors, numbering them as they travelled up the river. The fourth canyon, also called Painted Canyon or Five Mile Canyon due to its length, begins with Virginia Falls, and was created as the falls eroded the limestone surrounding the river, working its way upstream. Third canyon runs through Funeral Range, around 40 km (25 mi) long. Because its walls are composed of strata of shale, sandstones and limestone, this canyon has long slopes instead of steep, flat walls like the lower canyons. Big Bend, a point where the river does a 45-degree turn, marks the end of Third and the beginning of Second Canyon. At 15 km (9.3 mi) long, it runs through the Headless Range. The final canyon is considered the most beautiful. Beginning after Deadmen Valley, First Canyon boasts the highest, most vertical walls, cutting through very resistant limestone. It ends near Kraus Hotsprings, making it about 30 km (19 mi) long. Following this, the river slows and braids into different channels, passing through the park boundary, and coming together again near the village of Nahanni Butte. Soon after the town, the South Nahanni River joins the Liard River.[6]: 16 

Notable mountains in the park include Mount Nirvana (61°52′29″N 127°40′49″W / 61.87472°N 127.68028°W / 61.87472; -127.68028 (Mount Nirvana)), officially an unnamed peak, which at 2,773 m (9,098 ft) is the highest mountain in the Northwest Territories. Slightly further north lies Mount Sir James MacBrien (62°07′23″N 127°40′47″W / 62.12306°N 127.67972°W / 62.12306; -127.67972 (Mount Sir James MacBrien)), the territories second highest peak at 2,759 m (9,052 ft), and Lotus Flower Tower (2,570 m (8,430 ft), 62°06′51.6″N 127°41′50.4″W / 62.114333°N 127.697333°W / 62.114333; -127.697333 (Lotus Flower Tower)) both of which form part of the Cirque of the Unclimbables (62°06′06″N 127°40′15″W / 62.10167°N 127.67083°W / 62.10167; -127.67083 (Cirque of the Unclimbables)).

Virginia Falls[edit]

Virginia Falls and Mason's Rock

At Virginia Falls, or Nailicho in Dene (61°36′26″N 125°44′12″W / 61.60722°N 125.73667°W / 61.60722; -125.73667 (Virginia Falls)), the river plunges 90 m (295 ft) into a thunderous plume. In the centre of the falls is a dramatic spire of resistant rock called Mason's Rock (after Bill Mason, the famous Canadian canoeist, author, and filmmaker).[9] The falls were initially located downstream at the east end of Fourth Canyon, and, over the centuries, carved their way through the limestone rock that surrounds the river. This continuous erosion shifted the falls upstream and created the Fourth Canyon.[6]: 16  Due to the mist created by the water, and favorable microclimates in the immediate vicinity of the falls, several terrestrial, boreal orchid species are found, including Calypso bulbosa, Cypripedium parviflorum and passerinum, Galearis rotundifolia, and Platanthera aquilonis, huronensis and obtusata.[10][11] Downstream from the falls, there are many notable rapids on the river, including Figure Eight, George's Riffle, and Lafferty's Riffle.

Rabbitkettle Hotsprings[edit]

Third Canyon, Nahanni River

The Rabbitkettle (Gahnîhthah) Hotsprings and tufa mounds (61°56′36″N 127°10′49″W / 61.94333°N 127.18028°W / 61.94333; -127.18028 (Rabbitkettle Hotsprings and tufa mounds)) are the largest of tufa mounds in Canada. The largest of the mounds, the North Mound, is 27 m (89 ft) high and 74 m (243 ft) across.[6]: 14  The source of the springs comes from deep in the Earth's crust, near the base of the granite batholiths that form the Ragged Range. The volcanic activity that raised the mountains still heats the water deep below the surface of the Earth. The heated water percolates upwards, dissolving calcium carbonate from limestone deposits on its way by. When it reaches the surface springs, the water cools and the calcium carbonate particles are released. These microscopic particles settle to form porous calcite rims around the pools of water. These pools range in size from that of a bathtub to that of a fingernail. This process takes a great deal of time, and it is believed that the mounds themselves are around 10,000 years old, their creation beginning at the end of the last ice age.[6]: 14 

These rare and fragile features are protected as a Zone 1, Special Preservation Area, and all visitors must be accompanied by Parks Canada staff in order to minimize impact and visitors to the North Mound are required to be barefoot.[12]

Flora and fauna[edit]

The park's sulphur hot springs, alpine tundra, mountain ranges, and forests of spruce and aspen are home to many species of birds, fish and mammals. The park lies within three of Canada's ecozones, the Taiga Cordillera in the west, the Taiga Plains in the east and a small southern portion in the Boreal Cordillera.[7]

According to Parks Canada, there are about 42 mammal species in the park, in addition to around 180 types of bird, 16 fishes and a few hardy amphibians, with the wood frog being the most commonly-found in the region.[13] In the State of the Park Report 2009, the NWT government named ten special-concern, threatened, or endangered species that the Nahanni National Park Reserve provides appropriate year-round or seasonal habitat for, according to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). These include the common nighthawk, grizzly bear, olive-sided flycatcher, peregrine falcon, rusty blackbird, short-eared owl, wood bison, woodland caribou, wolverine and yellow rail. In addition, the bull trout and the Nahanni aster are listed, but without status; the Canada warbler and western toad are listed as possibly existing in the park.[14]: 14 

Mammal species found in the park include the American black bear, American mink, beaver, Arctic ground squirrel, Canada lynx, collared pika, Dall sheep, fisher, grey wolf, hoary bat, hoary marmot, least chipmunk, least weasel, moose, muskrat, northern myotis, mule deer, pine marten, red fox, red squirrel, river otter, Rocky Mountain goat, snowshoe hare, white-tailed deer and several types of shrew and vole.[13]

Birds are numerous, and include American kestrel, bald and golden eagles, barred owl, belted kingfisher, boreal owl, black-capped and boreal chickadees, Canada goose, Canada jay, eared grebe, great grey owl, great horned owl, grouse, gulls, gyrfalcon, harlequin ducks, horned grebe, loons (the common, Pacific, red-throated and yellow-billed), mallards, northern harrier, northern shrike, osprey, pied-billed grebe, ptarmigan, redpoll, red-necked grebe, red phalarope, sandpipers and plovers, sharp-shinned hawk, snow goose, surf scoter, swallows, woodpeckers and sapsuckers, and trumpeter and tundra swans.[13] It also includes the only known nesting site of the whooping crane.[14]: 13 

Fish found in the park include, Arctic grayling, burbot, inconnu, lake trout, lake chub, lake whitefish, longnose dace, longnose sucker, mountain whitefish, northern pike, round whitefish, slimy sculpin, spoonhead sculpin, spottail shiner and trout-perch.[13]

The diverse range of soils offers several specialized and uncommon habitats. More than 700 species of vascular plants and 300 species of both bryophytes and lichen can be found in the park, giving it a richer variety than any other area in the NWT. Nahanni aster is a very rare species of aster found only in the Park.[6]: 30 


The Gate, Second Canyon
Mason's Rock in the centre of Virginia Falls

The Dene, sometimes called Slavey peoples, have used the lands around Nahanni National Park Reserve for thousands of years. The first human occupation of the area is estimated to have occurred 9,000-10,000 years ago. Evidence of prehistoric human use has been found at Yohin Lake and a few other sites within the park. The local oral history contains many references to the Naha tribe, a mountain-dwelling people who used to raid settlements in the adjacent lowlands. These people are said to have rather quickly and mysteriously disappeared.[15]

First contact with European fur traders expanding into the region occurred in the 18th century, and was increased with Alexander Mackenzie's exploration of the Mackenzie River (Deh Cho), and building of trading posts at Fort Simpson and Fort Liard. At both of these John McLeod, a Scottish explorer of the area, was to serve as manager.[16] During the 19th century, most Dene families left their nomadic lifestyles and settled into more permanent communities, often close to the trading posts. Permanent settlements were established at locations such as Nahanni Butte, Fort Liard and Fort Simpson.[15]

In the late 19th century, the Mountain Indians of the Nahanni region would travel down the Nahanni River each spring in mooseskin boats to trade the winter take of furs. These boats, based on the York boats used by the Hudson's Bay Company, were up to 20 m (66 ft) in length. Constructed from six to ten untanned moose hides sewn together and stretched over a spruce pole frame, these boats would transport entire families, their dogs and cargo of furs down the river during high water. Upon arrival the boat was dismantled and the hides traded along with the furs. Following a visit to the forts, these people would return to the high country with only what they could carry on their pack dogs.[15]

The stories of the Naha, and dangerous landscape that they inhabited, grew in stature with the Klondike Gold Rush as some explorers attempted to use the Nahanni as a path to the famous gold fields of the Yukon, or to try and make their fortune on the Flat and South Nahanni Rivers. Although no significant gold was recovered, legends of haunted valleys and lost gold emerged after the headless corpses of Métis prospectors Willie and Frank McLeod were found around 1908. The Lost McLeod Mine, a legendary lost mine somewhere in the park, is supposed to have been where the two brothers found their gold.[17] In the years that followed, mysterious deaths of other prospectors added to the legends. Alternative names given to the park, which include Deadmen Valley, Headless Creek, Headless Range and the Funeral Range, bear testimony to these stories and legends.[15] In later years, Albert Faille was a prospector in the area and met writer Raymond M. Patterson. The latter's works brought minor fame to Faille.[18]

In 1946 Calgary geologist and mining expert Frank M. W. Henderson returned from the valley reporting his partner John Patterson had disappeared.[19] Henderson and Patterson had agreed to meet at a point near Virginia Falls. The first to arrive would leave a message on a large tree which both knew from previous trips. Henderson arrived first and left his message before traveling into the valley. He returned several weeks later only to find there was still no message left by Patterson. Henderson and his party camped there a few days, but one night were awoken by a group of First Nations people who warned of white figures moving along the valley.

In 1947 author Pierre Berton was sent by The Vancouver Sun to cover the north. He, along with pilot Russ Baker, flew up the Headless Valley. Writing on his journey for Macleans Berton remarked, "Frank Henderson himself, a man who perhaps has good reason not to want too many people rushing into the valley, was quoted as saying, on his return from the area last fall, 'There is absolutely no denying the sinister atmosphere of that whole valley. The weird, continual wailing of the wind is something I won't, soon forget.'"[20]

In 1964, explorer parachutist Jean Poirel from Montreal jumped at its source 500 km (310 mi) north of Yellowknife, followed by his teammate Bertrand Bordet. Jean Poirel imagined the idea of going down the river with inflatable dinghies. During the following four consecutive expeditions in the valley Jean Poirel discovered more than 250 caverns. The most important contained 116 Dall sheep's skeletons (carbon-14 dated to 2500 years BC); Jean Poirel named it "Valerie Cavern" after his daughter. He took topographic notes and drew detailed maps, paving the way for the park's creation. During his last expedition in 1972, he escorted Pierre Trudeau, who came to evaluate the region.[21][22]

Park history[edit]

Originally established in 1972, by then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau,[4] the park was 4,766 km2 (1,840 sq mi) in area.[7] The park was in "reserve" status pending settlement of outstanding Aboriginal land claims in the region. In 2003, an agreement between the Dehcho First Nations and Parks Canada gave temporary protection to 23,000 km2 (8,880 sq mi).[4] In August 2007, the federal government added an extra 5,400 km2 (2,085 sq mi).[23]

In a novel form of cooperation between federal government and native groups, the Naha Dehe Consensus Team was formed in June 2000 by Canada and the Dehcho First Nations.[24] Their original main tasks included:

  1. prepare an Ecological Integrity Statement,
  2. complete a review of the Park Management Plan,
  3. prepare an Interim Park Management Arrangement, and
  4. prepare a Memorandum of Understanding Respecting Park Expansion.

In 2003, these were completed and the purpose of the team changed, now dealing with cooperative management issues, according to the Interim Park Management Arrangement, until the Dehcho Process is completed.[24][25]

On 9 June 2009 the Government of Canada, with the Dehcho First Nations, announced legislation that will increase the area of Nahanni National Park to cover 30,050 km2 (11,602 sq mi), including 91% of the Greater Nahanni ecosystem in the Dehcho Region and most of the South Nahanni River watershed.[26]

The new park area is estimated to be the home of around 500 grizzly bears, two herds of woodland caribou, as well as species of alpine sheep and goats and other species. The new boundary will include the highest mountains and largest ice fields in the Northwest Territories.[27] With the expansion of the park there have been several added designated landing sites. Because most access to the park is done by aircraft and air access is restricted in the park, there are set places aircraft can land. Before the expansion these were limited to Virginia Falls and Rabbitkettle Lake. Now there are five more: the Bunny Bar, Island Lake, Honeymoon Lake, Glacier Lake, and Seaplane Lake. However, only Virginia Falls and Glacier Lake are designated for day use visitation, meaning all other sites require visitors to stay overnight in the park.[28]

A visitor centre in Fort Simpson features displays on the history, culture and geography of the area. The park was among the world's first four natural heritage locations to be inscribed as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1978.[7] The South Nahanni River achieved Canadian Heritage River status in 1987. Presently around 800–1000[28]: 11  people visit the park every year, most of which are overnight visitors who travel down the South Nahanni. The park is open year-round, but most visitors come in June, July, and August. Virginia Falls is the only area of the park where a reservation is required, which must be done months in advance to prevent overcrowding. For safety reasons, all visitors must register with park officials upon entering the park boundaries, and deregister within 24 hours of leaving. There is a park office in Nahanni Butte at the end of the river, where visitors can deregister.[6] The only practical way to get to Nahanni National Park is by floatplane or by helicopter, usually from Fort Simpson but other communities and locations offering a gateway into the park include: Watson Lake, Muncho Lake, Fort Nelson and Inconnu Lodge.[28] Some people do hike in from the Nahanni Range Road at Tungsten to the west of the park.

In 2007 the park was voted one of the Seven Wonders of Canada in a competition sponsored by CBC Television's The National and CBC Radio One's Sounds Like Canada.[29] The park was the subject of a short film in 2011's National Parks Project, directed by Kevin McMahon and scored by Shad, Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas.

In fiction[edit]

The area was featured in Sick Heart River, a fictional river in the Nahanni area, by John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir who was the Governor General of Canada. Buchan had not visited the Nahanni but had travelled down the Mackenzie and wanted to visit the area. The River, a book by Cheryl Kaye Tardif, is based on stories and legends from the area.

The Nahanni River and its surroundings has also been featured in the French book La Vallée Sans Homme, written in 1973 by Roger Frison-Roche.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Protected Planet | Nahanni National Park Reserve Of Canada". Protected Planet. Retrieved 2020-10-13.
  2. ^ Nahanni National Park Reserve of Canada Archived 2012-03-03 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Canada, Parks. "Parks Canada attendance 2022_23 - Parks Canada attendance 2022_23 - Open Government Portal". open.canada.ca. Retrieved 2024-05-07.
  4. ^ a b c "Harper announces expansion of N.W.T. park". CBC. Archived from the original on 2007-08-11.
  5. ^ a b Parks Canada. 2007. South Nahanni River Touring Guide.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Parks Canada. 2002. Nahanni National Park Reserve Natural and Cultural Guide to Nahʔa Dehé
  7. ^ a b c d "Nahanni National Park Reserve of Canada". Archived from the original on 2007-05-23.
  8. ^ "Nahanni National Park". UNESCO World Heritage List. UNESCO. Retrieved 21 March 2021.
  9. ^ The Editors of LIFE (2016-09-02). LIFE Paradise Found: 100 Places - Beautiful Beyond Belief. Time Inc. Books. ISBN 9781683305606.
  10. ^ Canadian Heritage Rivers System
  11. ^ UNEP-WCMC Protected Areas Programme - Nahanni National Park[permanent dead link]
  12. ^ "Rabbitkettle hotsprings, Nahanni National Park Reserve, N.W.T.; a hydrogeological study".
  13. ^ a b c d "Nahanni National Park Reserve of Canada Wildlife".
  14. ^ a b "State of the Park Report 2009".
  15. ^ a b c d "Parks Canada - Cultural Heritage". Parks Canada. August 2008. Archived from the original on 2005-02-14. Retrieved 2010-01-11.
  16. ^ "John McLeod". Dictionary of Canadian Biography online.
  17. ^ Basque, Garnet (1996). Lost Bonanzas of Western Canada. Vol. 1. ISBN 9781895811407.
  18. ^ "Cultural Heritage".
  19. ^ "Calgary Man Lost Partner While Exploring in Headless Valley". Calgary Herald. 1947-02-08. ProQuest 2252975635. Retrieved 2021-02-03.
  20. ^ Berton, Pierre (1947-03-15). "Valley of Mystery". Macleans. Retrieved 2021-02-03.
  21. ^ Jean Poirel Explorateur Montréalais
  22. ^ "Adventurer returns after 35 years to challenge the Nahanni". Archived from the original on 2011-06-08.
  23. ^ Office of the Prime Minister of Canada (August 8, 2007). "Prime Minister announces the expansion of Nahanni National Park Reserve". pm.gc.ca. Archived from the original on January 14, 2010. Retrieved 2008-06-25.
  24. ^ a b "Managing Nahanni".
  25. ^ "Greater Nahanni Ecosystem".
  26. ^ "Government of Canada Announces the Expanded Boundary for Nahanni National Park Reserve of Canada". Parks Canada. June 2009. Retrieved 2009-06-10.
  27. ^ Ljunggren, David (June 2009). "Canada plans massive expansion of northern park". Reuters. Retrieved 2009-06-10.
  28. ^ a b c Parks Canada. 2010. Nahanni National Park Reserve of Canada Naha Dehe Management Plan.
  29. ^ "Final Online Results: The Seven Wonders of Canada". CBC.

External links[edit]