This past year, Kory and I turned 40, so we wanted to venture beyond Ontario and do a big trip to celebrate. We chose to go north – far north. All the way up to the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyatuk! While planning our trip and staring at a map of Canada, we decided that if we were going to go that far northwest, we should check out Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Wood Buffalo, however, is not the easiest place to get to. We flew into Yellowknife before starting our 11 hour drive south to the park.
Our adventure started close to home where we flew from Windsor to Toronto. This adventure would take us on seven planes, and we didn’t really pack light. Our girls are 6 and 3 years old, so we decided to bring the car seat and a high-backed booster seat along with 3 duffle bags and backpacks for each of us, and Kory’s camera and drone! Our stay in Wood Buffalo required that we bring our own bedding. Four sleeping bags and camp pillows did take up significant space. We actually shipped them home via Canada Post to save space after this leg of our journey. It’s so convenient to fly out of Windsor! Grams and PupPup even followed us to the airport and brought our car home so we didn’t need to pay for parking.
We successfully boarded the plane and made it to Toronto, where we had time to eat some lunch while waiting for our flight to Edmonton. We have Britax car seats and a while back we purchased this Britax car seat cart. It has been a life-saver in many airports now!
The fight was delayed and I was worried that we wouldn’t make our connecting flight to Yellowknife. We landed in Edmonton and rushed over to the next gate, only to be stuck waiting in a big crowd. We finally boarded and were off to Yellowknife! Back at home, the temp with humidex was 42 degrees Celsius. Yellowknife was calling for a high of 20 degrees Celsius – not a bad start to our trip! The plane to Yellowknife was a Bombardier Q400. It had the tiniest bathroom I’ve seen so far on a plane – not even a sink! Hand sanitizer was provided. Thank goodness our diaper changing days have long since passed! Lyssa (age 3) had been very concerned about flying through clouds. She’d been talking about it for a month! I think she was worried about getting stuck. We made it through the clouds and landed relatively on schedule.
We were the only ones at the car rental agency and ended up with a Caravan. The girls absolutely loved the minivan! The large windows on the van let them see much more of the outside world than they could from our Escape. We drove around looking for food the girls might eat and ended up at McDonalds at 7pm (9pm our time). Our hotel for the night was Chateau Nova. Hotels in Yellowknife weren’t cheap but everything is more expensive in the north. The hotel was lovely! Very clean and a decent-sized room. We were so impressed that we booked it for our return to Yellowknife as well. Chateau Nova has laundry facilities right on site – a huge bonus for us on our 16 day trip! The hotel is next to Niven Lake and has a beautiful boardwalk and a trail leading over to a subdivision.
After a super-late bedtime for the girls, Kory suggested that I go for a walk. I always relax once I’ve been outdoors. It was a beautiful evening with the sun still shining bright at 9pm. As I stood watching ducks on the boardwalk, I met a couple. He was from Toronto and she was from Tuktoyaktuk! We chatted for awhile and I grew even more excited about our upcoming adventures. Eventually I got tired of the mosquitos and retreated to the hotel room so Kory could go for a stroll.
The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast at the hotel restaurant before starting the drive out of Yellowknife. The drive out of Yellowknife was really pretty – Boreal forest and lots of exposed rock in shades of grey and pink.
As we drove down the Frontier Trail Highway, we passed through a Bison sanctuary where we saw several herds of Bison right off the highway!
We stopped for lunch at Dory Point Territorial Day use area along the Mackenzie River near Fort Providence. The bonus of this place was a large, screened in gazebo where we could enjoy our sandwiches away from the thousands of massive bulldog horse flies!
After stretching our legs running up and down the trail to the Mackenzie river, we jumped back in the van to continue our journey. Our next stop was the Lady Evelyn Falls Territorial Park. Kory and I have paddled through Lady Evelyn Smoothwater Provincial Park in Ontario, so I was curious just who this Lady Evelyn was. It seems it’s a bit of a mystery! We had a blast at this park. The girls immediately spotted the playground and ran out to explore.
It was hard to tear them away from the playground so we could like to the falls. There is a short trail to the main lookout platform. It was lined with Bunchberry, still blooming here in late July.
Em was hoping to see a rainbow and sure enough, just as we ran up to the falls, there it was!
A couple that we met on the trail kindly let us know that we could take a side trail towards the campground to get closer to the water. We went upriver. I believe there is also a trail downriver but we heard that it might be quite steep for the kids.
We had such a great time exploring this park and it would have been nice to spend more time there.
Somewhere along the highway, we had great views of this Black Bear as it walked right by our car. This photo was taken by Kory with his long birding camera lens. It shows the numerous “bulldog” horseflies that were always present. They would swarm our van, evidently attracted by the warmth.
That night, we stayed at the Ptarmigan Inn in Hay River, NWT. The hotel had a restaurant attached and we enjoyed a delicious dinner, including an ice cream sundae for the girls. Still wired from the bright sun and our day in the car, we ventured across the street to see the Hay River.
There was a grassy area near the liquor/cannibus store where we played and watched two Sandhill Cranes on the banks of the river. The sun has been so bright. We found it difficult to wind down in the evenings with the sun still going strong!
Our schedules had been completely thrown out the window at this point. Lyssa was awake until 10pm despite only napping for 30 minutes in the car. It wouldn’t be so difficult except that Em was exhausted and wanted to sleep but her little sister kept her awake – and then the fighting started….. lol. It sounds silly to write about it now, but in the moment, when we’re all exhausted and the kids won’t eat, or sleep, or get dressed, or go to the bathroom, or get in the car… it’s frustrating!
The next morning, we finally arrived at Wood Buffalo National Park!
Wood Buffalo National Park is the largest National Park in Canada. The Visitor Centre is in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. There, we picked up the keys to the Aurora Cabin, our home for our 3-night stay in the park. The girls explored the exhibits and each chose a stuffy (a black bear for Lyssa and a bison for Em) with the money that Grams and PupPup had given them for the trip. From there, it was still a one-hour drive to the cabin itself, which is located in Alberta! The friendly staff at the Visitor Centre gave us some tips and soon we were off into town. We pulled over and took a short trail down to the Pelican Rapids.
Sure enough, there were the American White Pelicans! Right in front of us, seemingly undeterred by the force of the rapids, they sat and fished. It was definitely a different experience than seeing them in the quiet waters on Sanibel Island in Florida!
In the above photo, you can see some of the haze that we had been driving through. There were forest fires nearby and the air was definitely smokey. As we drove south from Yellowknife and encountered more deciduous trees, the smell of the smoke changed from acrid to slightly more sweet, though still annoying.
Finally, we arrived at the Pine Lake Campground and drove past that to get to our cabin.
It was so cute! The Aurora cabin is an old ranger cabin. It has 2 bedrooms and a living room/kitchen. There is no electricity and no running water in the cabin, but outside there is a newer outhouse with a functioning sink and flush toilet. My absolute favourite part was the screened in porch! We spent our evenings sipping a drink in bug-free bliss, enjoying the call of the loons above the buzz of the flies. There is a floating dock and boat ramp on the lake, and for $50 extra we had access to our own canoe and life jackets for our stay. There is also a great bonfire, a huge wood pile, and a large dark-sky viewing platform on the property. All over the grass there are giant wallows from lounging bison. They look like sandpits.
We ran down to the lake to explore, but quickly decided to go to the beach to escape the heat. It was a heatwave – the high this day was 31 degrees Celsius! We were prepared for all weather but didn’t really excpect it to feel like our home in Southwestern Ontario! The beach is lovely! There is an awesome playground area, picnic tables, vault toilets, and a bonfire pit. The beach was nice and calm with shallow water.
The cool water felt great under the hot sun. Our first trip to the beach was on a Sunday, and several families were there enjoying the water and having picnics. On subsequent days, we had the whole place to ourselves!
We awoke the next day to hot and humid weather. After breakfast, we drove to Fort Smith to pick up some supplies and then over to the Salt Plains – in total our drive took nearly 2 hours! It certainly is a large park! There was no breeze and we drove through some areas of fairly thick smoke from nearby forest fires. We continued to have the park to ourselves – we were the only ones on the Salt Plains! Unfortunately, due to the smokey air, there wasn’t really a view from the lookout.
We loaded up with bug spray and started down the trail to get to the plains. The Salt Plains are such a neat environment!
I quickly took off my shoes and walked across the ancient sea bed, experiencing both squishy, muddy areas and dry, crystalized parts. The staff at the Visitor Centre had warned us that the bulldogs are annoying but usually only bite when your skin is wet. At the beach, we were careful to dry off quickly after swimming, but here on the salt flats I got bitten while trying to take a picture. That bite was huge and lasted a LONG time! Blackflies were out too, despite the heat, and mosquitoes were, of course, thriving! Poor Em has a bad reaction to bug bites. One night in the cabin, I counted 55 various bites on her body. Visability was poor with the smoke – Kory scanned and scanned for a distant Whooping Crane, but no luck. We happened upon the iconic red chairs and Em was kind enough to take a picture!
After our hot and sweaty hike, we jumped quickly into the van to get away from the swarms of flies. We were pleasantly surprised that the gas station in Fort Smith has a full Tim Hortons. With the girls eating familiar food, we happily continued back to the cabin.
The rest of the afternoon was spent at the beach, swatting away flies and running away from leeches. I promise that this was a fun trip – and I would go back in a heartbeat, lol!
Sunset was at 10:30pm, so after dinner we had plenty of time to go out for a paddle on Pine Lake. It was absolutely beautiful. We spotted a whole family of loons and a muskrat. Pine lake is a beautiful lake created by three sink holes in the middle of the boreal forest.
We paddled over to a beaver house but did not spot one. Almost back at our dock, I spotted a beaver! Right on cue it slapped its tail on the water, as if to prove its identity! The girls were delighted! After a bonfire (and another super-late bedtime) the girls fell asleep and Kory and I enjoyed the screened in porch.
The next morning was hot and humid again. We drove over to the Benchmark trail, about 2km south from the Salt River day use area.
This trail had been recommended to Kory by an employee at the Northwest Territories booth at the Outdoor Adventure Show. What an incredible trail! If you only had time to do one thing in the park, I recommend this trail! It winds through beautiful upland and lowland Boreal forest to Grosbeak Lake, which is another salt flat.
With slightly better visibility and fewer biting insects, we had an incredible time exploring. Kory looked for birds while I took pictures and the girls ran around.
We didn’t manage the whole trail because we spent so much time exploring the salt flat. We made our way probably halfway along the trail, then went down to Grosbeak lake and walked across that back in the direction of the trailhead. It can be a challenge for any of us to hike through hot weather. Having a camera has really helped our big girl to enjoy the hikes.
We really had to drag ourselves away from Grosbeak Lake. It was just such a stunning landscape, so different than anything we’d seen before.
Back at the cabin, we had lunch and got ready for the beach. Just as we were about to swim, we heard some thunder, so we retreated back to the cabin.
The cabin had a whole shelf full of things to do – some games, puzzles and old toys, likely left behind by previous families. We did eventually make it for a swim that evening, though we never did get a decent thunder storm.
The next morning, I was up early to finish packing. After a brief stop at the Salt River Day use area, we quickly continued on our way. We were on the road by 8am, with plans to drive all the way back to Yellowknife. We actually made great time and arrived at our hotel at 6:30pm.
Wood Buffalo is an incredible park! We barely scratched the surface of all the hiking and canoeing options. We had the park almost completely to ourselves. I’m guessing the park has fewer visitors due to the difficulty getting there. It houses the nesting grounds of the last wild migrating whooping cranes in the world and protects the largest remaining free-roaming wood bison herd. A new oil sands development (Teck Frontier mine) is proposed 30km south of the park. Wood Buffalo is at risk of losing its UNESCO designation as a World Heritage Site. We are certainly glad that we went the extra mile, quite literally, to visit this very special place.