Hidden Gems of Canada’s Parks: Nahanni National Park Reserve

F Mueller

As Canadians, we all know about our country’s most famous landmarks: the soaring Rockies, the tranquil lakes and woods of Ontario, the glistening icebergs of the north.

But there are also places in our country a place that transcend the human imagination, landscapes that don’t even look like they belong on this planet, places where the sun hardly sets and limestones glow grey-green in the endless twilight.

Nahanni National Park Reserve is one of these places. This 30,000-square-foot park in the Northwest Territories is the home to sights that, if they weren’t tucked away in the Canadian North, would be known the world over.

Tufa mounds with pools
The tufa mounds [Credit: Parks Canada]

Let’s start with Nahanni’s tufa mounds, the largest rock formations of their kind in the country. Next to Rabbitkettle Lake, these limestone formations look like elegantly designed hot tubs but are in fact natural formations. Volcanically heated water fills these hollow rock formations, bringing minerals to the surface that harden to into rock, creating ever-growing containers for the bubbling water (the tallest tufa mound is 30 metres high and believed to be over 10,000 years old). The mounds are so delicate that visitors can’t enter them — but hot tubbers needn’t despair, there are plenty of other natural hot springs ready for soaking. The area is filled with potential relaxation spots, thanks to natural vents in the earth bringing warm water up from the earths’ core.

Hot springs with three men submerged
The springs [Credit: Parks Canada]

The clear blue lake is itself a beautiful natural feature, and an endpoint for rafting enthusiasts. It is fed by the South Nahanni River, a slate-blue ribbon winding through the bottom of several sheer canyons. It alternates calm and white water, offering paddlers shots of adrenaline between scenic views.

[Credit: F Mueller]

But to call Nahanni merely a beautiful place would be to underestimate it. Like all truly wild corners of the earth, Nahanni has its dark side. As Robert Service wrote: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold; / The Arctic trails have their secret tales / That would make your blood run cold.”

Arid landscape with small pool
[Credit: Parks Canada]

Such tales are commonplace in the sparsely populated wilderness of Nahanni. In fact, the area is known to some as “The Valley of Headless Men” — a name not given lightly. Dene people have lived in Nahanni for thousands of years, but apparently many first nations believed the area to be home to dark and unknowable creatures, and there were tales of people who lived in the area and had a penchant for beheading enemies. When gold miners flooded the area in the late 1800s/early 1900s, the area played host to a series of strange events. In 1908, two prospecting brothers, Willie and Frank McLeod, disappeared into the wilderness. People figured they’d just disappeared, but a year later, their bodies were found by the river — minus heads. In 1917, another gold-hunter, Swiss Martin Jorgenson, was found in a burned cabin, skull completely missing. Over the years, the headless corpses piled up, and the mystery of who beheaded them (some several decades apart) remains unsolved.

Green northern lights above mountains
[Credit: Parks Canada]

Whether relaying spooky stories or exploring the mountainous vistas, many visitors say Nahanni National Park feels mystical. It’s a corner of the country that few have seen, and fewer still know about. But its beauty and majesty are indelibly present, no matter who knows about them. And its river-crossed landscape proves that no matter how much of Canada you’ve seen, there’s always more around the next bend.

Landscape from above with winding river and distant mountains
[Credit: C Blyth]