Nahanni River Canoe Trip: 7 Unexpectedly Incredible Hikes

The Nahanni River had been on my Dad’s bucket list ever since he was in Boy Scouts – his troop name was “Nahanni” and he was immediately interested in the river. Fast forward a couple of decades and we were able to make a Nahanni River canoe trip a reality.

We chose the Black Feather Nahanni Classic, which starts in Rabbitkettle Lake (Gahnîhthah Mįe in Dene language), which is only accessible by float plane, and ends in Nahanni Butte – with 14 days and 337 km of paddling in between!

One of the most unexpected parts of our trip on the Nahanni River was the amount of hiking we could do. Yes, it’s first and foremost a paddling trip and we spent the majority of each day in a canoe, but it was so nice to have a few hikes sprinkled into the mix.

In fact, these hikes – particularly the Tufa Mounds and Chasm of Chills – ended up being some of my favourite moments of the entire trip.

We did six hikes on our trip. Two hikes were longer and we did them on rest days, but the others were attached to shorter paddling days. All of the hikes are ‘there-and-back’ style hikes. I’ve included a brief description of a 7th hike we were going to do, but couldn’t do because of the wildfire smoke.

Click here to read my full trip report from 14 days on the Nahanni River with Black Feather! (But maybe grab a coffee first – it’s about 8000 words long and has nearly 100 photos!)

This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Your support is much appreciated! You can learn more by reading my full disclosure.

This article is written in partnership with Black Feather. My dad and I paddled the Nahanni River with them in 2023 as regular clients (we paid for the trip ourselves). I enjoyed the trip and Black Feather immensely, so I reached out to them to partner on a few articles to promote visiting the Nahanni River.

7 Unexpectedly Amazing Hikes on the Nahanni

There are more than a dozen possible hikes between Rabbitkettle Lake // Gahnîhthah Mįe and Nahanni Butte. I doubt it would be possible to do all of them on a single canoe trip, but in a two-week trip, you could easily do five or six.

Quick Note About Safety

It’s important to note that most of these hikes are not official trails. Except for Náįlįcho // Virginia Falls and the Tufa Mounds, they aren’t maintained by Parks Canada or found on sites like All Trails. A couple of them don’t even have pre-defined routes, and it’s a bit more ‘choose your own adventure’.

Since we were with Black Feather guides, they knew about the different hiking options, which ones to choose based on the conditions, time of year, our group’s preferences and abilities, and most importantly, where the trail was.

Remember navigating on a river is very different than navigating in a forest, and injuries are more common when hiking than when paddling. If you’re not sure of your abilities, either work with a guide or skip the more technical trails, like Last Chance Eddy and Pulpit Rock.

It was also important to carry a satellite phone, first aid kit and bear spray on you at all times. In our group, the guides handled this. Carry enough water and food. Bring layers. All that good stuff.

Okay, let’s get into the hikes now!

1. Tufa Mounds

Trailhead: Rabbitkettle LakeGahnîhthah Mįe

Time: 6 hours

Even though I just said this is a paddling trip, we kicked off with a full-day hike – but there was a good reason for it.

We flew into Rabbitkettle Lake // Gahnîhthah Mįe on Day 1 and camped here overnight. Rabbitkettle Lake // Gahnîhthah Mįe is home to one of two Parks Canada ranger cabins (in operation) and coincidentally the two rangers arrived on the same day as us.

This was wonderful because Rabbitkettle Lake // Gahnîhthah Mįe is the trailhead for one of the best hikes along the Nahanni – the Tufa Mounds – but it can only be done with someone from Parks Canada or a Dene interpreter.

The Tufa Mounds are a Zone 1 Preservation Site, meaning they are highly protected due to their cultural and environmental significance. For that reason, you can only hike the Tufa Mounds with a guide from Parks Canada. (And if you tried to do it without the guide, you wouldn’t be able to get over Rabbitkettle River so there is no point in trying.)

We hiked through the boreal forest for about 2 hours. There was some elevation gain as we climbed over 3 ridges, but it was very manageable (even for the two people in the group 60+).

Next, we came to Rabbitkettle River (and the reason you physically need Parks Canada). The river is too wide, too deep and too fast to cross without a boat. But thankfully, Parks Canada has a boat attached to a cable running over the water. With it, we were able to cross the river in two groups – one group in the boat, and the other pulling it across.

On the other side, we had a short hike to the Tufa Mounds. What is a tufa mound? I’m no geologist, so here’s the description from Parks Canada:

Tufa mounds are created by the precipitation of dissolved minerals, primarily calcium carbonate, from thermal spring water. In Nahanni, this water retains a temperature of 20° C year-round. As the warm mineral water pours from the spring, it radiates outwards over the surface of the tufa mound. Calcium carbonate precipitates out of the spring water and hardens to form tufa. As the calcium carbonate hardens, it forms series of intricate terraces and basins known as rimstone dams and gours.

Parks Canada

The Tufa Mounds were incredible to see and feel. We took off our shoes and were able to walk over any parts where warm water was flowing (these parts are still growing and aren’t as sensitive to damage). They almost felt like ridges made from hard sugar cubes – grainy and sturdy, but also fragile. The water flowing over the mound was such a unique feeling under my feet.

Plus, the surrounding area was beautiful as well, with mountains in all directions. After an hour or so exploring, we hiked back to camp.

If you want to visit the Nahanni River yourself, I highly recommend the Nahanni Classic, a 14-day canoe trip. Some people opt for a rafting trip instead, but these trips start at the Falls. This means you skip Rabbitkettle Lake // Gahnîhthah Mįe, Tufa Mounds and the upper portion of the South Nahanni.

2. Náįlįcho // Virginia Falls

Trailhead: Virginia Falls Campground

Time: 3 hours

This is the easiest hike along the trail because you’re on a well-maintained boardwalk for its entirety. Departing from the Náįlįcho / Virginia Falls campground, the boardwalk traces the river through boreal forest to provide multiple views of the falls.

As you can see from the photos below, we had some bad smoke come through during this part of our trip. Despite the conditions, this was still one of the most scenic hikes. The falls are just too incredible to be ruined by some smoke!

Náįlįcho (the Indigenous name) / Virginia Falls (the settler name) is a simply massive waterfall. From start to finish, it is 96m tall, making it twice the size of Niagara Falls. The most iconic feature along it is Mason’s Rock (named after Bill Mason, canoeing legend).

Note: This hike is best done as a rest day while camping at Náįlįcho / Virginia Falls Campground. If you go with Black Feather, it’ll be reserved for your group. If you’re doing this self-guided, you must contact Parks Canada well in advance as it does fill up in the summer. Due to the wildfire smoke, our group actually got the entire campground to ourselves.

3. Sunblood Mountain

Trailhead: Opposite shore to Náįlįcho / Virginia Falls Campground

Time: 6 hours

Sunblood Mountain is a popular full-day hike for paddlers taking a rest day at the Náįlįcho / Virginia Falls campground. From the summit, there is a panoramic view of the river and surrounding mountains. On a clear day with good visibility, you can see the river snaking its way through the mountains and canyon landscape.

It’s one of the few places along the Nahanni where you can get a view like this. If the weather is good, I’d encourage you to try this hike!

That said, you’ll have to put in some work to be rewarded with such incredible views. From what I’ve heard, it’s a bit of a slog up – straight up the side of the mountain with continuous elevation. That’s why it’s only recommended when you have a clear day – since we had a lot of wildfire smoke during this part of our trip, hiking up Sunblood would not have offered much of a reward for the effort required.

4. Last Chance Eddy

Trailhead: Opposite shore to Náįlįcho / Virginia Falls Campground

Time: 5 hours

Instead of Sunblood, we hiked to Last Chance Eddy. The name comes from the location of this little rocky shoreline – it’s just upstream to Mason’s Rock and the turbulent falls.

In theory, if you found yourself paddling or swimming through the upper section of the falls, this would be the last place to get out before going over the edge. In reality, the current is so strong that it’d be close to impossible to actually get out here.

To visit Last Chance Eddy, we took our canoes to a small landing directly across the river from the docks at the campground. Since there’s current here, we first paddled up river a few hundred meters before crossing, in order to give us plenty of buffer room between us and the falls.

From there, we followed what I assumed were game trails – there was very little bushwhacking despite it only being hiked by a few groups each year.

There was a great view of the top of the falls in the first section (and an insane amount of blueberries – I snacked constantly). After about 1.5 hours we came to a place where it looked like the trail disappeared. Here, there was a small trail down the bank of the river to the rocky shore that is Last Chance Eddy.

Note: If there’s any trail to be especially careful on (and preferably only do with a guide who has done it before) it’s this one! The trail goes along the river, but if you didn’t know where you were going it would be possible to get too close to the edge. Getting down to the eddy is a little sketchy unless you know exactly where the trail is.

Once at the bottom, we spent about an hour walking along the rocks (being especially careful to not go near the water or onto slippery rocks). Classic Mikaela – my favourite part was the wildflowers and I spent a good chunk of our time here capturing the incredible little flowers that were growing in between the rocks.

Once satisfied, we started the hike back to get back to camp in time for a little rest and a great dinner (and the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had on trip – thank you BF guides).

5. The Gate + Pulpit Rock

Trailhead: The Gate Campsite

Time: 3 hours

This was perfect as a morning, pre-departure hike. After breakfast, we laced up our boots and set off for a view of The Gate and Pulpit Rock. The trail starts at the campsite and then crosses a creek – during this part, there’s an obvious trail.

After the creek, however, it’s a matrix of boulders and intersecting trails. Bless our guide, Ross, for having done this hike before and knowing how to navigate the boulders (and that the best route up is not the same as the best route down).

As we got closer to the top, there were a few lookout points. The edge is very sudden and very steep, so we had to be especially careful in these parts.

In the first photo below, you can see our canoes in front of the campsite. In the second photo below, you can see what The Gate and Pulpit Rock look like from the water – it gives some scale for how high up we climbed.

Also, the second photo was taken just a few kilometres before the fateful Mikaela-meets-boil fiasco, which you can read about in the trip report. Let’s just say this was another moment I was really happy I had a guide…

Debating between self-guided and guided? The biggest consideration should be your whitewater ability. There are a few articles online that (irresponsibly) claim the Nahanni is perfect for “novice-intermediate canoeist”. I would argue that your group should have at least 2 people who have experience on northern rivers and are whitewater rescue technicians. Tipping in the Nahanni isn’t disastrous (I did it twice) but it’s no walk in the park either. Just be realistic about your skills and talk to an outfitter if you’re unsure. Be safe out there!

6. Painted Rocks Canyon

Trailhead: Campsite at Painted Rocks Canyon

Time: 3 hours

This was another pre-departure hike. After breakfast and packing up camp, we hiked upstream along the creek towards Painted Rocks Canyon. There is no set trail, so we navigated across the creek a few times (wear quick dry shoes!) to stay on the flat, most open parts of the creek bed.

As we hiked, we saw an increasing number of orange and red rocks. The rocks are ‘painted’ orange and red due to the algae that grow on the rocks. If you get close to the rocks, you can see a slight fuzziness on them.

As cool as the rocks were, my favourite part was the canyon walls, which became higher and sharper the further upstream we walked.

Since this is an out-and-back hike, you can go as far as you want before turning around (or as far as time allows). We turned around where the creek narrowed and curved through the canyon walls (first picture below).

7. Chasm of Chills

Trailhead: Lafferty Creek Gravel Bar

Time: 3 hours

Our final hike started at Lafferty Creek. We’d spent the morning paddling mostly gentle currents and stopped for lunch along a gravel bar, where the creek meets the river. Once fed, we grabbed our dry suits for the most aquatic hike of the trip.

Lafferty Creek was completely dry at its terminus, and we walked up the creek bed for about 45 minutes. The path of sand and small rocks was similar to Painted Rocks Canyon, however, the walls on either side were not nearly as dramatic. This hike isn’t about the journey, it’s about the destination.

As we approached the 45-minute mark, the river bed had narrowed and there were pools of water. We dawned our dry suits.

From here, we waded, jumped and swam through narrowing canyon walls. Rather than explaining how fun it was, I made this fun montage of the GoPro footage I took. Check it out!

Bonus: The Portage

One thing I love about the Nahanni: there’s only one portage on the entire river. The trail around Náįlįcho / Virginia Falls is a little over a kilometre. It’s a boardwalk or wide, flat trail for the first 2/3 before it descends to the river. This latter 1/3 is more technically challenging but comes with some incredible views.

Guided Trips on the Nahanni River

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the amazing hikes I got to experience on the Nahanni River. Before I end this blog post, I want to provide a quick shout-out to Black Feather and include a few reasons why I (an ex-canoe guide) chose to go with them for the Nahanni.

1. Logistics. Logistics in the Arctic are not easy and very expensive. Transportation, permits, food, canoes – all of this was arranged by Black Feather, which was perfect for my dad and me (especially considering I was working a 70-hour-per-week job in the six months leading up to the trip and wouldn’t have been able to handle any of this on my own).

2. Whitewater Ability – Neither my dad nor I had the experience to do a self-supported whitewater trip in the Arctic. Yes, I worked as a whitewater guide in Ontario and Quebec, but those are very different rivers (drop and pool vs continuous current). Damn, was I humbled by the Nahanni. This is a high-stakes river, and paddlers need to be realistic about their abilities before attempting something like this.

3. People – Not only did we need people for additional boats (unless you’re an absolute expert, you should never do a northern river trip with a single boat), but we also wanted to meet new people who loved canoeing. Our group was amazing and a highlight of the trip.

So if you’re considering the Nahanni River (or another northern river), I highly recommend going with Black Feather. The two-week Nahanni Classic is the perfect trip.

If you have any questions about paddling the Nahanni or working with Black Feather, please send me a message or leave a comment!


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