Great Slave Lake: The Complete Guide

Aerial veiw of The North Arm of Great Slave Lake

Getty Images / Steve Schwarz

 

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Great Slave Lake

Address
Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territories X0E, Canada

It’s well worth making a trip to the Northwest Territories in Canada to pay a visit to Great Slave Lake. This massive body of water is the second-largest lake entirely within Canadian borders, the fifth-largest in North America, and the tenth-largest lake in the world by area. The lake is also North America’s deepest lake, with a maximum depth of more than 2,000 feet (more than 615 meters). There are two arms of Great Slave Lake (the North and East arms) which extend from the lake, with each offering something different. The East arm is the more popular of the two and is known for some excellent fishing as well as scenic red cliffs and ample islands. The North arm boasts sandy beaches and a wide variety of bird species.

If you’re thinking of visiting Great Slave Lake, read on for everything you need to know about the region’s history, how to get there, where to stay, and what to see and do while you’re there.

History

For starters, when it comes to the name Great Slave Lake, the name “Slave” comes from “Slavey,” a word sometimes applied to a major group of Dene people who are Indigenous to the region.

According to history, Hudson’s Bay Company trader Samuel Hearne is the first European to visit the lake in 1771. But before European explorers arrived on the scene, two Chipewyan, named Matonabbee and Idotlyazee, are known to have created the first map of Great Slave. Their drawing (dated to 1767) shows an outline of the lake as well as its tributaries. Matonabbee was also Hearne's guide on his quest to find the lake.

In terms of how Yellowknife turned into a bustling town, that comes down to prospector Johnny Baker who discovered gold around the lake’s north shore in the mid-1930s. Baker then found a gold-packed vein on Yellowknife Bay, something that sparked the Yellowknife gold rush, so mines started popping up, which in turn spawned the city of Yellowknife we know today.

What to See and Do

There are summer and winter activities galore to keep you busy in the Great Slave Lake region, making it an ideal destination for active travelers. But there’s also plenty to see and do in Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, from historic architecture to a vibrant farmers’ market.

Fishing

Anyone who enjoys fishing will be glad they decided to visit Great Slave Lake. Many fish can be found here, including many trophy-sized trout. The lake is clean and cold meaning that fish stay near the surface in the summer. In addition, 24-hour daylight means anyone casting a line is able to fish for as late as they like. And if you prefer fishing without having to fight for space among other boats, the sheer size of Great Slave Lake means you can go for days without seeing anyone else.

Visiting Old Town Yellowknife

Old Town Yellowknife is filled with friendly locals and unique sights. It’s well worth spending some time exploring the area, where you’ll find cozy restaurants serving up fresh local fish, galleries filled with First Nations art, quirky log cabins, and colorful houseboats. If you are interested in the history of Old Town, guides to historic sites are available from the Northern Frontier Visitor Center. Bonus: If you happen to be visiting in the summer, there is a farmers’ market that runs Tuesday evenings from June to mid-September where you can shop locally-made goods and homegrown produce.

Paddling

There are ample opportunities for paddling on Great Slave Lake when the lake is calm. Choose from kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding to explore the many islands, clear waters, and cliffs of the East Arm. Being out in the kayak or on a paddleboard also means you’ll get scenic views of communities like Yellowknife and Fort Resolution—so have your camera ready if you can.

Bird Watching

Due to the lake’s varying water depths and the climate and plant life in the area, there are many chances for excellent birdwatching on Great Slave Lake. For example, you might spot bald eagles, swans, gulls, terns, ducks, and geese. The Lake’s North Arm features marshes and small islands in the spring, which attract over 100,000 migrating water birds. While the East Arm has cliffs and rocky islands, which attract bald eagles, terns, and gulls.

Winter Sports

Since there is ice on Great Slave Lake for eight months of the year, there are many winter activities to choose from, including dog sledding, snowshoeing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, and cross country skiing.

Outboard Boat on a lake Silhouetted by Sunrise
DonFord1 / Getty Images

How to Get to Great Slave Lake

Getting to the Northwest Territories can be easily done from major airports in southern and western Canada. You can find daily jet service to Yellowknife from Calgary and Edmonton, as well as seasonally Vancouver. Jet service is also available from Ottawa via Iqaluit, Nunavut.

Major airlines flying into Yellowknife from Edmonton and Calgary include WestJet and Air Canada and there are also direct flights from Whitehorse and Ottawa through Air North.

Where to Stay

Your best bet is to base yourself in the capital of Yellowknife, which holds the bulk of the Northwest Territories' population. You’ll find ample accommodation options, from hotels and motels to vacation rentals, cabins, bed and breakfasts, and even houseboats. In addition, Yellowknife is home to numerous restaurants to choose from as well as being a good spot from which to book any guided tours related to the lake and its surroundings, whether you area visiting in the summer or the winter months.

Tips for Visiting

  • If you are staying in Yellowknife, you are in what is likely the best place in the world to see the aurora borealis (also known as the Northern Lights). The best times of the year to visit in order to catch the spectacular event is mid-November to the beginning of April as well as late summer to early fall.
  • In addition to Yellowknife, the shoreline of Great Slave Lake is also home to other communities including Hay River, the historic Métis town of Fort Resolution, traditional Łutsel K’e on the scenic East Arm, and Behchokǫ̀ on the North Arm.
  • Thaidene Nene (which means "Land of the Ancestors" in Chipewyan), is Canada’s newest national park. The park stretches from Great Slave Lake's East Arm north to the Barrenlands and features abundant wildlife, peaceful waterways, and stunning landscapes. To get there, you can hop on a scheduled or charter flight to Łutsel K'e from Yellowknife.
  • The region gets very cold winters so if you plan on experiencing the lake and surrounding areas in the winter, you’ll need heavy layers and warm boots with good treads on them. 
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The Complete Guide to Canada's Great Slave Lake