From the World Heritage inscription:
Located in the south-west corner of Northwest Territories, along the course of the South Nahanni and Flat rivers, the park lies in a diverse mountainous area comprising mountain ranges, rolling hills, elevated plateaus, deep canyons and huge waterfalls, as well as a unique limestone cave system.
The dissected sandstone, shale and limestone mountains ranges in the east and central areas of the park sharply contrast the Ragged Range of harder igneous rocks in the park’s western extremity. The park encompasses parts of the Hyland Plateau, Selwyn Mountains, Liard Plateau, Mackenzie Plain and Mackenzie Mountains and a major part of the Nahanni River, one of North America’s finest wild rivers.
In the valley below the Ragged Range, tufa mounds known as the Rabbitkettle Hotspring, rise in a succession of terraces to a height of 30 m. Other features of the area include three major canyons; Virginia Falls; extensive karst terrain with a complex underground river system, caves, labyrinths, closed canyons and sinkholes; wind eroded sandstone landforms known as the Sand Blowouts; and large areas that have remained unglaciated for up to 300,000 years.
The park contains transitional and vegetation types of two major biomes: Nearctic boreal forest; and Nearctic alpine tundra. All stages of boreal forest occur, from recent burns to mature spruce forests, and with associated variations on wet, mesic and dry habitats. Densely growing white spruce and poplar dominate valley bottoms. At higher altitudes and on the northern slopes, black spruce is more prominent. An area of spruce-larch/lichen taiga with several orchid species is present near Virginia Falls. Alpine tundra characterized by sedges, lichens, grasses and shrubs occurs on the higher mountains of the Tlogotsho, Headless and Funeral ranges. Wild mint, golden rod, yellow monkey-flower and aster are among the many flowering plants that grow in abundance near mineral springs in the vicinity of Flat River. Almost 600 species of vascular plant and 325 species of bryophyte have been identified in Nahanni.
40 species of mammal, including grey wolf, grizzly bear, black bear, woodland caribou, moose, white-tailed deer, mountain goat, Dall’s sheep and beaver are present. A total of 170 species of bird in 29 families have been observed including peregrine falcon, golden eagle, trumpeter swan and bald eagle. Arctic grayling and Dolly Varden trout occur in the streams that flow into the Nahanni and Flat rivers.
Nahanni National Park was one of the inaugural 12 world heritage sites listed in 1978. Other sites in that initial group of twelve include the Galapagos Islands, Yellowstone National Park, Goree Island, Cracow’s Historic Centre, the Aachen Cathedral, the City of Quito, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, L’Anse aux Meadows, and Mesa Verde.
Given its status as one of the first dozen world heritage sites I had high expectations for the park. It did not disappoint.
Nahanni should be considered on the same level as other first tier national parks in the world. As one former Nahanni park superintendent said, “it has elements of Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon all in one park.”
The signature image of the park and the main attraction is Virginia Falls (shown above). This waterfall is twice the height of Niagara Falls and it one of the most significant waterfalls in the world. The World Waterfall Database lists it as the #6 waterfall in the world and the highest rated in North America. The average volume of water which comes over the falls in on a par with Victoria Falls in Africa.
If there was nothing in Nahanni but a giant waterfall, it would still probably be enough to warrant its listing as a World Heritag Site. However, the park itself is enormous and has so much more. Wikipedia lists it as the 25th largest protected area in the world.
The mountains are rugged and stunning. There are dozens of deep blue glacial lakes all over the park. The Ram River gorge is on a par with some of the most stunning canyons I’ve seen anywhere.
The reason you haven’t heard more about this park is quite simple: The only way to enter the park is by float plane and it gets fewer than 1,000 visitors per year.
Make no mistake, this is one of the great national parks of North America. If you frequent national parks in the US and Canada, Nahanni has to be on your list.