Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Dehcho Region of the Northwest Territories, Canada, approximately 500 kilometres west of Yellowknife, protects a portion of the Mackenzie Mountains Natural Region. The centrepiece of the park is the South Nahanni River. Four noteworthy canyons reaching 1,000 metres in depth, called First, Second, Third and Fourth Canyon, line this spectacular whitewater river. The name Nahanni comes from the indigenous Dene language name for the area; Nahʔa Dehé, which means "river of the land of the Nahʔa people
A visitor centre in Fort Simpson features displays on the history, culture and geography of the area. The park was among the world's first four natural heritage locations to be inscribed as World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978.
There are several different landforms in the park that have taken millions of years to form, and give it a diversity not seen in any other national park in Canada. Sediment left by an ancient inland sea 500-200 million years ago had since become pressed into layers of rock. These layers were stacked about 6 kilometres deep and are peppered with fossils, remnants of these ancient sea beds. As the continents shifted, the North American and Pacific plates collided, the force of which pushed the layers of rock upwards. Ridges of rock bent and broke, leaving behind the ranges seen today. This same action also caused volcanic activity, sending molten lava into but not through the sedimentary rock. While there are no volcanoes in the park, towers of heated rock called igneous batholiths were sent upwards, pushing the sediment further up. The top layer of sedimentary rock was eventually eroded away, resulting in granite towers that form the Ragged Range.
Over the last 2 million years, glaciers have covered most of North America, creating most of the land formations seen today. While previous ice ages affected the Park area, the most recent, the Wisconsin Ice Age (85,000-10,000 years ago) touched only the most western and eastern parts of the Park. This has left many geological features in the park much more time to develop than most of North America had.
The central feature of the park is the South Nahanni River which runs the length of the park, beginning near Moose Ponds and ending when it meets the Liard river near Nahanni Butte. The South Nahanni is a rare example of an antecedent river. The mountains rose slowly enough, and the river was powerful enough that the river maintained its course over its history, meaning it has the same path today as it did before the mountains rose. As the river was meandering, the canyons it carved also meander. Most visitors only visit the portions from Virginia Falls down.
There are four main canyons that line the south Nahanni river, named by prospectors, numbering them as they travelled up the river. The fourth canyon begins with Virginia Falls, and was created as the falls eroded the limestone surrounding the river, working its way upstream. It is five miles long. Third canyon runs through Funeral Range, around 40 kilometres long. Because its walls are composed of a stratum of shale, sandstones and limestone this canyon has long slopes instead of steep, flat walls like the lower canyons. Big bend, a point where the river does a 45 degree turn, marks the end of Third and the beginning of Second Canyon. At 15 kilometres long, it runs through the Headless Range. The final canyon is considered the most beautiful. Beginning after Deadman Valley, First Canyon boasts the highest, most vertical walls, cutting through very resistant limestone. It ends near Kraus Hotsprings, making it about 30 km long. Following this, the river slows and braids into different channels, passing through the Park boundary, and coming together again near the village of Nahanni Butte. Soon after the town, the South Nahanni River joins the Liard river.
At Virginia Falls or Nailicho in Dene, the river plunges 90 metres in a thunderous plume. Including the Sluice Box Rapids above the falls, it is more than twice the height of Niagara Falls. In the centre of the falls is a dramatic spire of resistant rock, called Mason's Rock after Bill Mason, the famous Canadian canoeist, author, and filmmaker. The falls were initially located downstream at the East end of Fourth Canyon, and over the centuries carved through the limestone rock that surrounds the river. This continuous erosion shifted the falls upstream and created the Fourth Canyon. Due to the mist, the immediate vicinity of the falls is home to several rare orchid species. There is a proposal to rename the falls after former Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Trudeau. Downstream from the falls, there are many notable rapids on the river including Figure Eight, George's Riffle, and Lafferty's Riffle.
The Rabbitkettle Tufa Mounds (61.942686 N, 127.180808 W) are the largest of tufa mounds in Canada. The largest of the mounds is 27 metres high and 74 metres across. The source of the springs comes from deep in the earths crust, near the base of the granite batholiths that form the Ragged Range. The volcanic activity that raised the mountains still heats the water deep below the surface of the earth. The heated water percolates upwards, dissolving calcium carbonate from limestone deposits on its way by. When it reaches the surface springs, the water cools and the calcium carbonate particles are released. These microscopic particles settle to form porous calcite rims around the pools of water. These pools range in size from that of a bathtub to that of a fingernail. This process takes a great deal of time, and it is believed that the mounds themselves are around 10,000 years old, their creation beginning at the end of the last ice age. These rare and fragile features are protected as a Zone 1, Special Preservation Area, and all visitors must be accompanied by Parks Canada Staff in order to minimize impact.
The park's sulphur hot springs, alpine tundra, mountain ranges, and forests of spruce and aspen are home to many species of birds, fish and mammals. The park lies within three of Canada's ecozones, the Taiga Cordillera in the west, the Taiga Plains in the east and a small southern portion in the Boreal Cordillera. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has listed ten species which are special concern, threatened, or endangered that Nahanni National Park Reserve provides seasonal and year round habitat for wood bison, grizzly bears, black bears, shrews, voles, Arctic ground squirrels, marmots, minks, beavers, martens, lynxes, snowshoe hares, river otters, muskrats, and red foxes, and woodland caribou. It also includes the only known nesting site of the Whooping crane.
The diverse range of soils offers several specialized and uncommon habitats. More than 700 species of vascular plants and 300 species of both bryophytes and lichen can be found in the park, giving it a richer variety than any other area in the NWT. Nahanni aster is a very rare subspecies of aster found only in the Park.
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