Dempster Highway: Roadtrip to the Arctic
I finally was doing it, the solo drive to the end of the road on the Dempster Highway.
Have you ever wondered where the “north” begins and what the arctic is like? I often thought about it and I found the answers driving the Dempster Highway.
The vastness of the land around the Dempster blows your mind. You suddenly realize that the Dempster Highway is the only raggedy little road that cuts through the wilderness, and opens up the incredible part of the world for us to experience.
All we need is a reliable vehicle, excellent tires and an adventurous spirit.
The Dempster Highway is one of the most spectacular road trips on earth and yet, many people have never heard of it. It’s the only road in Canada that takes you across the Arctic Circle at km 405.5. It takes you into the land of the midnight sun, where you have 24 hours of daylight.
The Dempster Highway to Inuvik was completed in 1975 as a transportation route. It connects the Southern Yukon with Inuvik, the Mackenzie Delta and communities in the Northwest Territories. An overland supply route was needed to serve large scale oil exploration taking place in the Beaufort Sea.
The surface of the Dempster Highway is all gravel; 2.4 m thick in some places to protect the permafrost, which the road sits on. The road seems like a raised bridge with no sides. If the permafrost would melt, the road would sink.
For most of its length the Dempster Highway crosses land and territories with no sign of human presence; no side roads, no houses and no power lines.
The highway is named after Corporal William Dempster of the RCMP. He searched for the men of the Lost Patrol and found them frozen to death near fort McPherson in 1911.
Driving The Dempster
Be prepared for the journey ahead and check out my Wilderness Road Trip Planner. You will be mostly on your own driving through the endless wilderness. Most of the time it’s only an occasional rabbit or arctic ground squirrel you share the road with.
Km 0 of the Dempster Highway starts 40 km south of Dawson City, Yukon on the Klondike Highway and ends in Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. The road winds through some of the most amazing mountain and tundra terrain in Canada. At km 460.0 you cross the Yukon border to the Northwest Territories and that is where the kilometre count starts at zero again.
The Dempster Highway is not a good fit for inexperienced city drivers. Make sure you know what you get yourself into. Once you’re on the road drive careful and obey posted signs.
You’ll come across airstrips on the Dempster which were officially built as resupply points during highway construction. The airstrips may still be used today.
Stop only where other drivers can pass safely. Pull over as far to the right as possible. Do not stop at the top of a hill, on a bridge, or on a curve.
Drive with headlights on and keep your seat belt fastened. Avoid sliding on the loose road surface by eliminating sudden braking or steering.
The region is usually dry. Still, the possibility of the road being washed out in the mountains remains. Two days after I arrived back in Dawson City, the road between Tombstone and Eagle Plains was totally washed out and collapsed. Travellers got stuck in between. It is very important to check the weather forecast to time the trip right.
Most people drive the highway in July and August during the short arctic summer. Be aware that the long winter (October to April) requires additional precautions for travelling.
Weather conditions along the Dempster and on the Beaufort Coast can change quickly at any time of the year. You might come across cold winds and snow in the mountains in the middle of summer. Bring along layered clothes, a warm jacket, good boots, hat and gloves.
How long does it take?
The 736 km journey from the North Klondike Highway turnoff south of Dawson City to Inuvik takes at least two days. Count on driving 12 to 16 hours in each direction. The time it takes depends on road conditions and how often you stop along the way. If you want to do some serious hiking at Tombstone Territorial Park, you will need at least an extra day.
Make sure your vehicle is dependable and well maintained. Travel the Dempster in a 4-wheel drive, even if some travel articles tell you differently. If you have to rent a vehicle, tell the rental company that you’re planning to drive the Dempster.
Car rental companies are located in Whitehorse and Inuvik.
If you break down you may have to wait for a long time to get help. Carry extra fluids, spare belts, some basic tools, a flare gun, tow-rope, axe, knife and matches. Ensure that all of your tires are in good condition, with lots of treads.
Slowing down and pulling over when meeting vehicles, especially large trucks, will minimize rock damage to your windshield. It is a good idea to protect your headlights with plastic or wire mesh covers.
There are only three gasoline stops along the Dempster. Make sure you start off with a full tank and carry some spare fuel, just in case.
There are gas stations at the southern end of the highway at Klondike River Lodge, at Eagle Plains, Fort McPherson and Inuvik.
Ask locals where the best place is to get gasoline. Usually, there is one place in town where you get it cheaper.
The Dempster Highway is unpaved except for the last 10 km before Inuvik. The road is mostly gravel. Some sections of the highway are made of shale which is hard on tires. When it rains, the road can be very slippery and slowing down is crucial.
Flat tires are common so make sure to carry two spare tires on this trip and know how to change them.
Flats can be repaired at Eagle Plains and Fort McPherson (and Inuvik and Dawson), but expect high prices!
The speed limit on the Dempster is 90 km/h. Whether you are experienced with driving on gravel roads or not, you will be well advised to take it slower. Choose the speed according to road conditions. Some sections you will need to go very slowly. When I drove the Dempster I hit a bottom speed of 25 km/ in some really rough sections and through stretches of mud. Maybe I went slower than most, but I was happy to complete the drive with no flat tires or other major car problems.
I got three chips in my windshield before I reached the Dempster. All were caused by one single semi truck and I learned my lesson. After this incident, I slowed right down or came to a stop whenever there was a truck coming my way. Truckers seem to appreciate that.
The ferries over the Peel and Mackenzie /Arctic Red Rivers are free of charge. They operate daily from 9 am to 12:30 am. During the winter months, there are ice bridges and it is not possible to cross the rivers during freeze-up and break-up.
The Mackenzie ferry runs a triangle shape between two points where the Dempster Highway meets the river and the community of Tsiigehtchic, which is located where the two waterways meet.
There is a restaurant at Eagle Plains and a grocery store at Fort McPherson (where you get cheaper gasoline). Tsiigehtchic also has a store if you decide to travel an extra leg of the triangular ferry route to get there.
I suggest you stock up on food before you leave Dawson or Inuvik. There are many hours of driving between these places. Snacking on the way keeps you alert.
Tourist Information Centres
Before you set off I suggest you make a side trip into the historic Yukon gold mining town of Dawson City. While in Dawson make sure to visit the friendly staff at the Northwest Territories Dempster Delta Western Arctic Visitor Centre. It is located across from the town’s visitor centre on Front Street. Get the latest Dempster road reports, ferry information and current events. They also give you a Passport which you can have stamped at certain locations of the highway. If you get all the stamps you take part in a draw to win a gold nugget. Information is also available at the Eagle plains Hotel.
In Inuvik visit the Western Arctic Regional Visitor Centre for information. It is an excellent facility with interpretive displays of local wildlife and history as well as a good selection of brochures and leaflets.
The Dempster Highway by Bike
Some people cycle the Dempster, though moving along is rough on certain sections. Stop in Dawson’s Circle Cycle and talk to the staff there about cycling the Dempster. You also find blogs with information online.
Note that you need a licence to fish in the Yukon and a separate licence to fish in the Northwest Territories. More information is available at www.nwtwildlife.com/fishing/licence and www.enr.gov.nt.ca
The Dempster Highway is a self-guided wildlife tour. The area is home to moose, caribou, mountain sheep, grizzly bears marmots, and collared pica and other animals. The Dempster is a birders paradise. Look out for golden eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and many other birds. When you come across wildlife, pull off the road and observe from a respectful distance. Learn about wildlife and how to prevent negative encounters.
Water taken from any non-commercial source along the highway should be boiled or treated before drinking. If you are like me and you don’t like the taste of treated water, stop at the Tombstone Interpretive Centre to fill up your jug with mountain water (at your own risk).
Accommodation and Campground
- Yukon km 72: Tombstone Mountain Campground – The 36-site campground is a good spot to relax for a day or two offering hiking nearby.
- Yukon km 193.8: Engineer Creek Campground – 15 campsites, kitchen shelter, water, and toilets
- km 369: Eagle Plains – Hotel accommodation year round as well as camping and free showers.
- km 445.8: Rock River Campground – 17 campsites offer sheltered protection within a steep gorge of the Richardson Mountains.
- NWT km 235: Gwich’in Territorial Park – 15 sites and four tent sites, picnic tables barbecue pits, kitchen shelter and toilets. Located on Campbell Lake.
- NWT km 266: Jak Territorial Park – Six sites with power and 32 non-powered sites, picnic tables, barbecue pits, firewood, water, kitchen shelter, toilets and showers, a 10 m high lookout tower, and walking trails View of the Mackenzie Delta and the Richardson Mountains.
- NWT km 272: Happy Valley Territorial Campground – In the heart of Inuvik, 19 powered and 8 non-powered sites. The park is situated on a bluff overlooking the east branch of the Mackenzie River and offers a view of the Richardson Mountains.
Budget Accommodation options available in Inuvik.
When to go
To experience summer conditions, including the midnight sun, plan your trip for June through September. September is a good month to view the fall colours if you don’t mind cooler temperatures. Between Mid-September to late October you might see the herds of caribou.
Access to Inuvik is possible year round, except during the spring and fall with the break-up (thaw) and freeze-up of the ice at the Peel and Mackenzie River crossings.
February through to April is recommended for winter travel. Winter is the best time to see the northern lights. You will be able to drive the ice roads on the Mackenzie River to Aklavik or Tuktoyaktuk from mid-December to mid-April, depending on the weather. Be prepared for winter driving and the conditions!
The Dempster is a long road and some areas can be rough. The stretch around Midway Lake is known for road problems and was in bad shape when I went through, just after the rain. I was driving through deep mud for many kilometres and the driving experience was nerve wrecking. On the way south it was at the north end of Tombstone when the going was slow.
It was an awesome feeling to get to the end and arrive in Inuvik. But remember, your journey is just beginning, it is 737 km drive back to the Klondike Highway!
A Journey of Awareness
Since I arrived in Canada’s North I have learned about First Nations and their culture. The Dempster took me through the traditional home of the Han, Gwich’in and Inuvialuit people. Hunting, fishing and trapping is still part of the life of many people living in the area.
Foraging on the Dempster
2 1/2 hours south from Inuvik I stopped my car. A First Nation couple was picking berries on the side of the road. I walked over to them and inquired what they were picking. Cloud berries or “yellow” I was told. The couple drove down from Inuvik to this berry patch and has been picking since 2 am. It doesn’t get dark this time of year. They will freeze the berries when they get home and use them for desserts. “Pick some too” said the woman with a smile.
The Dempster Highway Travelogue
“The Dempster Highway Travelogue” is an excellent 52-page mile-by-mile guide published by the Yukon and Northwest Territories governments. You can download it at http://www.env.gov.yk.ca/publications-maps/documents/Dempster_Travelogue_2014.pdf
- Eagle Plains Hotel at 371 km
- Fort McPherson at NWT km 86
- Tsiigehtchic (Arctic Red River) at NWT km 143
- Inuvik at NWT km 272
And while you’re here in at the end of the road…
You want to go Tuktoyaktuk and dip your feet into the Arctic Ocean (Beaufort Sea). This is a great way to highlight your Arctic adventure.
And now, after driving the Dempster, explore other gravel travel highways of the North.
More About Canada”s North