Driving the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle, Canada

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on Feb 19, 15 • by • with 24 Comments

Driving the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle, Canada

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It’s a long and dirty road leading to the Arctic, through the middle of tundra, mountains and limitless wilderness. Why wouldn’t you want to drive it?

The Dempster Highway may not be traditionally picturesque, but it is Canada’s only highway crossing the Arctic Circle. The 735km-long Dempster was built in 1979 and roughly follows the traditional First Nation transportation route between the Yukon and Peel river systems. It has a reputation for being rough and a real-tire eater, but we were actually pleasantly surprised (even with it claiming one of our own all-terrain tires).

Dempster Highway near NWT border

Hiking Dempster Highway Yukon

Reaching the arctic circle (1024x768)

Freedom of the road

Driving this road is a one-of-a-kind experience. The start of the highway is about an hour from Dawson City, itself an interesting gold rush outpost. From here, the road travels through Tombstone Territorial Park (hike and camp anywhere on or in sight of ridiculously rugged mountains!) and then there is nothing for the next 300km. Well, nothing in terms of human life aside from a random RV or car maybe every couple of hours. There is however so much else; the unexpectedly vibrant flowers, stunted trees, variety of animals (from a grizzly to a black fox). The wilderness is all-encompassing. It is rich, barren, lush and desolate all at the same time. This is the Arctic that you never imagined.

Camping spot Dempster highway

Ground squirrel Dempster Highway

Wildflowers on Dempster Highway

Under the Midnight Sun

About an hour before we reached the Arctic Circle, our GPS started to go a little crazy. Apparently sunrise would now be at 6pm and sunset at 10am. Arriving at the official line of latitude (405km in) a little while later, it just gave up. We would later toast our drinks at midnight to celebrate my 25th birthday, also the summer solstice. For the next 50 or so days there would be 24 hours of daylight.

24 hours of daylight was exciting, novel and amazing all at once but it was hard to sleep. The town of Inuvik is found at the current end of the highway (it is being extended to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean), and while we enjoyed our time there, it was also 33 degrees Celsius for the entirety of our stay, 24 hours a day. It was a bit intense. For other purposes, 24 hour daylight is awesome. We fished, drove and hiked late at ‘night,’ getting back on the road at whatever time we pleased. The fishing on the Dempster, by the way, is awesome.

Hiking on Dempster tundra views (640x480)

Dempster highway view 1

Welcome to Inuvik sign Dempster (1024x768)

A journey of discovery

One of the most unexpected parts of the trip was how much we learned about local First Nation culture. The road travels through the traditional home of the Han, Gwich’in and Inuvialuit people. These lands have fed and sheltered generations of First Nation people and hunting, fishing and trapping still remains part of the life of many people living in the area. We met such generous and kind folks over the two weeks we travelled the Dempster and gained a much better appreciation and respect for the area and its people. We learned how to make Labrador tea, bannock and jam. JR made sure to eat plenty of the traditionally smoked whitefish too.

Another surprising part of the trip was finding fossilised coral next to Engineer Creek!

Dempster Highway views 3

Coral Engineer Creek Yukon Dempster Highway

inukshuk with view Dempster (1024x767)

Some unwelcome companions

Being so far north not only offered us the experience of 24 hour daylight but also that of hoards of mosquitoes and blackflies trying to drink our blood. And by hoards I mean millions and millions of the things. Being outside of our vehicle was a huge challenge at times. Even being inside the vehicle could be difficult – we do love our Astro Van, but a huge number of mosquitoes found their way in through the old vents and tormented us in our sleep, despite using a net. I still have flashbacks of the buzzing.

Needless to say, bringing bug repellent is a necessity. I also wouldn’t recommend camping in valleys – the Rock River camp ground (445km) was like a breeding ground. The windy days were by far our favourite days on the Dempster.

Rain on the Dempster highway

Dirty car Rock River campground

NorthWestTerritories border sign (1024x766)

Practicalities

The Dempster is a long road and rough in certain areas (north end of Tombstone was bad when we were there). While it is reasonably well maintained, your vehicle should be in decent enough shape to drive a couple thousand kilometres in the dirt. A good spare tire is essential as is a puncture repair kit, air compressor and jack. We lost a tire just before reaching the Arctic Circle and purchased a new one in Inuvik for the same price as it would have been in Vancouver!

If you drive an older vehicle (like us), I’d also suggest bringing spare oil. Some kind of strong tape is also really helpful for covering the vehicle seals between doors to keep the dirt out.

While we did buy a 25L gas can for the journey, we didn’t actually need it. OK, gas is very expensive in Inuvik ($1.89/l at the time) but you can also fill up in Eagle Plains (369km) and Fort McPherson (551km). I think bringing gas may come into play if you plan to drive the Dempster in a short amount of time (two to three days), and therefore the gas stations in Eagle Plains and Fort McPherson may be closed.

There are lots of great wild camping spots along the highway, alongside a handful of maintained rustic camp grounds (pit toilets, picnic benches etc.) These camp grounds have the bonus of covered shelters with screens on the windows, which are very useful for avoiding rain and bugs.

If you need a shower, there are FREE showers at the half way point, at Eagle Plains! We did not stay at the campground here but asked if we could use the showers and just told to go ahead!

Driving-wise, my main tip is that if the road is wet DRIVE SLOWLY. The road becomes exceptionally slippery when wet and being that most of the road is elevated due to the permafrost underneath if you slip off, you’re going into a big ditch. Either get off the road or drive really carefully. This is another reason not to do this trip in just a few days – I would suggest four days as a minimum.

Views Dempster Highway Yukon

Flat tire dempster highway (1024x765)

Driving into the mountains 2 Dempster HighwayTake your time and drive safe. We spent two weeks on the Dempster Highway and loved it. Get on Dempster-time and just enjoy one of the best road trips around.

10384735_10152847816394841_8973167334535281009_nWe linked up with ‘A Brit and A Southener’ this week!

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24 Responses to: Driving the Dempster Highway to the Arctic...

  1. Stunning scenery! You always know it’s a good time when your car is cover in dirt at the end of your journey :-)

  2. Melanie says:

    24 hours of sunlight – I need to experience it one day for sure. Was there any kind of twilight type period, or was it like the middle of the day for the whole time? Great article; it gave me another thing to think about for when I finally make it to Canada.

    • Gemma Gemma says:

      It is certainly a one-of-a-kind experience! When we were in Inuvik (2 degrees further above the Arctic Circle) while we saw the sun in different areas of the sky, we never saw it dip below the horizon. Just below the Arctic Circle, we experienced twilight at around 4am/5am in the morning. You know the ‘golden hour’ around sunrise/sunset? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_hour_%28photography%29) – it lasted hours and hours. It was pretty awesome!

  3. Ruth says:

    Gemma,

    I enjoyed this story (and your photos) a lot. It is interesting to read how are the condition on other parts of the planet (I guess I don’t think about 24 hours of light often). Thanks for sharing.

    • Gemma Gemma says:

      Thanks for your comment Ruth! I had never really thought about the implications of 24 hours of daylight either before we drove to the Arctic Circle; I didn’t think I would ever experience it!

  4. So many people only see a tiny bit of the Dempster Highway (as far as Tombstone typically), rush through (I add 1 day to the 4 you suggest as the minimum) or go with some preconceived notions that stunts their perception. I’ve driven it perhaps 30 times since my first time in 1990, usually driving a large tour bus, and just plain love it. The first time I was in Inuvik was on June 21st, 1985 (I flew up that time so only saw the highway from 6,000 feet or so), and have a photo of the sun hitting the flags at the airport terminal at midnight – it didn’t come close to the horizon as many photos suggest. I hope to get back this year for a week or so with my motorhome, but may wait until next year when the road to Tuk opens.

    • Gemma Gemma says:

      Wow, 30 times! That’s awesome. I had a hard time considering whether to suggest four or five days, but I ended up with four so it didn’t seem too inaccessible for people. I think five is a great idea though – two up, two down and one in Inuvik and around – my interpretation anyway!

      We’ll potentially be back on the Dempster in either 2016 or 2017 – JR is hoping to paddle the Mackenzie River all the way to Tuk (I’m not sure if I will be joining him yet).

  5. RobRob says:

    As soon as I started reading this post, I got “Born to Be Wild” stuck in my head: Head out on the highway – Looking for adventure – In whatever comes our way! We have not ventured enough into Canada, let alone up to the Arctic Circle, but that would be a dream trip…even with the dirt and bugs. ;) Thanks for sharing!

    • Gemma Gemma says:

      Haha we are definitely like-minded, it is possible I had it in my head while I was writing it! It is a great trip, don’t let the bugs put you off! Just remember lots of bug spray and a net to put over your hat…or two.

  6. Lauren says:

    Incredibly beautiful photos and what an adventure of a lifetime. I agree with not driving too fast along the roads, just for the sake of savouring the journey combined with safety! Thanks so much for linking up with #WeekendWanderlust :)

  7. Wow..that is one beautiful highway and road trip. The scenery is just stunning and 24 hours of sunshine could be a little weird. We experienced it in Iceland. This is so worth enduring the bugs. What a great experience for you guys.

    • Gemma Gemma says:

      The bugs were a pain, but are not what I will remember in years to come! My advice for others is not to go during the mid weeks of June though, when they are at their worst. Thanks for your comment Mary!

  8. Leigh says:

    Would love to drive the whole road in late August; hiked in the Tombstones for three days but didn’t get past the park. Great tips.

    • Gemma Gemma says:

      Thanks for your comment Leigh! Loved your posts on Tombstone Park. This drive would certainly look quite different in late August; the colours seen in your photos inspires me to do it all over again!

  9. Dann says:

    Driven the Dempster 6 times now and it always impresses. One of Canada’s and North America’s premier drives.

  10. Cres says:

    Very inspiring post!! Wow! My husband and I are planning to go to the Arctic Circle and I’m wondering how long is the drive from Dawson City? Thanks a million :-)

  11. Chi says:

    Thanks a lot for the trip blog/story. I’m planning to drive to Inuvik in June/July 2016 from Toronto! My crazy bucket list is to DRIVE to every US State and Canadian Province and Territory. I did a ‘practice run’ by driving from Toronto to Los Angeles (via Calgary) and coming back through Seattle and the Rockies over the Christmas/New Year winter break. I plan to take my bike on my roof rack on a Nissan Altima sedan. i have to full spare tires, fuel can and extra jack. Any other advise for me? The Altima is pretty low and that’s my main worry about the Dempster.

    Thanks a lot….and keep travelling!
    Chinedu….(my friends call me Chi).

    • Gemma Gemma says:

      Hi Chi!

      Great to hear from you! I would also recommend a tire patch kit and an air compressor. We didn’t have the latter and came to find our spare tie deflated and had to flag someone down to fix it. Also, duct tape to tape around windows/doors to keep the dust out! Have fun driving the Dempster!

  12. A Davies says:

    Im a 65 year old women been to the Yukon many times. Im doing the dempster this summer. Just me and my dog. I like to fish and while im fishing should I travel with a rifle or gun?

  13. Sam says:

    Thanks for sharing! I am planning to drive it this summer with 4 of our kids (19, 14, 13 and 11) with out tent trailer! We are doing Niagara Falls to Anchorage, to Inivik, Whitehorse and home again. We’re there good food options in Inivik? I’m so excited but a little worried about the drive.

    • Gemma Gemma says:

      Hi Sam,

      Sounds like a super fun trip! I would definitely not rush the Dempster Highway in a tent trailer – watch for the road becoming slippy after rain especially. Quite understandably, most food expensive in Inuvik (groceries and restaurants) and there isn’t a huge amount of choice for eating out. The most popular restaurants for tourists are in the hotels – not particularly refined or adventurous for the price BUT they use local produce where possible and it’s a one of a kind experience dining in the Arctic after all ;)

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