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Driving the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle, Canada

Simply put, the Dempster Highway is one of the best road trips in the world. It’s a one way trip to the Arctic, through the middle of tundra, jagged mountains and limitless wilderness. The wilderness here is rich, barren, lush and desolate all at the same time. This is the Arctic that you never imagined.

The Dempster is Canada’s only highway crossing the Arctic Circle. The 735km-long Dempster Highway was built in 1979 and roughly follows the traditional First Nation transportation route between the Yukon and Peel river systems.

We spent an incredible three weeks on and around the Dempster Highway – read on for tales from the road plus a practical guide to completing this epic trip yourself.

 
The dirt Dempster Highway stretches into the distance
Gemma hiking near the Dempster Highway with far reaching views of tundra
Going hiking is easy while driving the Dempster Highway
Riverbed with sunset and mountains behind
Sunset on the Dempster Highway….at 2am
Elevated views of the Dempster Highway leading into the distance
Gemma pointing at the Arctic Circle sign
Reaching the Arctic Circle is a definite highlight of driving the Dempster Highway

Freedom of the road: the Dempster Highway

Driving the Dempster Highway 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 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, a huge variety of animals from grizzlies and porcupines to black foxes and moose.

The Dempster Highway 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).

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Under the Midnight Sun of the north

About an hour before we reached the Arctic Circle, our GPS started to go a little crazy. Apparently sunrise would now be at 6 pm and sunset at 10 am.

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 ‘old’ end of the Dempster Highway (the all-season road was extended to the town of Tuktoyaktuk in 2018), 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 productive. For once, we actually caught plenty of fish

Lake view on the Dempster Highway
Mountain range with pink sunset behind
Another 2am sunset on the Dempster Highway
Dirt track leads to river, with ferry on the other side
Waiting for the river ferry on the Dempster Highway
Hiking at elevation on the Dempster Highway

A journey of discovery on the Dempster Highway

One of the most unexpected parts of the trip was how much we learned about local First Nation culture. The Dempster highway travels through the traditional home of the Han, Gwich’in and Inuvialuit people.

These lands have fed and sheltered generations of First Nation people. Hunting, fishing and trapping still remain an integral 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.

Learning how to make Labrador tea, bannock and jam, JR also made sure to eat plenty of the traditionally smoked whitefish.

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

Piece of coral found at Engineer Creek
Piece of coral at Engineer Creek on the Dempster Highway
Eagle Plains sign with latitude and longitude on the Dempster Highway
The Dempster Highway stretches into the distance, views near NWT border
Panoramic views of the Dempster Highway, Canada

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 black flies trying to drink our blood. And by hoards, I mean millions and millions of them.

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 campground (445km) was something of a breeding ground. The windy days were by far our favourite days on the Dempster.

View of rainclouds above the road
Rainclouds above the Dempster Highway
View of back of van caked in mud
An example of the dirt you will collect when driving on Dempster Highway!
Big skies and green mountains on the Dempster Highway
Far reaching views on the Dempster Highway
JR with raised fists in front of the North West Territories sign
Reaching the NWT border on the Dempster Highway

Must see stops when driving the Dempster Highway

For such an isolated and supposedly desolate road, there is a surprising amount to see and experience on the Dempster Highway. Here are our highlights:

  • Tombstone Territorial Park – visit the Interpretive Centre for information on trails and camping. Samples of local food and drink (Bannock, Labrador tea) are occasionally offered. We did two overnight hikes in Tombstone – the first to Rake Mountain (off-trail) and then Grizzly Lake (on-trail).
  • Two Moose Lake – Stop here at the pullout for bird and moose watching.
  • Blackstone River – Great fishing! We caught many grayling in the river along with some Dolly Varden too
  • Chapman Lake – Worth a stop for the wonderful views of mountains behind the lake
  • Engineer Creek – Have a go at finding some fossilised coral here, near the bridge
  • Eagle Plains – The perfect place for a meal, shower and gas. Open year round
  • Arctic Circle Crossing – Gotta get that iconic photo!
  • Around 450km mark – Great hiking, photo and camping opportunities
  • Nitainlaii Territorial Park Interpretive Centre – Learn about the Gwich’in way of life at this locally run centre
  • Fort McPherson – Dene Indian settlement with ‘Lost Patrol’ gravesite outside Anglican Church. Gas station
  • Tithequehchii Vitail Lookout – Short walk to the viewing platform overlooking Campbell Lake
  • Ehjuu Njik Wayside Park (Cabin Creek) – Good fishing opportunities for grayling
  • Jak Territorial Park – Lookout tower with views of Mackenzie River Delta and mountains
  • Inuvik – Be sure to check out the ‘igloo’ church and community greenhouses (in an old ice rink!)

Looking to book a stay in Inuvik?

Arctic Chalet – Highly rated on Booking.com

Nova Inn Inuvik – Great location

Ground squirrel perched on rocks
Parked van in distance, with Dempster Highway behind
Dark clouds above mountain range
Storm rolling in over the Tombstone Mountains
pink wildflowers dempster highway yukon
Wildflowers on the Dempster Highway

The best time to drive the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle and Beyond

The truth of it is that the best time of year to drive on the Dempster Highway depends on what you want to see.

Our trip was focused around the summer solstice because 1) it was my birthday on 21st June (longest birthday EVER!) and 2) it fitted well in with the rest of our summer plans.

Travelling on the Dempster in mid-June, however, meant that the blackflies and mosquitoes were in full force, which is less of a problem later on in the season.

The early season timeframe also limited the hiking opportunities in Tombstone Territorial Park – the Grizzly Lake trail, for example, did not open until early July that year.

Another popular reason to visit later in the summer is the fiery fall colours that start appearing around August.

A close up of one of the ferry boats en route on the Dempster Highway
One of the Dempster Highway’s river ferries
JR with power hose, cleaning van
Cleaning our van in Inuvik after driving the Dempster Highway

Practicalities for a Dempster Highway road trip

The Dempster Highway is a long road and rough in certain areas. 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. 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.
  • 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. My recommendation is to get off the road when it is raining heavily. This is another reason not to do this trip in just a few days – I would suggest four days as a minimum.
  • Pick up any needed supplies in Whitehorse or Dawson City before heading to the Dempster Highway. Dawson City is only a 30-minute drive from the start of the Dempster, so well worth the round trip if you have forgotten something important.
  • Expect to receive no phone signal at all on the majority of the Dempster Highway.

Take your time and drive safe. Get on Dempster-time and just enjoy one of the best road trips in the world! Up to date road conditions can be found on 511Yukon. 

Red mountains during sunset
Another 2am sunset on the Dempster Highway
Approaching the ferry on the Dempster Highway
JR looking out past the Arctic Circle sign, Dempster Highway

Dempster Highway camping advice

There are lots of great wild camping spots along the Dempster Highway, alongside a handful of maintained rustic campgrounds (pit toilets, picnic benches etc.)

The rustic campgrounds on the Dempster Highway have the bonus of covered shelters with screens on the windows, which are very useful for avoiding rain and bugs. The disadvantage is that these campgrounds are all located next to water sources with very little wind. Consequently, they can be very buggy.

If you need to get clean, there are showers at the halfway point at Eagle Plains. We did not stay at this Dempster Highway campground (next to the hotel) but asked if we could use the showers and were told to just go ahead.

Dempster Highway road trip essentials

Here are a few must-have items for any summer Dempster Highway road trip, tried and tested by us!

Quite simply, the Dempster Highway must be one of the best road trips in the world. Here's everything you need to know to make this epic journey to the Arctic Circle yourself- offtracktravel.ca
The Dempster Highway offers one of the best road trips in the world. Click here to read everything you need to know so you can take on this amazing adventure yourself! offtracktravel.ca
The Dempster Highway is an incredible, one of a kind adventure road trip in Canada. The 700km+ dirt road travels to the Arctic Circle and beyond, through mountains, tundra and endless wilderness. It's epic in every way! Click here to read everything you need to know about driving the Dempster Highway. offtracktravel.ca

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Mike Lebel

Saturday 4th of July 2020

I have 2 weeks for this trip is that enough time from Chilliwack to the artic circle?

Gemma

Monday 6th of July 2020

Hi Mike,

It just about enough time to drive the 6,500km journey there and back but that's a lot of driving in such a relatively short amount of time! Personally, I like to stop at plenty of places on road trips so that kind of trip wouldn't appeal to me. But it is physically possible as long as the weather is fine and your vehicle makes the journey.

Mike Lebel

Saturday 4th of July 2020

Hi there, Mike here im planning a trip to the artic circle in late july early August i have a 2017 ram 1500 and a 24 foot rv any suggestions for my trip im leaving Chilliwack Bc

Steve Taylor

Tuesday 4th of December 2018

I really enjoyed your blog. I'm hoping to do this drive in June 2019 with myself and my dog (maybe another dog by then) . I have an old 2008 Subaru Forester so I want to get something newer by then (although the Sub has never let me down)

The bugs sound like the biggest challenge.....and tires!

Gemma

Tuesday 4th of December 2018

Sounds like it will be an awesome trip! The bugs are definitely the biggest challenge by far on the Dempster, especially in June. Good luck!

Carol

Saturday 11th of August 2018

45 years ago (1973) my husband and I relocated from Victoria to Ottawa. We took a little detour up to Anchorage (via ferry) and then drove the Alaska Hgh via Road at the Top of the World to Dawson. Stopped at the entrance to the Dempster - had barely started and always said we'd be back. Your article is great - think it'll be now before we're toooooo old (mid 70's now). Our son drove it six years ago and keeps at us. Thanks for the article, your encouragement and great advice. Fingers crossed for this year.

Gemma

Saturday 11th of August 2018

Sounds like a great plan Carol! I hope you two make it, driving the Dempster is just a wonderful experience. Do let me know how it goes.

Nigel

Monday 16th of July 2018

Really good info Gemma. My wife and I set off on the 1st Sept travelling up from Vancouver Island onto Bella Coola, Stewart, Telegraph Creek and then onto Dawson - then to iqaluit and finally Tuc (the new road is now open I believe). Again may thanks for your post -very helpful

Gemma

Tuesday 17th of July 2018

Sounds like a fab adventure! Make sure you do go to Inuvik rather than Iqaluit though, as they are quite different places in very different locations ;)