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).

There are affiliate links in this post. If you make a qualifying purchase through one of these links, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

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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68 thoughts on “Driving the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle, Canada”

      • Collecting dirt was part of the fun of the Dempster (and the Dalton). In 2017, arrived at the USA border point. Guard asked me what license plate I had (Alaska). I asked why. He could not see it because of the mud on the plate. Stopped at the Alaska welcome sign and used my finger to expose the letters and numbers on the plate. Drove back to Fairbanks that way too. Sadly I had to wash all the muddy memories into the ground to return the rental.

        • That’s too funny, thanks for sharing your story Mark! I can quite imagine you had enough mud on your plate – we definitely did!

  1. 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.

    • 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!

    • Farther north of the Arctic Circle there is 24 hours sunshine. In 2017 arrived at the Circle just minutes prior to the Summer Solstice. Had my picture taken at the sign with sun peeking from behind the trees. Even Fairbanks had 24 hours sunshine – the sun barely set behind the horizon.

  2. 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.

    • 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!

  3. 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.

    • 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).

  4. 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!

    • 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.

    • I can hear that song blasting on the radio with the windows down. No one can hear you sing anyway except God and all the local wildlife. You cannot drive fast on the roadway. The max speed was 50 mph all the way. Too many surprises to drive any faster. In 2019 the Dempster ate 3 of my tires. I had one repaired at Tuktoyatuk, NWT by a nice man who offered me a free repair if I patronized his wife’s food truck. I bought 2 Muskox burgers and 2 cokes. Two more tires went flat at Tombstone but I found highway angels who had their own tire troubles with an airpump to use on the slower leaking tire to make into Dawson City. In the morning had both tires repaired. Mentioned to the mechanic, you must make a killing repairing tires. Overall, still a magnificent fun trip.

  5. 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 🙂

    • 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!

    • 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!

      • It really depends on the year. Sometimes the ferries aren’t running until later in June – spring is beautiful but roads can be wet and muddy. July – some years it is hot and lovely, others it rains the whole month (like our last trip in 2016 – there were washouts on the highway and it had to be closed). Our preference is August – generally nice and warm, hardly any bugs and late August-September the colors change (although you run the risk of snow). Sorry it doesn’t really help you a lot – it really depends on the weather Gods

      • We drove the Dempster during both months and I’d say July of the two. The locals told us that June is generally more buggy, which was definitely true in our experience. If you’re interested in hiking in Tombstone Territorial Park at all, I’d aim for July as the snow is more likely to be cleared out then.

      • I drove it in June 2017 and 2019. Btw Gemma, my birthday is June 24. I celebrated it on the Dempster in 17 and the Dalton in 19.

  6. 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 🙂

  7. 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).

    • 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!

      • Hi Gemma.

        We are planning this same trip in July. We are going in a older model RV (mid 80s). In your opinion, can this road accommodate an RV?


        • Hi Shawn, you must be so excited for your trip! I’m a bit jealous! We saw RVs of all shapes and sizes on the Dempster and at the end of the road in Inuvik. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is not to rush driving the Dempster – when we did see RVs having problems, it was because they were driving too fast and/or on the road after rain. The road surface gets very slippy when wet so can be dangerous for larger vehicles at this time. If you can allocate enough time to drive the road (e.g. more than 4 days!) carefully and are pretty self sustainable, then you’ll probably be fine.

  8. 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?

  9. 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.

    • 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 😉

    • Did you started driving. I am looking for a partner to drive to Inuvik. I am available between Aug 25 to Sep 05, 2016. I live in Edmonton. If you pass thru Edmonton let me know and I can join you from here or from Inuvik to Whitehorse on your return, I can share driving and expenses. Please let me know either way ASAP. Thanks

  10. I am excited to be planning my journey from Kelowna BC to Inuvik. I just bought a new Sprinter motorhome and this will be its maiden voyage. I going in style which is nice because basically I can pull over anywhere, take a hot shower, cook some food and pull out the sofa to a full queen size bed. I even have solar panels on the roof and a generator. I am curious if anyone knows if I can buy propane along the way as the motorhome has a propane tank built in for hot water heater and stove. I’m guessing propane is common;y used there?

    • Hi James,

      Your plans sound awesome – we love Sprinter vans! I believe propane can be purchased at Eagle Plains service station (half way) plus definitely in Inuvik.

  11. My husband and I drove the ALASKA and TOK to DAWSON 45 years ago – oh the gravel! We went through five tires and two windshields. We were moving from Victoria to Ottawa and decided we needed a detour. Loved every minute of it – ferries to Haines and then drove the rest. We still talk about it. The Dempster was just a baby of about 10KM then. Always said we’d be back and at 75, looks like this is the year. Thanks for all your hints.

    • Wow, that sounds like quite a journey! I’m excited for your return to the Yukon this year – do let me know if you need any more advice

    • We saw lots of large motorhomes travelling the Dempster – the main thing I would be careful about is how slippy the road is when wet. So make sure you have plenty of time to tackle the drive i.e. don’t only allow 2 days to do it all, put aside a week and travel slowly.

      • Yes the Dempster can be slippery in the rain. In June 2019 Yukon Transportation had a roadside sign where the slips were outside of Eagle Plains. Take the sign SERIOUSLY especially going downhill. One false slide, off the road you’ll go. Some dropoffs are very steep too.

        • Added warning: CARRY A CB RADIO FOR HELP. Keep it on Channel 19 for emergencies. There is NO cell service outside Dawson City and Inuvik. Help is hours perhaps dayy s away too. At the start of the Dempster near Dawson City heed the safety warning signs before you start your drive.

  12. What a great and informative read. Thank you. My Wife and I will be heading north to Inuvik (and beyond hopefully) next summer. I enjoyed the report, and to top it off I just noticed you are also from Penticton. How’s that for a random google search coincidence? Thanks again.

  13. This may be a ridiculous question, but could you drive the highway in a car? Or would that be a horrible idea? Also, why do people go through tires? Just wondering, I’m an SK girl and drive on gravel all the time.

    • Not a ridiculous question at all! I don’t see why you couldn’t drive it in an average car because there is no clearance issue, but personally I’d want to drive a vehicle with AWD. The surface of the road is sharp shale – this rock can really damage tires. We lived on Vancouver Island for 2.5 years and drove A LOT of gravel/dirt logging roads and never lost a tire…but the surface of the Dempster is different.

    • I first drove the Dempster around 1986 in a convertable with low profile tires. Had 1 slow leak pulling into Inuvik where they fortunately had a replacement tire. So, cars are fine.

  14. Drove it last year as part of a 44 day trip.in Western Canada and Alaska. It was my favorite part of trip; I now want to drive to Tuk. If interested, videos are on YouTube DigitalByDoiron. Thanks for refreshing fond memories!

    • I felt privileged to drive the Inuvik-Tuk highway in June 2019, less than a year after it opened in November 2018. Takes about 2 hours to Tuk without stops, more with stops to admire the total isolation from humanity. You are the only person for perhaps hundreds of square miles. You are King of the world. Enjoy !

  15. 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

    • 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 😉

  16. 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.

    • 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.

  17. 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!

    • 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!

  18. 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

    • 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.


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