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.
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).
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.
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.
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. 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!
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.
Must see stops on 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!)
Driving the Dempster Highway – the best time?
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 firey fall colours that start appearing around August.
Practicalities for a dempster highway road trip
The Dempster 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.
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 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 the campground here 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!
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- The Milepost Travel Planner – a mile-by-mile account of the Dempster Highway, plus every other major highway in Alaska and Yukon.
- Mosquito Head Net – Trust me, you’ll thank me for this one on those windless days in early summer…
- Portable Tire Air Compressor – A lifesaver when you find that your spare tire is slightly deflated
- Tire Repair Kit – Very helpful for small punctures while driving the Dempster Highway
- Bug Repellent Spray – Don’t even question it.
- Bear Spray -Just in case! Note, this is not a replacement for practising basic bear avoidance techniques
- Fishing kit (and fishing license) – Because the fishing really is THAT good on the Dempster
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