For the ultimate road trip adventure, there isn’t a lot that compares to the Dempster Highway. You can drive to the Arctic on the Dempster Highway and that is exactly what we did. This 736 km road stretches from the far Arctic in Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, to Dawson City in the Yukon.
Watch our Drive to the Arctic on the Dempster Highway
The Dempster highway is about as remote as it gets – taking you through mountains, over great rivers, and even crossing the Arctic Circle. There are no facilities on the Dempster Highway. Once you leave Inuvik you are on your own until you reach the small outpost town of Fort McPherson.
Drive to the Arctic along the Dempster Highway
Inuvik is a sleepy town that was booming during the gas and oil days, but has simmered down after the 1990s. It holds the high honour of being the most northerly town that one can drive to. During the summer months, it is the land of the midnight sun with 56 days of 24 hour sunlight. Inuvik is a great starting point for your road trip.
We flew into Inuvik on a one way ticket from Whitehorse, stopping at three different communities before landing at our destination. There are a couple of hotels, restaurants and bars to make your stay pleasant, and there’s an excellent department store where you can pick up any extra supplies you need for the road trip.
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Driving to the Arctic begins in Inuvik
We rented a four wheel drive truck from Driving Force in Inuvik. It’s not cheap to rent, costing about $2000 for one week and stopping at Whitehorse, Yukon. But it offers a lot of freedom. When driving the Dempster highway, you want to make sure that your vehicle is in excellent condition as there aren’t a lot of places to stop and get any repairs needed. Make sure to have a spare tire, plenty of water, food, and a full tank of gas. If you are worried that your tank is too small, bring an extra jerrycan to get you through the trip.
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We set off early in the morning (although with permanent daylight, it could’ve been any time of the day), yet when travelling in the far Canadian North, time isn’t a factor. You just go until you’re tired.
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Leg 1 on the Dempster Highway: Inuvik to Eagle Plains
The rain started on the first portion of our trip, so we made good time through the Northwest Territories. With rainy, foggy and grey conditions, we didn’t have a lot of reasons to stop and enjoy the sights. Lucky for us, everyone told us that the Yukon portion of the Dempster Highway is the most scenic anyway. Even though we were bummed about the weather, we were still optimistic that things would get better.
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During our trip we crossed two rivers including Canada’s longest river, the Mackenzie. Each of these crossings were easy and uneventful, but we found out later that we were one of the last to cross that day due to the turn of weather. The rivers were flooding and they closed the ferries just a short time after we crossed. We made it in the nick of time.
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Before doing our second river crossing, we took our time to explore the town of Fort McPherson. Fort McPherson started as a fur trading outpost for the Hudson Bay Company and had the first Mounted Police post in the Western Arctic. It’s worth checking out before hopping on the ferry to cross the Peel River.
We didn’t have to wait long for the ferry and after a short crossing, we were on our way down the Dempster Highway to our next stop.
The rain refused to let up and driving the shale road was a slippery and knuckle wrenching task as the fog was dense and the conditions were slick. It is common to see a lot of wildlife on the Dempster Highway, including grizzly bears. But during our trip, most of the wildlife was hiding because of the weather.
We did manage to see a caribou running along the road as we approached. And we saw our fair share of humans pedalling bikes down the Dempster.
We made it to the Arctic Circle on the Dempster Highway!
It rained our entire first day of the trip down the Dempster, but that didn’t stop us from getting out to celebrate our crossing of the Arctic Circle. We’d been above the Arctic before, but we’d never stood on the Arctic Circle. This was one of those moments similar to the excitement one feels when standing on the Equator in Ecuador, the Greenwich Meridian in Britain or the Tropic of Capricorn in Namibia. It’s just a damn cool experience.
The Arctic Circle crossing happened just a little past the Northwest Territories on the Yukon border. It was funny to notice the Yukon sign falling apart, seeing very little love. There wasn’t a big celebration entering another province, it was just a quick snapshot before moving on. That’s okay though, the Arctic Circle waited for us and that’s what we were excited about.
We took in the view and then decided to move on before the weather got worse.
An interesting fact about the Dempster Highway is that planes land on the road and share the highway with cars. With such a low ceiling and thick fog, we didn’t worry about coming face to face with any aircraft today, but the thought did cross our minds. Could you imagine seeing fog lights ahead, but instead of them being another vehicle, they’re on a helicopter or airplane?
We kept our eyes peeled for any sights that we might have wanted to backtrack to the next day, but decided to drive on to our overnight stop at the Eagle Plains Hotel.
We couldn’t tell if the woman who greeted us was just in a bad mood or if that’s the way she treated all the guests. We had just finished the first day of our epic road trip that so many people dream of doing, and she was short and gruff with the two of us.
Our room was ready though, so we hauled in our gear and settled in for a meal at the bar. The hotel is a basic roadside motor inn, but there is a lot of history at the Eagle Plains Hotel. Make sure you go into the bar to peruse the old photographs hanging on the wall. It depicts the history of the area with the highlight being the Mad-Trapper Man hunt that ended in the accused, Albert Johnson, being killed, but not before he took out RCMP officer Edgar Millan. There are moose and deer heads hanging on the walls and you feel that you have stepped back in time 100 years.
The hotel was full that night as word got out that the ferry crossings had stopped. People driving up from Dawson City were disappointed that they couldn’t continue on. Motorcyclists came in covered in mud and even the bush pilots were grounded for the night.
We topped up the gas in our truck and filled up our water bottles before settling in for the night. It was a restless sleep as the excitement and anticipation grew for the day ahead. Would we see sunshine on the horizon? It was easy to tell that the weather was still bad outside with the 24 hour daylight. We went to sleep in the light, but the daylight had a very grey and foggy hue about it.
Leg 2 Driving the Dempster Highway: Eagle Plains to Dawson City
When we woke up in the morning, the fog was still heavy, but we decided to push forward with the hope that things would change. To our amazement, as we descended in elevation, the sun came out and we were welcomed by a beautiful day! Things were looking up and we were about to start the most beautiful portion of the trip.
Our truck was covered in mud and dirt and we looked like we had been driving for months rather than just the few hours the day before. We did manage to clean off our windows so we could take in the sunshine and views of the mountain vistas and deep valleys.
Our day was spent climbing and descending through the Eagle Plains, Peel River Plateau, North Ogilvie and Mackenzie Mountains. Each scene grew more beautiful as the day went on.
The Tombstone Mountains
We made sure to stop regularly, with a highlight being the Tombstone Mountains. We couldn’t believe the cars that passed this view by. The beauty of driving the Dempster Highway was definitely having the freedom to stop where we liked, when we liked. We made sure to take in each view and relish the moments.
Our trip took us two days, but I recommend using a campervan and taking four days. There are campsites along the highway and if you take your time you’ll get to take in all the sights along the way.
It was late in the day when we finally made it to the Klondike town of Dawson City. Dawson City is a stark contrast of the solitude and quiet of the Dempster Highways. Here you’ll find showgirls, nightclubs, casinos and an all-around rip-roaring good time. But that is another story that you will have to wait to hear all about.
Other Recommended stops on the Dempster Highway
Peel Ogilvie Lookout
Elephant Rock km 221.2
Tortured Rock km 220
Caribou Trails – It wasn’t caribou migration season when we were on the Dempster Highway but you can see the trails etched into the side of mountains left by the thousands of caribou that walk through these hills each year.
Our trip to the Yukon was sponsored by Yukon Tourism. For more information on travelling to the Yukon and driving to the Arctic on the Dempster Highway, visit TravelYukon. All opinions are our own.
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