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The Dempster Highway

by Murray Lundberg

The Road to the Arctic
Dawson City, Yukon to Inuvik, Northwest Territories
775 km, 482 miles



Click on each photo to enlarge it

    The Dempster Highway is one of northern Canada's undiscovered, yet readily accessible wonders. If you live in Inuvik, Tsiigehtchic or Fort McPherson you've probably driven it on your trips Outside, but not many Yukoners have seen more than the first few miles of it. But even after about the 30th time, I find that driving north across the Arctic Circle is a thrill, and the Dempster Highway is one of only 2 roads in North America that cross that invisible, magic line. Particularly if you can spare 4 days, it offers a truly unique experience.

The Dempster Highway The Dempster Highway.
 
    As well as being the most remarkable highway I've driven, however, it's also the most unforgiving. In dry weather, there are places where the dust is so thick that the few vehicles on the road pass each other at a crawl. In wet weather, there are places where pulling a trailer through the slimy, ankle-deep slop is a white-knuckle affair. There are places where snow is possible on any day of the year - I've run into snow on August 4 that almost forced me to put chains on my bus tires. And always, there are places where the shale will shred cheap tires to ribbons, and can puncture even the best.

Icy stream along the Dempster Highway Icy stream along the
Dempster Highway.

 
    Most of you are now mentally crossing the Dempster off your "possible places to go" list. But, in all my trips, I've only lost 1 tire (on a heavily-loaded van), and 1 windshield. And when the Yukon Tourism people started using the term "the Magic & the Mystery" in their promotions many years ago, the Dempster was surely one of the places they were thinking of. The history is fascinating, the wildlife viewing potential is high, and the scenery is breathtaking.

    The Dempster, surprisingly, still doesn't show up a lot on the Internet - see the links below.

    There's only 1 place on the highway where full services are available, and that's at Eagle Plains, Kilometer 363 (Mile 232). Strange name, as it's a high ridge, not a plain, and there are no eagles in the area. The hotel has good rooms and food, and the garage offers fuel, and tire and mechanical repairs. Eagle Plains' most impressive feature is the view - at 2:00 AM in late June, with the sun nudging the horizon, the land just goes on forever.

    There are several excellent campgrounds along the highway, with Tombstone at the south end and Jak (formerly Chuk), overlooking the Mackenzie Delta, being my favourites.

The beach at Tuktoyaktuk, with the Beaufort Sea still frozen over The beach at Tuktoyaktuk, with the
Beaufort Sea still frozen over.

 
    Once you get to Inuvik, a flight to Tuktoyaktuk is a must (for those of you who really want an adventure, you can drive to Tuk in the winter, on an ice road). Aklak Air offers daily flights with pilots who truly love the country, and the view of the millions of lakes and channels of the Mackenzie Delta is almost beyond belief.

    Plan on 4-5 days for the whole trip to Inuvik and "Tuk" - if your schedule or vehicle doesn't allow for that, a day trip up to Chapman Lake at Kilometer 117 (Mile 73) will give you a glimpse of the country, without reaching any of the bad parts of the road.

    As with all of our roads, the secrets to really enjoying the Dempster are to go prepared, and to travel with an open mind. Let the country take over - regardless of where you live, it has a lot to teach you...

    Questions or comments? - feel free to drop me a line.








Dempster Highway Road Log
A mile-by-mile guide with photos of the highway and beyond by Murray Lundberg.

The Dempster Highway Travelogue
A 52-page mile-by-mile guide with maps and photos, by Environment Yukon.

Dempster Highway Ferry Crossings
Here are the historical opening and closing dates of both the Peel and Mackenzie River ferries, with a link to ice road dates.

Harry Waldron, Keeper of the Arctic Circle
In the 1980s and '90s, Harry gave Dempster Highway travellers an experience they wouldn't soon forget.

NWT Road Map
Including the Yukon and northern British Columbia and Alberta.

No I've Never Been To Spain, But I've Been To Tuktoyaktuk
An excellent photojournal of a winter car trip from Washington to Tuktoyaktuk, by Paul Berg.

Dempster Highway
Information from Onroute

Dempster Highway Traffic Volumes

The Dempster Highway in the Winter
In February 2013, Highways crews and truckers talked about the realities of maintaining and driving the highway in often brutal conditions.

The Dempster by Motorcycle
A 1996 trip by Mike Vermeulen - great photos.

Dempster Highway stamp
Issued by Canada Post in in 1998 as part of a series showing highways across the country.

Dempster Highway, 1972
A map and very brief information from the Yukon Dep't of Travel and Information. The highway was under construction at this time.

Aklak Air

A Guide to Inuvik

A Guide to Tuktoyaktuk