The Dempster Highway: a Drive to the Arctic Coast of Canada

Dempster 1Most of Canada is well-travelled by tourists and not off-the-beaten path. But there is one highway in Canada that is remote and relatively few Canadians go there.  That is the Dempster Highway. It stretches some 736 km (457 miles) from Dawson City to Inuvik near the Arctic Coast.  Dawson City itself is a remote place some 525 km (328 miles) north of Whitehorse but easily accessible on paved road.

 

The highway is named after constable Dempster of the North West Mounted Police who set out in the winter of 1911 by dogsled to find four other Mounted Police who were lost.  He found the Lost Patrol but they had already frozen to death. Before the building of the highway, the route from Skagway Alaska to Hersell Island on the Arctic coast was patrolled by the North West Mounted Police.  Travel was done in winter by dogsled.

 

Construction of the highway began in 1959. Only 115 km was finished when work was halted in 1961 and not started again until 1968.  By 1979 it was completed as far as Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. The Canadian Army built two of the major bridges on the road and two river crossings are still made by ferry. No further work was done until 2013, when work began on the final stretch from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic coast.  Building a highway in the Arctic is extremely difficult due to the permafrost.  In summer the temperature can reach 30 degrees C or more for short periods but is usually in the low 20s.  However, you do not have to dig down very far to find permanently frozen ground.  When the Alaska Highway was built during the Second World War, the road builders learned that building a road in the Arctic is not the same as building a road further south.  They used bulldozers to flatten the path before doing anything else, which is the traditional first step of road building procedure in the south.  But in the Arctic, if you do this, it exposes the permafrost to the sun, which then melts and turns into a mud quagmire. I am not talking about a little bit of mud, but enough that whole bulldozers will disappear into it.  The current procedure is to cut down any trees to ground level, and then pour gravel over the existing terrain without exposing the permafrost.  As the ground is too mushy to do this in summer, they can work only during the bitter winter months. Progress is very slow.  The last section of the Dempster Highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyuktuk is scheduled to be completed in 2018.  You will then be able to drive right up to the Arctic coast.

 

There is a road to the north in Alaska but when you get within a few miles of the coast, you cannot proceed any further except on a tour bus due to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields that are located at the end of the road. Therefore the Dempster Highway will be the only public road in North American that goes to the Arctic coast (when finished in a few more years).

Dawson City

The first step is to drive to the town of Dawson City in central Yukon. Why is this a town called a city? Dawson is a fascinating place and worth a visit even if you go no further. The old wooden buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s are enchanting. The town still has dirt streets and wooden sidewalks. Dawson was the largest city west of Winnipeg and north of Seattle in 1900. Dawson owes it existence to the Klondike Gold Rush during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The history of Dawson can be found on my website: http://mythatchedhut.com/dawson-city/

Junction of Klondike and Dempster Highways

Fuel up at the corner of the Klondike Highway and the Demstper Highway, not in the town of Dawson.  This gas station is 40 km closer to the next one, which is 370 km north after this intersection.  At the time of writing this, the gas station is unmanned and you need to pay with a credit card.  It will ask you for a pin number but this in not referring to the number you received from your bank with the card.  Do you have a pin number?  Say no.  Do you want a receipt?  Say yes and it will print a receipt, even though you have not yet purchased any fuel.  On the receipt will be a number.  Start over again using this number as your pin number.  It is confusing and does not have good instructions.

 

After fuelling up, cross the one-lane bridge and you are now on the Dempster Highway and are on your own.  The next services are 370 km to the north. Make sure you have at least one good spare tire and enough water, food and anything else you need for the trip.

 

The highway crosses two rivers and there is a free ferry that you can use in summer.  During winter you simply drive across on the ice.  For a couple of weeks in the spring and again in the fall when the ice is not strong enough to support a vehicle and the ferry is not yet operating, you will not be able to get across the river.  At the beginning of the highway, there are signs saying that the ferry is open.  Do not trust these signs!  The signs belong to the government of the Northwest Territories but are located in the Yukon.  No one from the NWT ever comes to change the signs.  They have said “open” for years and never change.  Check at the Visitor’s Centre in Whitehorse or Dawson or on line for the latest information.

Tombstone Territorial Park

The first stage of the Dempster Highway will take you 72 km north to Tombstone Territorial Park. There is a Visitor’s Centre here and a campground. Camping is prohibited in the park except in the campground.  There are no hookups or running water.  There is firewood, outhouses and river water available.  There is an article about the park on my website: http://mythatchedhut.com/tombstone-territorial-park/

Birds

Willow Ptarmigan 6cs

The area north of the Tombstone Campground has many small ponds that are full of ducks and shorebirds in the spring. If you are a birder, stop often to check for birds in these ponds and small lakes. One of the best places is Two Moose Lake. The most popular birds to search for are Surfbird, Northern Weathear, Smith’s Longspur, Long-tailed Jaeger, Red-throated Loon, Wandering Tattler, Gyrfalcon, Golden Eagle, Harlequin Duck, Northern Hawk Owl, Long-tailed Duck, Willow Ptarmigan, Rock Ptarmigan, and White-tailed Ptarmigan. Unfortunately there is no camping allowed at Two Moose Lake.

 

Many birds that are common in the south, such as sandpipers and plovers, in their drab winter plumage, can be seen here in their beautiful breeding colours. Although you may have seen these birds before, it is a thrill to see them in their glorious breeding plumage.

Bears

Grizzly 1c

 

Both Black Bear and Grizzly may be encountered anywhere along the Dempster Highway.  If you are not used to travelling in bear country, you should read the brochure titled “Staying Safe in Bear Country” which is available at the Dawson and Tombstone Visitor’s Interpretive Centre.

Caribou

Herds of thousands of Caribou might be seen on the Dempster Highway in the Winter, Spring and Fall.  They migrate further to the north-east in the Spring and it is unlikely that you will see them during the Summer months.

Engineer Creek

The next campground is at Engineer Creek (named after the Canadian Army Engineers who built the nearby bridge).  Once you are out of Tombstone park, you can camp anywhere, as long as you are off the road but I would recommend using the campground.  It is just $12 per night.

Eagle Plains

The next stop after Engineer Creek is Eagle Plains.  This is not a town; but a collection of roadside services.  It has a hotel, restaurant, gas station, garage, tow truck, propane sales, laundromat, and small campground.  A few of the sites in the campground have electrical hookups with 15 amps.  The two sites on either end of the campground have spectacular views (the one on the extreme left and the one on the extreme right) but no hookups are available at these two sites.  Camping is $ 25 which includes electricity and showers, or $20 without electricity. Wireless internet is available for an extra $5 but does not work in the campground.  You will have to go into the hotel to use it.  Fuel and everything else is expensive in the north as it has to be trucked up the highway.  At the time of writing this gasoline was $1.70 per litre.  This is a nice place to spend an evening and break up the trip.  The lounge has a collection of stuffed animals such as Wolverine, Arctic Fox, Caribou, bears and others.

Falcons

 Peregrine Falcon (9)

After leaving Eagle Plains you will be driving thought he Richardson Mountains.  Watch for both Peregrine and Gyrfalcon along the cliffs.

The Arctic Circle

Arctic Circle (6)Thirty-six kilometres north of Eagle Plains is the sign that tells you that you are now crossing the Arctic Circle.   You definitely need to stop and get your photo taken here.   This is something for your bucket list.   At Inuvik Visitor’s Centre (or at Eagle Plains Hotel on the return trip) you can get a certificate to prove that you have crossed the Arctic Circle.

Tundra

Dempster 16

After passing the Arctic Circle you will come to a large area of treeless tundra.  Drive slow here and look for wildlife. Grizzly Bears, another mammals and lots of birds live here.  The mountains in the distance are near the Northwest Territories border.  The weather there can be quite different from where you are now.

Rock River Campground

This is a nice little campground with 20 sites.  No hookups, but firewood and outhouses are provided.  Some people travel the Dempster Highway in a couple of days but this is a trip of a lifetime and I highly recommend that you drive slow and stop often and take in all the sights and enjoy the trip.  You will meet adventurous people from all over the world in the campgrounds along the way.  Like most places in the north, the mosquitos can be quite numerous here.

Northwest Territories

NWT 1A further 60 km to the north you will come to the border of the Northwest Territories and you will be leaving Yukon Territory behind.  There is a large pullout here for photos ops and if it is nice weather you can go for a walk on the tundra.  This location is high in the mountains and the weather is often quite bad here and also very windy.  On the way up the Dempster, the wind was blowing hard, alternating with rain, snow pellets and dirt.  On my return from Inuvik in July, it was so foggy that I had trouble finding the driveway to enter the parking area.

 

After crossing the Northwest Territories border, the kilometre markings start over again at zero. Also, you will be in a different time zone, and need to advance your time one hour.

Midway Lake

Midway Lake appears to be a small town but it is just a collection of summer cabins and is unoccupied during the winter.  No services are available here.

Tsiigehtchic

Near the ferry crossing over the MacKenzie River, you will see the Gwich’in village of Tsiigehtchic. The ferry might stop here if anyone wants to go to the village. No services.

Peel River

Ferry Peel (16)At the Peel River you will come to the first of two river crossings.  There is a free ferry service that operates from 9 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.  Wait for the ferry operator to wave before approaching the ferry.  If you are pulling a trailer, use extreme caution.  You will be going downhill to the ferry and then uphill again onto the boat.  This dip can cause low points on your trailer, such as the sewer pipes, to scrape on the ground.  The ferry operators are aware of this situation and are very helpful.  Proceed extremely slow and only when the ferry operator tells you to.  They might put wood under your wheels which you can drive over to rise the level of your trailer.  Put your vehicle in four-wheel drive if you have it.  The entrance to the ferry might be muddy or soft if it has rained recently.  Vehicles without trailers should have no problem if you drive slow.

MacKenzie River

Ferry Mc 1

 

This is the second of the two river crossings. The same conditions apply as at the Peel River crossing described above.

Nitainlaii Territorial Park

Just two kilometres after crossing the ferry you will come to Nitainlaii Territorial Park.  The guide books say that this park opens from June 1st to September 1st.  However, I was there on June 2nd and the Visitor’s Centre was boarded up and the campground was gated and locked.  I spent the night in the parking lot of the Visitor’s Centre.  If you plan on camping here during the first part of June, I suggest you phone NWT or Fort McPherson to see if the campground is open.

 

This is a very nice campground with showers and a good washroom, but no electrical hookups.  The showers do not operate 24 hrs per day but are available in the morning from 6 to 11 a.m. and again in the evening from 4 to 9 p.m.  The shower stalls are spacious and very nice with lots of hot water but a little dirty at the time I was there.  You might want to bring flip-flops or something else to wear on your feet.  I always wear something in my feet in public showers anyway, even if it appears to be very clean.  The sinks and toilets work 24 hrs but there was no toilet paper on the day I was there.  That is another item that experienced travellers always bring with them.

 

The price in Northwest Territories campgrounds is $22.50 if there are no electric hookups.  In the Yukon, the price for government campgrounds is only $12 but they do not have running water or sewer dump stations.

 

Like most places along the Dempster, the mosquitos can be vicious here.

Fort McPherson

With Dawson City 550 km behind you, this is the first town you will come on your drive up the Dempster Highway.  It is the home of the Tetlit GwichÍn people.  There is a gas station and a two grocery stores.

 

There is a tire repair garage, if you need one, just before the town; a large, white building across the street from the airport.

 

Lost Patrol (1)

The Lost Patrol grave site of the four Mounted Police that froze to death in 1911 (mentioned above) is in Fort McPherson.   They are buried at the Anglican church graveyard.  To get there, drive down the main street until you see the large Northern grocery store.  Turn left and you will see the graveyard. At the time I was there, the graveyard was unkept; full of weeds and mosquitoes.  After this disaster, the Mounties placed cabins and supply caches along the route and all patrols were led by an experienced native guide.  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police made their final patrol of the Arctic by dogsled in 1969.

Campgrounds and Rest Areas near Inuvik

There are two campgrounds and a couple of picnic areas in and near GwichÍn Territiorial Park, near Inuvik.  Vadzaih Van Tsik is at 48 km before Inuvik and Gwich’in at 35 km before Inuvik.  These are not much use to travellers. After driving almost 700 km, you will probably not want to stop when you are within a half hour’s drive of Inuvik.  These sites are more suitable for the residents of Inuvik to go camping for the weekend or just a day trip.

Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk

You made it! For now, Inuvik is the end of the Dempster.  But the highway is currently being extended to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Coast.  This section of the highway is scheduled to be open in 2018.  In the meantime, you can get from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk by aeroplane or boat, or by driving on the ice in winter.  Everything is very expensive here.  At the time of writing it was $1.89 for a litre of gasoline and $7.50 for four cobs of corn. There is a separate article about Tuktoyaktuk at this link.

Campgrounds in Inuvik

There are two campgrounds in Inuvik.  Happy Valley Campground is located right in town on the river bank.  It has 36 sites; some with electricity.  There are showers, a laundromat, sewer dump station, fresh water, picnic tables and firewood.  Jak Park is a nice campground but is a couple of kilometres out of town on the Dempster Highway.  There are 38 sites, a few of which have electricity. It has the same facilities as Happy Valley Campground.  I think that Jak Park is nicer but Happy Valley has the convenience of being in town.  The price at time of writing is $22.50 without electricity and $28 for sites with electricity.

When to go

Mid May is a great time to travel on the Demspter Highway.  It can be a bit cold but there are no mosquitoes and almost no traffic.  The only problem is that the ferries over the Peel and McKenzie Rivers do not start operation until the first week of June.  In the fall, the bushes all turn red and gold and make a beautiful sight.  There is also the chance of seeing Caribou herds after September.

The Experience

Dempster 18

Dempster 22

Driving the Dempster Highway is a unique opportunity to see the Arctic of North America.  The road is rough and services are few.  There are nice, but very expensive, hotels if you are not into camping.  I found that driving the Dempster, like canoeing a river or climbing a mountain, is challenging and opportunities for mishaps are increased, but the feeling of satisfaction that you will have when you get back to civilization cannot be achieved on a paved road.  Get off the beaten path and explore this wonderful world of ours. You will be glad you did.

 

For additional tips on traveling the Dempster Highway, please refer to this link:  http://mythatchedhut.com/14-dempster-highway-tips/

 

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This is amazing! I'm far too adventureless to attempt a trip like this, but your pictures and descriptions make me wish I were there. And to think, before your piece on Tuktoyaktuk, I had never even thought of the expression "Arctic Coast!"

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

It sounds like a great adventure!  Thanks for sharing it with us.  This road trip has been on my bucket list for some time, but sounds like it's worth delaying until the road to Tuk is completed.

 

I've heard fall is a nice time to go.  Not only is the tundra vividly colored, but there are no mosquitos (frozen to death by evening frost).  Know any downsides to this, Tom?

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

Originally Posted by DrFumblefinger:

It sounds like a great adventure!  Thanks for sharing it with us.  This road trip has been on my bucket list for some time, but sounds like it's worth delaying until the road to Tuk is completed.

 

I've heard fall is a nice time to go.  Not only is the tundra vividly colored, but there are no mosquitos (frozen to death by evening frost).  Know any downsides to this, Tom?

Yes, I would wait until the road is finished.  I had to fly from Inuvik to Tuk and return by boat, which was nice but very expensive and hotels in Tuk also very expensive.  Once the road opens, scheduled for 2018, I would think that there will be at least one campground and some cheaper accommodations.  Spring and fall are the best times to go.  In the summer you get eaten by swarms of mosquitoes.  Spring is best for seeing birds; fall is best for the colours.  The downside to this is that the ferries are not operating for a couple of weeks in the spring and again in the fall so you need to plan carefully so that you don't get stuck at the river and not able to cross.  In the fall you might see herds of Caribou crossing the highway. 

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