One of the largest decisions you need to make when planning a trip to the Northwest area of North America is whether to tackle the Dempster Highway through the Yukon to the Northwest Territories. It is a dirt/gravel/shale road (started in 1959, completed in 1979) that takes you to the Artic Circle and beyond to Inuvik. The road past Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk and to see the Artic Ocean was just opened in November 2017. You should not take this decision lightly as there are very few services along the way, cell coverage only in Inuvik and Tuk, and getting flat tires or cracked windshields is quite common. However, with the right preparation you can experience absolutely breathtaking northern wilderness with an abundance of wildlife. You travel through multiple mountain ranges with wildflowers everywhere, you see completely unspoiled vistas, and travel through vast stretches of tundra. We decided to take the challenge and spent 8 days covering 1770 KMS of dirt roads and we would say it was completely worth it!
Day 1 – 72 kms – Start of the Dempster to Tombstone Park
For our first day we covered the short distance to Tombstone Park and since it had rained the night before the road was quite muddy making our RV the dirtiest it has ever been. We checked in at the campground and went to the Interpretative Centre to learn more about the park and the hikes. The ranger also loaned us the Dempster Highway Travelogue booklet, that’s no longer being published, and we used its incredible detail to guide the rest of our journey. We decided to do both the Beaver Pond Trail and the Northern Klondike River Trail. We got more rain off and on but the views were amazing.
Day 2 – 296 kms – Tombstone Park to Eagle Plains
It took us 5 hours and 46 minutes of drive time to cover the 296 kms of dirt road on this day and it is incredibly challenging for the driver. You want to look around at the scenery, but you have to keep very good focus on the road well ahead of you. There was very little traffic, but you would encounter sections of road with sharp shale type surface, so you had to quickly drive around to avoid punctures. You also learn that whenever they have pilons or orange flags that means a hazard so slow down. When you do have opposing traffic coming towards you, especially transport trucks, I would pull to the right and almost completely stop, this would help avoid getting hit with rocks and avoid blind conditions in the dusty areas. I also slowed down for motorcycles and bicycles (yes there are a few on this road) so they didn’t get a huge amount of our dust.
First stop that morning was at the Tombstone Mountain viewpoint but we had low clouds and couldn’t see the actual mountain. We eventually climbed up into the clouds at North Fork Pass Summit (1289 m) which is the highest point on the road. In this slide section you will see the elevation map for the whole highway which shows it’s mainly downhill from the pass onwards.
There are two famous North-West Mounted Police stories that happened in this area, the first is the about The Lost Patrol where 4 officers perished in 1910 on their way to Dawson City. The second is about the hunt for a man they called the “Mad Trapper” and this helped foster the saying about the Mounties, that they “always get their man”.
The geology during this drive showed quite dramatic changes. We followed the Blackstone Uplands, the Taiga Range, the Ogilvie Mountains to the Ogilvie Range and in turn onto Eagle Plains. Before we got to the Eagle Plains we saw two black bears, one with a cinnamon colour. We assumed there were partners. Eagle Plains is the first gas stop from the start of the road so everyone fills up here (diesel was $1.60/L). They had snow the night before so many people waited until things melted to leave so the staff was a bit behind schedule. Once we checked in and got the RV parked (no services) we went to the restaurant for dinner, I had Penne and Sharon would say she had scalloped potatoes (lots of them) with a side of Pepperoni Stuffed Chicken Breast (a little weird but tasty).
Day 3 – 362 kms – Eagle Plains to Inuvik
This day we drove 362 kms in 6 hours and 42 minutes of drive time with several stops along the way and two ferry crossings. We got a very early start from Eagle Plains in hopes of seeing more wildlife and we were in luck as we saw a Moose and her two calves cross the road. The photo is cropped from a very funny video from our camera challenged navigator😉 We were the first ones to arrive at the Artic Circle that morning which was great for photos. It’s also known as the land of the Midnight Sun and the home of the Inuvialuit. Next was the boundary for the Northwest Territories (62 kms past the Artic Circle) so even though we didn’t make it to Yellowknife due to the fires we did reach this Territory. The road twisted and turned through several valleys and then eventually we dropped down to the Peel River ferry crossing. It was a very short crossing and the ferry was winched across using ropes on either side. Just after the ferry we stopped in the Gwich’in Interpretative Centre and got our 1st NWT passport stamp (now we’re collecting both the Yukon and NWT passport stamps). Next was the Mackenzie and Artic Red River ferry crossing where they filled the entire ferry with vehicles. This was a larger crossing that went to 3 locations. We stayed on so we could continue up the Dempster Highway. Prior to getting into Inuvik we stopped at the Tithe geh Chii vitajj Territorial View Point to do a short hike where we learned how much blood a mosquito can take from a caribou! Once we completed the Dempster Highway in Inuvik we checked in to the Happy Valley Territorial Park and had nice long showers in the shower house😉
Day 4 – 155 kms – Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk)
In November 2017 they opened the 138 km highway from Inuvik to Tuk. The only place in North America where you can drive to the Artic Ocean year-round! Due to the permafrost in the area, the highway had to be built up 1.8 meters above ground (you don’t want your highway melting the permafrost and sinking into the ground). The landscape gets more interesting as you head towards Tuk, you start with stunted tree growth but transition to a beautiful area with hundreds of small lakes, so many Snow Geese and Artic Swans we stopped counting, beautiful wildflowers and Pingos! You saw lots of snowmobiles, sleds and boats along the roadside. The Inuvialuit leave them there so they can go hunting and fishing. We’re still a bit confused about the boats on the side of the road. Maybe they drag them there over the snow and will move them at some point. We visited The Pingos National Landmark (the only National Landmark in Canada, there is a story why) and saw Canada’s largest Pingo (2nd largest in the world).
We camped at The Point with a nice spot looking at the Artic Ocean. We spent our day wandering around town, taking in the traditional way of life. We met a fisherman catching Coney and Whitefish in his net in the harbour and we bought some fish sticks (fish jerky from Coney) from him and he told us to come back the following morning to get some smoked Whitefish. It was $10 for a whole bag of fish sticks and only $20 for an entire smoked Whitefish! We saw the Our Lady of Lourdes Schooner that was used as a delivery vessel to remote missions, the Sod House, furs drying, lots of driftwood (which they use for firewood).
We hadn’t planned this, but we were in Tuk June 21st (Summer Solstice) and Grad night for 21 students at the local high school, the most graduates they have had, 10 years prior only 10 students graduated. We got to experience the Midnight Sun and the Graduation celebrations. In essence you could see the sun going around us and dipping a bit on the horizon but never setting, very cool. It was a bit cloudy later so we couldn’t actually see the sun at midnight. However, with the celebration for grad and the holiday the next day we did get to see the beaming bright sun at 3am!!
Day 5 – 151 kms – Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik
The first few shots show us picking up our smoked Whitefish the next morning before heading back to Inuvik. When we got back we headed over to the park as it was National Indigenous Day and also Summer Solstice. On the way we saw all the water and sewer pipes that are kept above the ground in Inuvik due to the Permafrost. In the park they were doing a demonstration of Native Sports so we got to watch the ball kick. A sealskin ball on a stick and they keep raising it up higher, first it was the “Double Kick” where both feet had to touch the ball, then the “Single Kick” where only one foot had to touch. I think the record for Single Kick was over 9 feet. The last was the “Alaskan Kick” where you have to start with one hand/one foot on the ground and you can only land on one foot/hand. One of the champions of the sport was there and he made it look easy. The last demo was the blanket toss and Sharon was one of the participants. Over 37 people held the canvass. Our instructions: on the count of one you pull back to make it taught, on the count of two you pull back even further (now you’re feeling your arm muscles (or lack there of)😊), on three you do a pull and a lift upwards and the person on the canvas gets airborne! The adults went pretty high but the one young girl got the surprise of her life when she shot up in the air. At the end Sharon was so exhausted she needed to go to the Northern Most Legion in Canada to sooth her sore arms!!
Day 6 – 291 kms – Inuvik to Rock River Campground
We decided to stay at a few different campgrounds on the way back down the Dempster Highway and that also helped reduce the number of hours of driving. It was also interesting how many different things we saw when driving the opposite direction. Our first stop was in Fort MacPherson so we could see the memorial for the 4 NWMP who died as part of the Lost Patrol in 1910. We crossed on both ferries and then went back over the border into the Yukon. Rock River Campground wasn’t very busy so we got a spot right by the river. Such amazing aqua, milk, and red colours to the river due to the types of rocks that were under the surface. We were very glad we’d made this a stop.
Day 7 – 250 kms – Rock River Campground to Engineering Creek Campground
We had a nice clear view at the Arctic Circle viewpoint and a huge number of bikers were there. We drove back across one of the several emergency airstrips along the Highway. There was a pull off by one of the bridges and they had an interesting sign about the Mad Trapper that gave several new facts we hadn’t heard yet. We stopped in Eagle Plains for fuel and to pick up our Arctic Circle certificates. Shortly after we came across a very cooperative Moose who allowed us to get some great shots. At another pull off for some Fossil rocks we saw a really amazing rock pattern, we weren’t sure if it was the fossils we were supposed to see or not. At Engineering Creek Campground, we were early enough that we got another spot right by the creek but it was a major mosquito fest!!
Day 8 – 121 kms – Engineering Creek Campground to Tombstone Park
Since very few people stayed at Engineering Creek, we had very few cars on the road the next morning. The bonus was that we got to see the Dall’s Sheep as they were coming down the cliff to the creek bed to lick some salt off the rocks. They were a little distant, but you should be able to make them out in the first photos. The guidebook we had borrowed told us the rock where the Gyrfalcons hang out and we had some really beautiful reflections in the ponds. The Mosquitoes were really bad at one stop so I got our bug zapper out and lowered the population😉 One of the hikes we had missed on the way in was Goldensides so we decided to do that one before getting to Tombstone campground. It was 6.5 kms and had 301 m of elevation gain. The combination of the mountains all around you and the wildflowers everywhere made it a very memorable hike. There were two different viewpoints, so we had our lunch at the highest one and then returned to see the second one.
Day 9 – 94 kms – Tombstone to Klondike River Territorial Park (just outside Dawson)
The next morning in Tombstone when we woke up we could smell smoke and the sun was hazed out. The ranger told us there were a couple of forest fires that had started overnight. The drive out was good.
What an adventure the Dempster Highway was and we’re super glad we made the decision to tackle it. Spectacular scenery everywhere and wildlife on top. As long as you are well prepared this trip is definitely worth it😉 Next stop Dawson City.