Battling the Dempster Highway to Inuvik
Updated: Feb 23
The Dempster Highway between Dawson City, Yukon and Inuvik, Northwest Territories takes on all challengers and gives no quarry.
It is the northern most road you can drive in Canada.
It is 740 kilometres of gravel and the first pit stop is 370 kilometres away without any automotive services in-between.
We did some research before we headed out. We first stumbled across a YouTube video where its maker’s claimed “This highway hates you!” Later, we found other literature that insisted an extra spare tire was a necessity amongst other preparations and precautions.
In spite of its ominous reputation (which is valid), the Dempster Highway is also accompanied by an equally worthy reputation of unique landforms, undisturbed terrain and superb wildlife viewing.
We left Dawson City bright and early with a full tank of gas and a little trepidation. It was sunny and weather forecast was positive so we were hoping for the best possible. Our goal was to be in Inuvik for the summer solstice. It was all part of a larger goal to experience 24 hours of daylight beyond the Arctic Circle.
After a mere 30 minutes of driving up the Dempster we began to appreciate the beautiful, mountainy landscape. After an hour we were blown away as drove through the Tombstone Territorial Park.
The natural setting for the Tombstone Territorial Park was incredible. The mountains were rocky and snow covered. The valley bottom was green and filled with flowers. The river that ran through it was coloured glacier blue and there was still melting snow on the banks feeding it. It was an array of contrasting colours that melded into an incredible panoramic scene that was larger than life.
It was just beyond the Tombstone Territorial Park where we spotted our first grizzly bear! We came around a corner blinded by shrubs when we drove right up on him. We were as surprised as we were elated. Because we had not expected him, our camera was not at all ready. Scrambling between trying to enjoy the moment and get a photo we managed a few blurry shots on the I-phone and one clear one with our cheapo point and shoot camera as he ran off into the tundra.
The next significant wildlife spotted was a single moose in Two Moose Lake, followed by our second grizzly off in the tundra.
By the time we reached Eagle Plains, we were very impressed with the experience and confident we could conquer the mighty Dempster.
We chose to camp at Eagle Plains. Our main entertainment for the night was some very friendly (or annoying depending on perspective) Grey Jays that would eat out of our hands.
The young guys camping next to us in a Tacoma told us that they already had their first tire repair. When we awoke to a flat tire the next morning, we also had our first tire repair too. The old chap at the gas station who repaired the tire did so with the efficiency of an entire Indy pit crew. He had clearly repaired hundreds of tires before.
The remaining road to Inuvik was stunning past the Arctic Circle cairn, past the Welcome to the Northwest Territories sign and arguably up to the point where you leave the Rocky Mountains and travel down to the McKenzie River delta. At that point, the land is flat, short trees, boggy and absolutely polluted with mosquitos.
We spent 3 nights in Inuvik to enjoy the solstice, the famous Our Lady of Victory Church, some local cuisine and National Aboriginal Day which featured a free fish fry for the entire community in the park. All in all it was a pleasant stay with very friendly people.
On the drive back we experienced our second flat a mere one hour down the road. This tire change out proved challenging as the truck slid off the jack not once, but twice. We also ran into some rain on the return trip which posed a whole new set of challenges as the ‘good’ gravel road can quickly become a ‘bad’ muddy road.
Another night camping at Eagle Plains and another tire repair and we were on our way back again.
On the return route, we took some time to hike in the Tombstone Territorial Park. What a gorgeous place. If Inuvik seems out of reach, a much shorter trip up to the Tombstone Territorial Park is certainly worth the effort.
When we finally made it back to Dawson City, we treated ourselves to a hotel room and an order of Chinese food for supper. We were exhausted.
The Dempster Highway is a brute indeed. Oddly, I think we drove it under the most ideal conditions that one could expect and somehow between the tire changes, mud and incessant insects, we still felt compelled to buy the “I Survived the Dempster Highway” sticker for our camping tote as a badge of honour.