One of the most beautiful road trips you’ll ever take might not even be on a paved road.
The Dempster highway is a 737 km road that stretches from the Klondike Highway in the Yukon to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway continues this stretch of road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, reaching the Arctic Ocean.
So what is it like to drive on the Dempster Highway?
It’s unpaved, there’s loose rocks and bumps galore, and no lines dividing the traffic. But the views along the highway are just spectacular.
Make no mistake, this highway is not your regular highway that you may come across in metropolitan cities. Gas stations are sparse along the entire stretch (Eagle Plains 365.7 km, Ft. McPherson 555 km, and at Inuvik), no restaurants other than at the aforementioned gas stations, and no cellular access. Instead, there’s some Territory-run campgrounds (the first one being Tombstone Territorial Park), the terrific Tombstone Interpretive Center that is a must-visit, some private campgrounds, and plenty of pull-out areas for a quick rest or overnight stay—some of which even have outhouses.
The highway is more suited for SUVs, trucks and the like, but is still drivable with regular vehicles, trailers, and campers. During the more favourable driving conditions (summer and fall), you’ll find that most of the vehicles on the road are large transport trucks, SUVs, and a whole lot of campers and trailers.
During my first visit to Yukon in early September, we rented an RV camper van at Canadream in Whitehorse. We drove it up the Klondike Highway making several stops along the way for pictures, and made our way to Dawson City and Tombstone Territorial Park. We continued on the Dempster Highway until about the 170 km mark, at which point we headed back to our pull-out area where we had decided to stay for the night. Our intention was never to go all the way to the Arctic Ocean this time around since we weren’t properly prepared.
So how do you prepare yourself to drive on the Dempster Highway?
Gas stations are very limited on the Dempster Highway, as mentioned above. While it is completely possible to travel the entire stretch without extra gas canisters for your car or truck, why risk it? If you run out of gas in between gas stations, you’re pretty much stuck there until someone else comes and helps you out.
At the beginning of the Dempster Highway in the Yukon, there is an APD gas station with a public card lock. If you can get the card lock to work, fill your vehicle up here. We could not get the card lock to work despite following the instructions step by step. I even phoned the number listed there for additional help only to get an answering machine. We asked someone else who came by and they said this station was very unreliable. We ended up driving all the way back to Dawson City—about 40km away—to fill up on gas, and bought an extra 20 litre jerry can of gas.
From the start of the Dempster Highway, your next gas station is at Eagle Plains, 365 km away.
Spare tires are also essential when travelling on the Dempster Highway. With so many loose rocks, bumps, and who knows what else on the gravel and unpaved roads, your tire will go through a lot of abuse. If you don’t have a spare tire and your tire ruptures, you’re out of luck unless someone else on the highway happens to have a spare. Don’t take the risk and make sure to carry at least one, maybe even two spares.
It’s possible to drive the entire stretch of the Dempster Highway in one day (approximately 12 hours), but why would you when you have the most beautiful expanse of Mother Nature right there in front of you? There’s so much natural beauty along the way there is no way I would even want to drive it in one day: Enjoy the ride, camp for a night or two, and continue on your journey. This is one time when the journey can be just as exciting as the destination itself.
Driving an RV on a bumpy highway means not going very fast. While I drove to the 170 km mark, the fastest I drove was 80 km/h, and that wasn’t even for very long. With every bump on the road, the camper would make noises, dishes would shift in the cupboard, and your hope for great suspension gets stronger. Don’t expect to go 100 km/hr through the entire highway. Add this to the various stops you will take for bathroom breaks and pictures, and it’s probably best to take your time getting to the end.
If you enjoy hiking, there are plenty of trails for beginners and experts alike. Scattered throughout the highway, if you choose to take these hikes, you’ll definitely want to slow your pace and make this a multi-day trip. Tombstone Territorial Park also houses some great interior camping trails that can take as much as six or seven days to complete (round trip). There are, of course, shorter hikes like Goldensides, which can be done in a couple hours round trip.
If none of the above were reason enough for you to slow down and enjoy the ride, seeing Mother Nature’s most incredible light show should tip the scale. Starting from mid-late August is the Aurora Borealis viewing season. With nights getting darker by the day, on a clear night you will have a great chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
With much of the Dempster Highway sitting beneath the Auroral Oval, it is in an ideal location to view the show. During our time on the highway, we saw the lights for three nights in a row, and it couldn’t have been more spectacular. Since the Aurora Borealis occurs at night and well into the wee hours of the morning, you will need to stay the night to see the show.
I mentioned above that there are no cellular services on the highway, and this should be a good thing. Take the time to appreciate where you are and enjoy the ride.
Some people have mentioned getting very spotty cellular services in Inuvik or even in Tuktoyaktuk (depending on your provider), but I wouldn’t rely on this. You can rent satellite phones in Whitehorse for added safety.
There is also free wifi at the Tombstone Visitor’s Centre, if you really need it.
Our time on the Dempster Highway was relatively short, but that’s because it wasn’t our intention to drive all the way up to the Arctic. We decided to save that trip for another trip to the Yukon, which will hopefully be sooner rather than later!
Have you driven on the Dempster Highway? Let me know what your experience was like in the comments below!
The Dempster Highway Travelogue
This guide that I picked up at the Tombstone Visitor’s Centre offers a great summary of attractions on the Dempster Highway. From Caribou crossing paths etched along the mountainside (which we could not find) to interesting river crossings, we followed this guide all the way to the 170 km mark, or Red River.
Download the PDF from the link above!
For more information on the Dempster Highway, this website offers a great km-by-km summary of attractions on the Dempster Highway: https://www.bellsalaska.com/highway/dempster-highway.
Additional information on the highway can be found here too: https://www.dempsterhighway.com.