Driving to the Arctic Ocean on the Dempster Highway: Route Guide
Driving to the Arctic Ocean on the Dempster Highway: Route Guide
What to expect on an adventure along this rugged and remote road.
By: Peter & Kathy Holcombe
The Dempster Highway is the northernmost road in Canada and one of the most remote roadways in all of North America. It is the only place where you can drive all the way to the Arctic Ocean (without special authorization) in North America.
After our journey along the Cassiar Highway, we continued north through the Yukon territory on the North Klondike Highway. From Dawson City, it was a 25-mile drive east to Dempster Corner and the official start of the Dempster Highway.
The highway continues 543 miles north, to the small village of Tuktoyaktuk. The entire route is dirt, and the road surface varies from a smooth gravel road (which is sometimes coated in magnesium chloride in an effort to tamp down the dust), to a heavily pocked mine field of razor-sharp shale just waiting to slice open the tire of an unsuspecting traveler.
Important Notes for Traveling on the Dempster Highway
Be sure that your tires are in great condition before setting out on the Dempster, and bring at least one full-sized spare. A patch kit and a hefty repair kit (and the know-how to use them both) are also good to keep on hand.
We saw a variety of vehicles along this route ranging from small passenger cars and SUVs, to camper vans and pickup trucks (some of which were towing camper trailers), RVs, large expedition vehicles and many, many semi trucks hauling big loads.
There are a couple of small towns along the way where you can resupply on food and fuel, but they are few and far between and the selection is meager. So make sure that you bring everything that you need for the duration of your stay, and know that an evacuation would be both difficult and expensive.
We spent six days total on our drive to the Arctic Ocean, 3.5 days up, an afternoon in Tuk, and two days back, and felt that to be a leisurely pace that allowed us to fully experience the wildlife, scenery, and the incredible people of Northern Canada.
The Dempster Highway Route
The route is simple: once you are actually on the Dempster, it’s pretty much a straight shot to the Arctic Ocean. There are several villages along the way that do have side roads leading to homes and basic services, but the main road is pretty much the only option.
There are also two ferry crossings: one on the Peel River at mile 335, and the Mackenzie River at mile 378 or km 608. They are both free and operate 15 hours per day during the summer.
Here are some highlights and important stops to note on the route:
At mile marker 51 (82 km), you will come to the North Fork Pass, the highest point on the Dempster (measuring in at 4,229 feet). Eagle Plains (at mile marker 229, or 369 km) is essentially a large truck stop and is the first opportunity for fuel on the Dempster. It also has a repair shop, motel, and a restaurant with limited hours.
At mile 289 (465 km) you will cross into the Northwest Territories and will have a one-hour time change in the summer months.
The arctic circles crosses the highway at mile marker 252 (405 km) and is where you have the potential to experience either 24 hours of daylight or darkness, depending on the time of year.
Fort McPherson (mile 340, km 550) is the second largest town along the highway and has a small grocery store, a couple of fuel stations, and repair shops.
The Dempster highway officially ends in the arctic town of Inuvik, which is a great place to resupply for the final 87-mile push to the arctic ocean. Inuvik offers a full range of services including lodging, groceries, fast food, and other restaurants, repair shops, etc.
The Western Arctic Visitor Information Center is worth a stop, as is the Igloo Church, the Inuvialuit Cultural Center, and the Aurora Research Institute. Up until 2017, the arctic town of Inuvik served as the end of the road. However, in November of 2017, the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway (HWY 10) was completed and extends an additional 87 miles to the quaint village of Tuktoyaktuk and the Arctic Ocean.
The final stretch into Tuktoyaktuk meanders between a series of Pingos. These are dome-shaped hills that form in a permafrost area when the pressure of freezing groundwater pushes up a layer of frozen ground that can reach over 200 feet in height. The rich, green rolling hills of the tundra contrasting against the cold gray of the Arctic Ocean makes for quite an extraordinary landscape as you near the end of the road.
Tuktoyaktuk itself is a small fishing village that over the last five years has developed a small tourism economy. There is a campground that lies right on the Arctic Ocean, at the end of the road, that offers electrical hookups, picnic tables, fire circles, and has a water filling station. The price in 2023 was $50/night and you have to stop at a visitor kiosk as you enter town to pay for your site.
There are a couple of restaurants, but the hours are limited, and neither were open when we were there. There is also a gift shop in town that offers overnight parking for $35/night. Tuk is a great place to visit, with friendly people and is worth a layover for a day or two.
Camping Along the Dempster Highway in Canada
Camping is abundant along the Dempster with many different options. As for formal/traditional campgrounds, there are several scattered along the route including:
- Tombstone Mountain Campground (mile 45)
- Natiaiinilaii Territorial Park (mile 47.2)
- Engineer Creek Campground (mile 120)
- Vadziah Va Tshik Campground (mile 137.4)
- Gwich/in Territorial Campground (mile 149)
- Jàk Territorial Park (mile 165.3)
- Gwich’in Territorial Park (mile 172)
- Rock River Campground (mile 227)
- Eagle Plains Campground (mile 229)
- Happy Valley Territorial Park in Inuvik (mile 456)
- Tuktoyaktuk (mile 543)
Beyond the traditional camping options there are infinite pullouts along the highway that are optimal for wild camping, or boondocking. We stayed at the Engineer Creek Campground our first night and two different pullouts that we found on iOverlander for our second two nights, and the campground at the end of the road in Tuktoyaktuk. All were great options.
Fuel Fillups Along the Dempster
There are four places to get fuel along the route:
- Eagle Plains (mile 229)
- Fort McPherson (mile 330)
- Inuvik (mile 456)
- Tuktoyaktuk (mile 543)
Be sure that you have enough fuel capacity to span the distances between stations as a tow from anywhere along the Dempster would prove quite expensive.
Hazards on the Dempster Highway
There are three major hazards to be aware of on the Dempster. The first is the dust. IT IS INTENSE!! When you are following or are passed by an oncoming semi-truck, the dust that follows creates whiteout conditions for 10-20 seconds.
Be extremely cautious as often these trucks travel in groups and the following trucks may not be able to see you in the dust. Always drive with your lights on and proceed with caution.
The second is the trucks themselves. They drive very fast and own the road. ALWAYS yield to truckers. We found that if we slowed down and pulled to the side, that most of them would reciprocate. If we kept our same pace, they would come barreling by without slowing or yielding way at all.
While we escaped the Dempster with our windshield completely intact, the likelihood of a truck kicking up a rock and breaking a windshield is high along this stretch of road.
The third is wildfires. When we were there, there were fires for the first 250 miles. In terrain that remote, they typically just let it burn unless a structure is at risk. And we frequently saw flames burning right alongside the road.
The smoke was pretty intense, and you should use common sense as you are approaching an area that is ablaze. There is no one who is going to tell you whether or not you should proceed, so use good judgement as you approach a burning area.
Wildlife Along the Dempster
The opportunities to observe wildlife along the Dempster Highway are many, and with a watchful eye, you may see caribou, muskox, moose, black bear, grizzly bear, whales, foxes, snowshoe hares, ptarmigan, and so much more.
We found that regularly scanning the ridgelines above the roadway proved to be the best strategy to spot the more elusive creatures along the highway. In the fall, there is a herd of 2,000+ caribou that migrate across the Dempster Highway. We were too early to experience the full herd, but we did see a few early season caribou wandering across the tundra.
Of all of the major roads that we drove in Canada and Alaska this summer (Cassiar, Dempster, and Dalton), the Dempster was our favorite. The scenery, the wildlife, the camping, and the incredible people all came together to make this a trip of a lifetime, and swimming in the Arctic Ocean was a huge bonus.
You can watch our experience on the Dempster Highway here.
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