If your heart desires a road trip that’s off the beaten path, then the Dempster Highway is precisely what you are looking for! A genuinely epic drive, this journey is one of a kind in the western hemisphere, traversing the Arctic Circle. This driving experience unparalleled.
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As a response to the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 19th century, the North-West Mounted Police established a presence in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The route follows an old dog-sled route from Dawson City to Fort McPherson. It was named after William Dempster, an Inspector of the North-West Mounted Police.
This 736 km long, unpaved highway passes through vast tundra, deep canyons, rugged landscapes, and some of the highest waterfalls in Canada. The route is open year-round, and it crosses the Continental Divide three times. Then, it passes through the Richardson Mountains, the northernmost extension of the Rockies, along with the Mackenzie River delta.
It’s better to make this trip in a warmer and drier season; fall starts here in September, painting the vast landscape with colours of orange, red and gold. The winter driving conditions can be hazardous, so it is often not recommended to go this route in winter owing to icy roads and snowstorms.
Dempster Highway begins 40km east of Dawson City on the Klondike Highway. This unpaved highway has no major intersections or stop lights, and it extends from Tombstone Territorial Park in the north, to Inuvik in the northwest. The drive takes you through the Ogilvie and Richardson mountain ranges on its way.
The small loose rocks on this highway can easily damage your windshield and often puncture your tires. Make sure to start the trip with a full gas tank and bring enough food and water. Bring a full-size spare tire and a windshield repair kit since waiting for CAA can take a while. There is no cell signal along the way, so the only way to stay connected is through a satellite phone and a GPS.
Eagles Plains marks the halfway spot, and is the only place to get food or gas along the highway. While the whole drive can be done in 14 hours with good weather, you can also spend a night at Eagle Plains hotel if you’re not planning on camping.
Being so far up north, you can experience polar days in summer where there’s 24 hours of daylight. Or polar nights in winter where there’s darkness for 24 hours. You can also see wildlife along the way, just make sure you don’t approach or feed them.
Points of Interest along the way:
Once known as the “Paris of the North”, Dawson City was an important part of the Klondike Gold Rush from 1896 to 1899. You can learn more about the city and its history by joining the guided walking tours provided by Parks Canada. You can also learn more about the original inhabitants, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre.
You can learn more about the gold rush at the Discovery Claim National Historic Site. Try your luck at gold panning and if you do find any gold, it’s yours to keep! Midnight dome is a popular lookout nearby to get panoramic views of the area and Dawson city.
Tombstone Territorial Park:
Located near the southern end of the Dempster Highway, Tombstone Territorial park has a unique sub-arctic landscape and endless views. Notable features of this park are: Mount Monolith, Tombstone Mountain, and Glissade Pass.
Two Moose Lake:
For the animal enthusiasts, Two Moose Lake is a popular spot for moose sightings and many species of migrating birds.
Located on the northernmost tip of Tombstone Territorial Park, at Chapman Lake you can see stunning mountain ranges in the distance. Sure to go down as one of your favourite views of the drive.
It marks the halfway point on the Dempster Highway as the only place on this route with a hotel, bar, restaurant, RV station, and a gas station.
At the Arctic Circle, don’t forget to take your obligatory selfie! There are also several campgrounds from the Arctic Circle up to Inuvik.
Inuvik means “Place of Man” in the Inuvialuit language. It marks the end of Dempster highway. You can find accommodation here or visit the Western Arctic Visitor Information center to learn more about the region.