The Dempster Highway (Yukon Highway 5 and NWT Highway 8) begins 40 km east of Dawson City off the Klondike Highway. Whether you’re in Dawson City for a music festival, Moosehide Gathering, or to bask in Klondike Gold Rush history, take some time to enjoy this community on the banks of the Yukon River.
Being prepared is the most important part of your Dempster road trip. Fuel up, make sure your vehicle is in good working order, carry a spare tire or two and a jerry can of emergency gas, and pick up your favourite road trip snacks, as there are no grocery stores until you reach Fort McPherson. Before you leave Dawson City, check in with the NWT’s Dempster Delta Visitor Information Centre on Front Street in Dawson City. If you plan to do a little fishing once you cross into the Northwest Territories, ask about fishing licences at the visitor centre.
The first stop heading north is Tombstone Territorial Park, an easy 72 km drive. Set up camp for the day or night and take in the view of Tombstone Mountain. Marked trails and a visitor centre are attractions.
When you’re ready to get rolling again, your next stop is North Fork Pass at kilometre 82. At 1,298 m, this is the highest elevation point of the highway.
Engineer Creek Campground at kilometre 194 is a good option if you’re ready to settle in for the evening and you’re in search of amenities like water and a kitchen shelter.
Cross the Ogilvie River Bridge on your way to Ogilvie-Peel Viewpoint. Stop to stretch your legs and take in the sweeping vista. Carrying on towards Eagle Plains, you can observe the “Drunken Forest” where melting permafrost gives jack pine and black spruce a less than upright appearance.
At kilometre 369, you’ve reached Eagle Plains, which means you are halfway to Inuvik! Take a well-deserved rest at the lodge and try out its licensed restaurant and lounge. There is also a full-service garage if you need to make any repairs. Plug in your RV or pitch a tent and relax for the evening.
Just past Eagle Plains, 405 km into your journey, you cross the Arctic Circle. This is perhaps the most important photo op of the trip at the famous Arctic Circle signpost. Carry on for another 60 km until you reach another signpost, the NWT border, where the Dempster log starts again at NWT kilometer 0. Get out and stretch your legs.
If you’re an avid angler, you’ll want to make a stop at James Creek, 14 km further along the route. There is excellent grayling fishing if you’re looking to catch your own dinner (get your NWT fishing licence online in advance). If you’ve planned this road trip for the August long weekend, stop at Midway Lake, for the annual music festival. Midway Lake is 44 km north of the Yukon/NWT border.
If sweeping views are more your thing, keep driving until you reach NWT kilometre 71 and Tetlit Gwinjik Territorial Day Use Area. This lookout spot provides a sweeping view of the Richardson Mountains, Mackenzie Delta and Fort McPherson.
Drive another few kilometres to reach a favourite part of the road trip, the ferry! The Abraham Francis Ferry crosses the Peel River to Fort McPherson. The ferry operates from early June to mid-October, 9:15 am-12:45 am on demand. And it’s free. If you’re travelling in the winter an ice road replaces the ferry. Check river crossing conditions at www.inf.gov.nt.ca or by calling 1-800-661-0750.
Nataiilaii Territorial Park is just past the ferry landing. Grab one of 23 non-powered campsites that overlook the Peel River, set in a grove of white birch trees. Elders man a visitor centre here. Accommodation is also available at the inn in Fort McPherson, about 10 km north of the park. Fort McPherson is an historic Gwich’in community, famous as the final resting place of the Lost Patrol. Stop in at the Fort McPherson Tent and Canvas Company for uniquely Northern, not to mention sturdy, canvas bags and backpacks.
There is another free ferry crossing at NWT kilometre 143. The Louis Cardinal Ferry takes you across the mighty Arctic Red and Mackenzie Rivers enroute to Inuvik. The ferry is in service from early June to late October, but check Mackenzie river crossing conditions at Fort McPherson before you start out.
Most visitors like to make a side trip to scenic Tsiigehtchic, midway through the ferry crossing. Just advise the ferry crew if you wish to make the detour. Many of Tsiigehtchic's Gwich’in residents still live a traditional lifestyle of hunting, fishing and trapping. The visitor centre can connect you with local residents and craftspeople. To resume your trip, park at the ferry landing, and the ferry will pick you up to cross the wide Mackenzie River on your way to Inuvik.
Stop at the Rengling River at kilometre 178, to test your skills fishing for feisty Arctic Grayling.
Your next rest stop is Gwich’in Territorial Park an 8,800-hectacre expanse of cliffs, trails, campgrounds, a scenic lake and migratory bird staging area. Take a day or more to explore this beautiful park in the Mackenzie River Delta.
Once you’re back on the highway, you’re practically at the end of the Dempster, which isn’t to say you’re at the end of your Dempster adventure. Continue on to Jak Territorial Park, or head straight into Inuvik to Happy Valley Territorial Park. While in Inuvik, take a guided tour of the town. Visit the Igloo Church, the community greenhouse and take in one of Inuvik’s summer festivals. You can continue the driving adventure as far as the Arctic Ocean on the new Inuvik-Tuk Highway.