Looking for the road less travelled? You've found it.
The Western Arctic region of the Northwest Territories is as far as you go can go by car – to the edge of the map, to the top of the world, to the core of your dreams.
First, the famous Dempster Highway carries you 737 wild kilometres from the historic Klondike, across the Arctic Circle, through the Richardson Mountains, and into the mysterious Mackenzie Delta. Then the 138-kilometre "Tuk Highway" takes you the rest of the way – the first-ever road to the Arctic Ocean. It's the greatest adventure you can have while sitting down.
Here's 14 reasons why you should drive it now.
The Arctic Circle is a line of lore and legend – and the Western Arctic is the only place in Canada where you can reach it by road. At this scenic pull-off on the Dempster Highway you can watch the sun spin itself dizzy in the sky, never falling below the horizon. You’ve now crossed into the true polar zone, a mythic region only a fraction of the travellers on Earth have ever entered.
The roads of the Western Arctic pass through a polar Serengeti – wild, wide-open country, teeming with frontier beasts. Keep your eyes peeled for grizzlies patrolling the mountain slopes, moose plodding through swamplands, beluga whales in brackish lakes and estuaries, and, at certain times of year, herds of caribou so dense they block the highway and darken the far horizon.
Also known as Teetł'it Zheh, meaning “the place at the head of the waters,” this is the first town you’ll encounter when driving into the Western Arctic. Populated by welcoming Gwich’in, Fort McPherson is set in the rolling Richardson foothills along the Peel River, a popular paddling route. Don’t miss the graves of the Lost Patrol – four Mounties who died en route to Dawson City in the terrible winter of 1911.
For road-trippers, the Western Arctic offers campgrounds galore. There are two in Inuvik – Ja’k, with an observation tower and prime bird-watching, and Happy Valley, situated on a bluff overlooking the Mackenzie River and Richardson Mountains. Vadzaih Van Tshik Campground, Gwich’in Territorial Campground and Nitainlaii Territorial Park all serve travellers on the Dempster Highway. The latter perches on a cliff overlooking the Peel River; its visitor centre offers a fascinating glimpse of the life of Gwich’in people past and present.
Hard to pronounce but easy to love, Tsiigehtchic is stationed atop a commanding bluff at the confluence of the Mackenzie and Arctic Red Rivers. It’s a tiny Gwich’in town steeped in traditional fishing, hunting and trapping. It’s a worthwhile stop for Dempster Highway travellers, who can stroll the riverbanks, stop in at the new visitor centre, and check out the picturesque, 80-year-old church.
What’s the best way to glimpse the Northern Lights? Drive out of town, far from the glare of streetlights, and watch the sky erupt in a glowing nocturnal dance. First, of course, you need some darkness in the sky - and for this region, that means late in August and into September. The Western Arctic offers an array of roads that will get you face-to-face with the spectacle of the Aurora, including the Dempster, where the lights shimmer over the Richardson Range, and the new Tuk Highway, where the tundra glitters beneath the haunting celestial show.
As Canada’s longest river approaches the Arctic Ocean it splits into a labyrinth of creeks and channels, forming one of the richest ecosystems in the North. Drivers can glimpse local wildlife and birds, check out traditional hunting-and-fishing camps, and hear legends and tales about the old days when locals were nomadic and roamed the delta year-round.
The Western Arctic’s regional hub, this busy town was engineered in the late 1950s as the territory’s first “planned” community. Today it’s a vibrant mix of some 3,500 Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and non-Native residents, all gathered on the boreal flats along the easternmost channel of the Mackenzie Delta. There’s a rich visitor industry: hotels, restaurants, galleries and a variety of tour providers.
If you’re here in July, revel in the displays and activities at Inuvik’s remarkable Great Northern Arts Festival. The event draws hundreds of artists and performers from around the polar world. Inuvik hosts other great celebrations, including the Sunrise Festival in January and the Muskrat Jamboree in April. Other Western Arctic towns boast fun fests featuring dancing, dog-sled racing, country-food feasts and more.
At Fort McPherson be sure to visit the famous Tent and Canvas Shop, source of heavy-duty trapper’s tents, satchels and souvenirs. In Inuvik you’ll find gift shops offering Gwich’in and Inuvialuit artworks, clothing and crafts. Treat yourself to a handy crescent-shaped ulu knife, a pair of plush beaded mittens, or even a stunning Mother Hubbard-style parka with a sunburst hood.
Possibly the North’s most iconic, most photographed structure, the Our Lady of Victory church in downtown Inuvik is a bleach-white cylinder capped by a silvery dome, imitating the Inuvialuit snow-houses of old. The inside features paintings by local artist Mona Thrasher.
Our biggest town above the treeline, “Tuk” juts boldly into the Arctic Ocean. Over the years it has served as a base for Inuvialuit caribou- and beluga-hunting, a DEW Line radar site, and a centre of oil and gas exploration. Today it welcomes visitors, who tour the nearby “pingo” hills, sample traditional foods (like muktuk!), and, of course, cool their heels in the chilly Arctic Ocean.
The Mackenzie Delta has the world’s highest concentration of pingos – bizarre ice-cored hills erupting from the tundra like Coke cans bulging ominously in the freezer. Eight pingos, including the famous 15-storey-high Ibyuk Pingo, are protected by Parks Canada in Pingo National Landmark just outside Tuktoyaktuk. Their scenic summits are a popular destination for hikers.
Thanks to the new Tuk Highway, the Western Arctic is the first and only place in North America where you can drive to the fabled Arctic Ocean. Here, on the coast of the Northwest Passage, it’s a tradition to go for a little splash. Some folks just dip their toe in the bracing waves. Others go for full immersion – a brief, brisk swim in the world’s most celebrated sea.