A True Arctic Road-Trip
The Dempster Highway is Canada's road to the top of the world. It crosses the Arctic Circle and winds through some of the most beautiful and remote wilderness scenery in North America. Starting outside Dawson City, Yukon, and stretching 740 km to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, the Dempster is an all-weather gravel road with two ferry crossings. There are six campgrounds on the Northwest Territories portion of the Dempster and three visitor centres. The best time for reliable driving weather is June through September, when the days are long and warm.
The Dempster Highway threads through the mountains north of Dawson, Yukon, then crosses an alpine plain. There's fuel, a campground and hotel at Eagle Plains, about halfway to Inuvik. From Eagle Plains it is a short drive to the Arctic Circle! From this point north you are truly in the Land of the Midnight Sun for 57 days each summer. Fort McPherson, near the Peel River ferry crossing, has a long history of trade and settlement. Explore that story at the Nitainlaii Park Visitor Centre. Visitors are welcome at the Fort McPherson Canvas Shop, a maker of traditional canvas tents and other canvas goods. Tsiigehtchic, at the confluence of the Mackenzie and the Arctic Red Rivers, offers a magnificent panoramic view of the rivers. You can choose a side trip on the ferry to Tsiigehtchic, or stay on the Dempster route, headed for Inuvik. Stop en route to Inuvik at Gwich'in Territorial Park for a picnic, a paddle and some fishing on beautiful Campbell Lake. Inuvik has two campgrounds and a range of visitor services, including well-organized tour services. Plan on taking a flightseeing tour over the Mackenzie Delta, or to Tuktoyaktuk and Aklavik.
Here's what you need to know:
How long does it take to drive?
On average it will take between 12-16 hours each way. Count on at least two days of driving, or more depending on the stops you make along the way. Take your time as you drive through the Ogilvie and Richardson Mountains, and stop to visit the Arctic hamlets of Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic.
What are the road conditions?
The Dempster Highway is an all-season road, but be sure to check in with the visitors centres in Dawson City or Inuvik for the latest road condition updates. The speed limit is 70 kilometres per hour on much of the route. There are two river crossings, with free ferry service in the summer and fall, and winter ice bridges. During spring breakup and fall freeze-up, the rivers are impassible. The GNWT Department of Transportation provides historical opening and closing dates for the ferries and ice bridges so that you can time your trip.
Updated road conditions and warnings are available by checking the Highway Conditions Website or by calling 1-800-661-0750.
Know the RCMP numbers in case of emergency assistance:
Dawson City: 867-993-2677
Fort McPherson: 867-952-1111
What services are available along the highway?
There are only two places to purchase gas along the highway: at km 369 at Eagle Plains, and at km 85.4 at Fort McPherson. It is wise to carry a good supply of water, as the only source of water enroute may be a nearby stream.
There is no cellular service along the highway. However, you can rent a satellite phone in Whitehorse if you want to maintain contact with the outside world.
Is your vehicle road-ready?
- Make sure your car or truck is in good working order
- Check the weather conditions and pack appropriately: extra warm clothes, sleeping bags and bug spray
- Pack extra food and water and be sure to gas up at Dawson City, Eagle Plains and Fort McPherson. Fuel stations are few and far between
- Things to carry: extra fuel, a spare tire (or two), jumper cables, first aid kit, tow rope, axe, knife and candles
Be prepared to spend a night along the highway, in case of an emergency
When you're out on the road
Wear your seatbelt and keep headlights on. Be aware of changing conditions and drive with caution. Reduce your speed around other vehicles as it will minimize the chance that flying rocks will damage your windshield, and wait for a dust free passing zone to pass slower vehicles. Share your travel plans with others and check in so they know you've reached your destination safely.
If you do experience a vehicle breakdown and can't make contact, flag down another vehicle for assistance, or watch for Highways vehicles, since they do patrol this road. Most truckers will also stop to assist you.
Watch for animals crossing the road. The occasional caribou or bear could be on the road. If the animal is blocking the road, stop and wait for it to move. While waiting, stay in, or very close to your vehicle, particularly if you encounter a bear.
When you come to the end of the road
Inuvik, is the terminus of the spectacular Dempster Highway, but you have the option to continue on the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway all the way to the Arctic Ocean.
What to do along the way:
Time your drive for late July and you'll be in Dawson in time for the famous Dawson City Music Festival.
Tombstone Territorial Park has a number of hikes that range in difficulty from easy stroll to grueling-but-satisfying trek.
Fort McPherson's Midway Lake Music Festival takes place on the August long weekend and is a great family-friendly festival.
Much of the NWT portion of the Dempster Highway winds its way through Gwich'in lands. Take the time to learn about the Gwich'in people who have lived in this area for millennia.
Go cranberry-picking along the trails at Gwich'in and J'ak Territorial Parks in September. (The best time to pick cranberries is just after the first frost)
If you visit in the late summer or early fall, you can watch the Aurora dance over the highway.
Participate in the Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik in mid-July to watch world-class Indigenous art from all over the North and see some excellent dance performances as well.
Where to stay:
The Dempster route is an iconic road trip, perfect for RVing. It also offers a number of locations to pitch your tent and enjoy a long Arctic evening.
Dawson City is a community of 1,375 with a number of hotels, cabins and campgrounds. Check out your options on DawsonCity.ca.
After driving about two hours, you'll reach Tombstone Territorial Park. There's an interpretive centre and campground. You won't find a B&B, but you can park your RV or set up your tent and take a day to explore the trails in this beautiful mountain area.
Your next stop on the highway is Eagle Plains at km 371. This is halfway to Inuvik! Set up camp for the night and gas up before setting off for the rest of your drive.
The next community you'll reach is Fort McPherson. At this point, you'll have already crossed the Arctic Circle, the NWT border, stopped to do some fishing and taken the Abraham Francis Ferry over the Peel River, so it's a good opportunity to take a break from the road. Camp at Nitainlaii Territorial Park or stay at the Peel River Inn. While in Fort McPherson get a hot meal, pick up some groceries at the Co-op and as always, gas up.
At km 142.6, there's a major ferry crossing at the junction of the Arctic Red and Mackenzie rivers, with potential for a side trip to Tsiigehtchic. Continuing to Inuvik, the vast Gwich'in Territorial Park offers non-powered sites, trails and excellent facilities.
If you need to plug-in your RV, head for scenic Jak Territorial Park with panoramic views just outside Inuvik.
Once you reach Inuvik, you'll be in the largest community in the Western Arctic. Inuvik offers a number of dining and accommodation options, and has an in-town campground (Happy Valley Territorial Park) overlooking the Mackenzie River. Stop in at the Western Arctic Visitor Centre to learn about activities, services and events in Inuvik and the surrounding area.