Travelling the Dempster Highway is as iconic of the Northern experience as is watching the Aurora Borealis, photographing a grizzly bear, or gazing at the majestic peaks of Kluane. It is a must-see, an experience not to be missed.
If exploring the Dempster Highway, the only highway in Canada that takes you across the Arctic Circle, is on your bucket list, these travel tips are for you. If travelling the Dempster is not on your bucket list, consider revising your list.
Named for the North-West Mounted Police officer William Dempster, who discovered the tragic fate of the Lost Patrol, the highway crosses the northern part of the Yukon, passing by the jagged Tombstone mountains, and across and the western part of the Northwest Territories. Once in the Northwest Territories, the highway encounters both the Peel and the mighty Mackenzie Rivers, to eventually culminate at the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Here are some helpful hints on staying safe while travelling along the Dempster Highway to experience some of the wonders of the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
Dempster Highway travel tips for the uninitiated.
1) Make a plan. Services are sparse (one gas station for the first 369 kilometres on the Dempster). Be prepared. Have a realistic idea of how far you can travel and where you will stay. Other than camping, there is very little accommodation. Do your homework.
2) Gather information. Talk to your friends and others who have made the journey. Get an idea of what to expect.
3) Be prepared. Travel with a supply of food and water, as well as warm clothing. Even in the summer, the weather can change rapidly. We were in Tuktoyaktuk at the beginning of August and there was a windchill that pushed temps below zero. .
4) Take your time. The journey is your destination, after all. Savour it. There is much to explore. Fabulous scenery to enjoy at almost every turn. Take the time to experience the adventure fully.
5) Stop in at the Tombstone Interpretative Centre. This is located 75 kilometres from the start of the Dempster. They have interesting displays, great information and, if you have not already downloaded your Dempster Highway Travelogue, they can lend you one to drop off on your way back down. The travelogue outlines points of interest kilometre by kilometre. You can download and print your copy of the Dempster Highway Travelogue here: https://yukon.ca/en/dempster-highway-travelogue
6) If you are camping along the way, understand that government campsites do not accept reservations, and are filled on a first come-first served basis, which might mean you have to drive for shorter stretches.
7) Stop at the restaurant at Eagle Plains. The food is great and you will need to fill your gas tanks anyway. Ask for your Arctic Circle certificate in the restaurant.
8) In Fort McPherson visit the cemetery where members of the tragic Lost Patrol are buried. Don’t forget to check out the assortment of canvas products at the Fort McPherson Tent and Canvas factory.
9) Drive for the road conditions and take your time. A dry gravel road will allow you to move faster than one that has been rained on. Heavy rain can turn the once-friendly road into a greasy mess.
10) If you make it all the way to Inuvik, the previous end of the road, stop in at the Western Arctic Interpretative Centre, to take in the displays and get your Northwest Territories Arctic Circle certificate. What is the point of taking the road less travelled if you don’t have proof of the adventure?
11) Slow down on the new road between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. The road winds between lakes and ponds and makes its way across the Arctic tundra. You will be able to see oncoming traffic a long way off, but drive with care.
12) Watch for wildlife along the way. You can see anything from moose to bears to caribou. The fellow who loaded us on the ferry told us about a muskox that had wandered into the area and likely ended up in someone’s stew pot. I was awestruck by a pair of sandhill cranes that landed on the road in front of us near Eagle Plains. My favourite sighting, however, was the arctic terns flying to the south pole. They are as fast as fighter jets and in flight looked to me like maple leaves tumbling in the wind. Awesome.
13) Don’t forget extra batteries and memory cards for the camera. You won’t believe how many pictures you’ll take.
14) Tell people where you are going and where you plan to be along the way. There is no cell coverage for hundreds of kilometres. Depending on the time of year, other travelers can be few and far between.
15) Learn about pingos, the dome-shaped hills formed in permafrost areas. You will see good examples near Tuktoyaktuk.
16) Be respectful of local residents. This is their home. You might find them in uninhabited areas, hunting or picking berries.
The Dempster Highway patiently waits to show you its secrets and pristine vistas. From the jagged peaks of the Tombstone mountains beckoning in the distance to the might of the Mackenzie River as it rushes to the Arctic Ocean. Crossing the Ogilvie and Richardson mountain ranges, to eventually arrive at the tundra of the Mackenzie Delta. It is an accessible, unforgettable journey that will allow you to taste the untamed wilderness that few have the privilege to experience.