DRIVE THE DEMPSTER HIGHWAY
The Dempster Highway is a two-lane, gravel surfaced, all-weather road that follows a route traditionally used by Indigenous people for thousands of years. It passes through the territories of the Han, Gwichin, and Inuvialuit peoples, starting near Dawson City, Yukon, and finishing in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. From jagged mountain peaks to vast tundra, unglaciated Beringia to drunken forests, you’ll traverse some truly stunning landscapes, making the Dempster Highway one of the most epic drives in Canada.
Construction of the Dempster Highway began in 1959 as a part of the Roads to Resources program, but wasn’t completed until 20 years later, in 1979. Local First Nations consultants were an important part of the project, sharing their first-hand knowledge of the land and the route. The road is built on a gravel berm that insulates the permafrost below, slowing down melt, which would cause the road to sink.
The highway begins 40 kilometers south of Dawson City, first passing through the North Klondike river valley. Tombstone Territorial Park is an easy hour and a half drive from Dawson, where you can spend a night or two in the campground, visit the beautiful interpretive center there, and hike one of the trails, bringing you close to the beauty that surrounds you. Just past the campground on the highway, there’s a pullout on the left hand side, where you can get a clear view down the valley to the iconic Mount Monolith.
Don’t stop there, though! As you reach the northern edge of the park, you’ll cross the Blackstone Uplands, an area covered in dwarf willow and birch, dotted with ponds and alive with wildlife. This is an excellent place for birdwatching, so keep your binoculars or camera handy! Watch for falcons and gyrfalcons, plus the many songbirds, ducks, geese and shorebirds that nest on the tundra in the short summer season.
Marmots, pika, grizzly bears and Dall sheep are common sights on the rocky mountainsides. The Dempster also passes through the winter range of the Porcupine caribou herd: they’re a common sight from September to May. In the summer months they head further north to their calving grounds on the Beaufort Sea. Please remember to keep wildlife wild, and observe only from a safe distance.
Your travels will soon take you to the Arctic Circle, 400 kilometers up the highway. This is the only road in Canada which crosses the Arctic Circle! Truly the land of the midnight sun, in mid-summer it never sets here. Marvel as it dips low on the horizon and then ascends back into the brilliant sky. Stop for a photo at the interpretive panel, where you can read about the Gwichin people, the midnight sun, and permafrost. From here, the highway takes you to the Northwest Territories border and eventually ends in Inuvik. From there, you can continue your journey into the heart of the Arctic along the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, a new all-weather road that takes you to the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
As you plan for your Dempster odyssey, it’s important to know that you’ll be passing through remote territory. Flat tires are a common occurrence, especially farther north where there can be lots of sharp shale on the road, so make sure to have a spare. Gas up before leaving Dawson City, because the next rest stop is over 300 kilometers away at Eagle Plains! You can download a detailed Dempster Highway Travelogue here. It’s a must-have resource for what is sure to be a road trip to remember!