In November 2017, a brand-new all-season road was opened from the town of Inuvik, NT to the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk, located on the shore of the Arctic Ocean in the northwest territories of Canada. The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway connected the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Ocean, and became the first and only Canadian road to the Arctic Coast.
When we found out about this road, we knew we just had to drive it!
Our journey so far had taken us through a variety of landscapes, climates, histories, and cultures. As we neared the midpoint of our journey, it was now time to GO NORTH as far as the road could take us, to the very edge of the map, and find out what new sights and stories awaited us.
The Dempster Highway
Start point: 39 km/24 miles from Dawson City, YT
End point: Inuvik, NWT
Length: 736 km / 457 miles
Fuel: (distance from Dempster junction, milepost) Dempster Junction – 0 km/ 0 miles Eagle Plains – 365 km / 226 miles Fort McPherson – 547 km / 340 miles Inuvik – 736 km / 457 miles The Dempster highway is an all-gravel highway traversing 736Km of arctic landscape with very limited services at Eagle Plains and Fort McPherson. The road has two free ferry river crossings (Peel River & Mackenzie River) and terminates at the northern town of Inuvik.
This is one of the most remote roads in north America and a safe trip requires some planning. It’s important to make sure your tires are in good condition and you carry a spare or two.
A well-maintained vehicle and supplies for a day or two without support are recommended especially in colder months and if needed spare fuel to be able to make it 500Km or ~300 miles due to the poorer fuel economy you’ll get driving this rough road. Construction on this road was originally started in the 60’s to support oil and gas exploration in the area.
When oil and gas was deemed infeasible construction was stopped, but interest was renewed in the 70’s when oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, AK and the road was completed in 1979 along with an easement for a possible future pipeline.
The road makes its highest elevation pass in tombstone park before descending on a plain and heading for the Blackstone and Ogilvie Mountains. The geography of this road is very unique, with sections of the drive winding through the mountains, following creeks and rivers, and crossing long flat plains. We saw wildlife and unique plants that only exist here in the north.
Tombstone Territorial Park
An hour or so down the road we came to Tombstone Territorial Park. This park is geologically unique and bisects the divide between two watersheds, one flowing to the Beaufort Sea and the other to the Yukon River and out to the Bering Sea.
This is a popular day trip for people visiting Dawson City, and gives folks a taste of the Dempster Highway and the beautiful scenery it traverses. We stopped at the park’s Interpretive Center to explore the exhibits and learn more about the park.
Most of the land the Dempster Highway goes through is land owned by the First Nations tribes that have called this place home for thousands of years. These tribes’ home ranges are roughly located in the same areas as the various massive caribou herds that occupy these lands, as they have been a major food source for generations.
As part of the Land Claims Agreements between Canada and the First Nations tribes, Tombstone Territorial Park was created to protect these lands from future development, while still allowing their use for recreation by the public. The park offers access to backcountry hiking, camping, mountaineering, a few front-country trails and a campground.
At the Visitors Center we were also loaned a guide book that would share information about the road and points of interest, from here all the way to Inuvik. This guide was awesome, and we would HIGHLY recommend you read through it before or during your trip as you drive.
You can find it online FREE here (download to have offline): >>> The DEMPSTER HIGHWAY Travelogue
One section of the drive has noticeable bright red-colored rocks on the hillsides and creeks with bright orange-brown stains in the mud and surrounding vegetation. This area is highly mineralized and as water percolates through limestone, gypsum, and sulfide-bearing sediments it dissolves parts of the rock that end up in the water. These waters are high in magnesium, bicarbonates, sulfate, hydrogen sulfide and chlorine.
In this area, sheep are common as they come to drink the water or lick the mineral-rich hillsides to add calcium and magnesium to their diets. We saw sheep everywhere here!
Further on the road climbs 7-mile hill up to the top of the 200km wide Eagle Plain, an elevated sandstone plain of gently rolling hills. At 370Km into the drive, we came to our first glimpse of human settlement, Eagle Plains. Here you can get fuel, or stay the night at the hotel.
We stopped in to check out the hotel and look over the pictures on the wall that illustrate famous sagas of the past from this area including the Mad Trapper of Rat River and the Lost Patrol. This hotel’s construction presented a challenge in the 70s when it was built due to the permafrost.
The engineers located the hotel here as they found a section of bedrock at the surface allowing the hotel to be constructed without the use of costly pilings.
Richardson Mountains & the Northwest Territories
From here the road winds into the Richardson Mountains which presented as a beautiful treeless alpine landscape. Because we were so far north the treeline was very low and even the slightest elevation made it a challenge for trees to take root.
As we crested the top of the mountain pass we were greeted with the welcome to the Northwest Territories sign! The sign provided lots of information on the NWT and encouraged visitors to do some hiking off the road if the weather was fair.
Mackenzie River Lowlands
From the NWT border the road begins to descend into the Mackenzie Lowlands where the mountains and alpine tundra disappeared behind us. Here the road settled into a lowland of boreal forest spotted with lakes. Because of all the water, here we started to deal with terribly thick mosquitoes (and flies) and we were living in our bug-repellent clothing and making quick entrances and exits from the RV to try and keep the bugs out.
This area is so low and flat because it is the river valley and beginning of the Mackenzie River Delta. Two ferry crossings are made in this area, first the smaller Peel River that utilized a cabled ferry, then the mighty Mackenzie river that utilizes a large double-ended ferry.
Both ferries are free, and were easy to use. In the winter months Ice bridges are used in place of the ferries, but there are periods in the spring and fall when the ice is too thin and the ferry cannot run. At these times the rivers cannot be traversed.
The town of Inuvik was a planned community constructed by the government of Canada in the 50’s to provide a centralized location for government and modern amenities to the native communities of the northern northwest territories.
Over the years the town has been supported by a number of different economies including, defense, petrochemical exploration, police and government, healthcare, education, minor tourism, and going into future communications.
Inuvik lies far enough north that its location is ideal for ground relay stations for polar-orbiting satellites and has many satellite ground stations around the town. A fiber line that was completed in 2017 now provides the town with high-speed data communications for satellite downlinks. Subsequently, this northern community now has blazing-fast internet and cell service, which we were not expecting to find this far north, but took full advantage of during our stay.
Find out how we stayed connected in the North HERE: Connectivity in Canada & Alaska
Inuvik is technically the end of the Dempster Highway. Now, the new Inuvik-Tuktotyaktuk Highway (that’s a mouthful, isn’t it?) completes the final leg of one’s journey to the Arctic Ocean. In the fall of 2017, the construction of the new road connecting Inuvik to the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean was completed.
This road is the first all-season road to the arctic coast in Canada. Prior to this road, summer access was limited to plane and boat traffic, and an ice road was constructed each winter on the Mackenzie River to connect the town, but now anyone can drive this 138km/86mi road to the top of the continent.
We Made It! Tuktoyaktuk
Tuktoyaktuk, or Tuk for short, is a hamlet community of primarily Inuvialuit people. Transportation, oil & gas, and defense industries hold a presence in the town, but fishing, whaling, trapping, and hunting caribou for subsistence is still a big part of life here.
After making our way through town, our first stop was at the Arctic Ocean.
When we were there, Tuk was still working on figuring out how to handle the new breed of tourists that the road was bringing in. They had just put in a few designated RV spots right along the Arctic Ocean, and while they were a bit pricey at $60CAD per night for dry camping, we took the opportunity to stay in one for the night.
Aside from the mosquitoes, staying here was an incredible experience. Being so far above the arctic circle in the summer, the sun never even made it near the horizon and we stayed up until 3 in the morning when the sun started to rise again.
Land of the Pingos
Tuktoyaktuk is the Land of the Pingos! It is home to the Pingo National Landmark of Canada that protects 8 of these mounds of earth and ice. As leftover water from a lake freezes, it expands and pushes upward.
This one behind us is the Ibyuk Pingo – Canada’s largest pingo, second in the world to Alaska’s Kadleroshilik Pingo near Prudhoe Bay. Ibyuk stands at about 49m/161ft, is growing at about 2cm per year and is estimated to be about 1,000 years old!
The landmark has a boardwalk that gets close to these, but requires a boat to access. We joined a few other travelers who had an inflatable kayak and Although our paddleboard was really only designed for one, we made it work with both of us to get out and see these pingos!
Arctic Ocean Plunge
After our paddle adventure there was one final thing we had to do before leaving: take a dip in the Arctic Ocean.
It was exhilarating – we couldn’t really believe we had really done it after talking about it for over a year!
Yes, it was chilly. But we had a toasty warm RV and a long hot shower waiting for us, thanks to our Truma appliances! We had cranked the VarioHeat furnace up to 79 degrees and the AquaGo water heater was set to ‘Comfort’ mode (check out Why We Love Our Truma AquaGo for more details) so we had as much hot water as we wanted (after this we drove back to Inuvik where we could dump and refill our tanks). These things definitely helped us make the plunge!
Boondocking Along the Dempster
As we made our slow way back south, we enjoyed the many amazing boondocking spots available to us. There aren’t very many places that have hookups, and besides one night where we had electricity in Inuvik (it was only a couple dollars more than dry camping at the Happy Valley Territorial Park), we were able to live off-grid for the entire time, generator-free, thanks to our Battle Born Batteries!
Learn more about our Battle Born Lithium-Ion Battery set up here: Truck Camper Lithium + Alternator Charging These quiet, peaceful places provided some of our fondest memories of the trip, like paddle-boarding with the dogs on the Ogilvie River, and fly fishing for Arctic Grayling on the Blackstone River.
As the pinnacle and centerpiece of our northern travels so far, we exited the Dempster Highway after nearly three weeks of touring feeling exuberant and humbled by the experience. We were so pleased that our planning and vehicle build had lived up to and exceeded our hopes and expectations in delivering us back to the start safe and sound, with memories that would last a lifetime!
The Go North Expedition is made possible by Lance Camper Manufacturing, Battle Born Batteries, Truma North America, Dometic, LivinLite.net, Hellwig Suspension Products, and viewers like you through Patreon. Thank you!
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