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Driving the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Ocean

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! ​

Road to the Arctic Ocean, Driving the Dempster Highway to Tuktoyaktuk | Go North Ep 12

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

Map of Dempster Highway
We drove the Dempster Highway from Dawson City to The Arctic ocean

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 that 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 500 km or ~300 miles due to the poorer fuel economy you’ll get driving this rough road.

History of the Dempster

Construction on this road was originally started in the 60s to support oil and gas exploration in the area. When oil and gas were deemed infeasible, construction was stopped, but interest was renewed in the 70s when oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, AK, and the road was completed in 1979 along with an easement for a possible future pipeline.

Driving the Dempster Highway in the summer
A summer drive along the dempster highway is spectacular

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.

Tombstone Park Sigh
The entrance to Tombstone Territorial Park is along the Dempster Highway

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 cuts through. We stopped at the park’s Interpretive Center to explore the exhibits and learn more about the park.

The First Nations peoples still own most of the land the Dempster Highway goes through. They have called this place home for thousands of years. These peoples’ home ranges are roughly located in the same areas as the massive caribou herds living on these lands, as they have been a major food source for generations. 

The Land Claims Agreements between Canada and the First Nations peoples created Tombstone Territorial Park. It protects these lands from future development while allowing their use for public recreation. The park offers access to backcountry hiking, camping, mountaineering, a few front-country trails, and a campground.

Fireweed in the arctic
Fireweed in Tombstone Park

​At the Visitors Center, they loaned us a guidebook that would share information about the road and points of interest from here all the way to Inuvik. This guide was awesome, and we 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

Red Creek

One section of the drive has noticeable bright red-colored rocks on the hillsides and creeks. You will see 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.

Milky colored River in the arctic
This river along the Dempster highway ran milky with naturally occurring chemicals and minerals

In this area, sheep are common. 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!

Dempster Highway summer

Eagle Plains

Further on the road climbs a 7-mile hill up to the top of the 200km wide Eagle Plain, an elevated sandstone plain of gently rolling hills. At 370 km 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. Inside, you can 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. The permafrost made this hotel’s construction a challenge in the 1970s.

The engineers located the hotel here as they found a section of bedrock at the surface. This allowed the hotel to be constructed without the use of costly pilings.

Pro Tip: Check out our ‘Go North’ Alaska Itinerary for help planning your own Alaskan adventure.

Hotel at Eagle Plains
Parked in front of the Eagle Plains Hotel along the Dempster Highway
mad trapper info sign along Dempster hwy

Richardson Mountains & the Northwest Territories

From here, the road winds into the Richardson Mountains, which presents a beautiful treeless alpine landscape. Because we were so far north, the treeline was very low. Even the slightest elevation made it a challenge for trees to take root.

Spectacular view from dempster highway
You get amazing views of the Arctic tundra along the Dempster Highway.

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.

Northwest territories sign
Welcome to the Northwest Territories sign!

Mackenzie River Lowlands

From the NWT border, the road begins to descend into the Mackenzie Lowlands, where the mountains and alpine tundra disappear behind you. Here, the road settled into a lowland of boreal forest spotted with lakes. Because of all the water, we started dealing with terribly thick mosquitoes (and flies). We were living in our bug-repellent clothing. We learned how to make 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 the beginning of the Mackenzie River Delta. You’ll make two ferry crossings in this area. First, the smaller Peel River utilizes a cabled ferry. Then, the mighty Mackenzie River utilizes a large double-ended ferry. 

Both ferries are free and 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.

Crossing the Mackenzie river
Ferries are used to cross both the Mackenzie and Olgilve rivers

Inuvik

The town of Inuvik was a planned community built by the Canadian government in the 1950s. Its purpose was to provide a central location for government and modern amenities to the native communities of the northern Northwest Territories.

welcome to Inuvik NWT
Welcome to Inuvik Sign

Over the years, the town has been supported by several different economies. These include defense, petrochemical exploration, police and government, healthcare, education, minor tourism, and communications.

Inuvik lies far enough north that its location is ideal for ground relay stations for polar-orbiting satellites. It 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-Tuktoyaktuk Highway

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 the journey to the Arctic Ocean. In the fall of 2017, the construction of the new road that connects 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. An ice road was built each winter on the Mackenzie River to connect the town. But now, anyone can drive this 138 km/86 mile road to the top of the continent.

Tuktoyaktuk sign

We Made It! Tuktoyaktuk

Tuktoyaktuk, or Tuk for short, is a hamlet community of mostly Inuvialuit people. Transportation, oil & gas, and defense industries hold a presence in the town. But fishing, whaling, trapping, and hunting caribou for food is still a big part of life here.

After making our way through town, our first stop was at the Arctic Ocean.

Sign at the Arctic ocean
Just in case you were not sure where you were, they put a sign 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 brought in. They had just put in a few designated RV spots right along the Arctic Ocean. 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. We stayed up until 3 in the morning when the sun started to rise again.

Expedition Truck Camper Camped on Arctic ocean
Our Expedition Truck camper allowed us to camp right on the Arctic Ocean.

Land of the Pingos

​Tuktoyaktuk is the Land of the Pingos! It is home to the Pingo National Landmark of Canada, which 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 in the photo below is the Ibyuk Pingo. This is Canada’s largest pingo, second in the world to Alaska’s Kadleroshilik Pingo near Prudhoe Bay. Ibyuk stands at about 49m/161ft. It is growing at about 2cm per year and is estimated to be about 1,000 years old!

Pingo in northern Canada
Posed with the pingos! Ibyuk pingo is the larger one on the left.

The landmark has a wooden walkway that gets close to these but requires a boat to access. We joined a few other travelers who had an inflatable kayak. 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.

Swimming in Arctic Ocean
Swimming 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 water heater and furnace! We had cranked the VarioHeat furnace up to 79 degrees and the AquaGo water heater was set to ‘Comfort’ mode. So, we had as much hot water as we wanted. 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 many places that have hookups, and besides one night where we had electricity in Inuvik, we could live off-grid for the entire time, generator-free, thanks to our Battle Born Batteries! 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.

Pro Tip: Learn more about our Battle Born Lithium-Ion Battery set up here: Truck Camper Lithium + Alternator Charging.

Battle Born Batteries at the Arctic Ocean

As the high point of our northern travels so far, we exited the Dempster Highway after nearly three weeks. We felt fulfilled and humbled by the experience. We were so pleased that our planning and vehicle build lived up to and gone beyond expectations. It delivered us back to the start, safe and sound, with memories that would last a lifetime!

fly fishing blackstone river
Fly fishing the Blackstone River

The Go North Expedition is made possible by Lance Camper ManufacturingBattle Born BatteriesTruma North AmericaDometicLivinLite.netHellwig Suspension Products, and viewers like you through Patreon. Thank you!

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About Tom and Caitlin Morton

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for Hwy.co and an Arizona travel guide.

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Kevin R

Thursday 31st of December 2020

Great video and well written recap.

Thanks for sharing with us all and doing it in such a well respectable way. We need to cherish these new frontiers. I'm hoping to bring my family up here in 2021, once travel is deemed permitted again.

Mortons on the Move

Thursday 31st of December 2020

Thank you, Kevin! :)

jai

Thursday 26th of March 2020

Amazing and wonderful video, all your videos are great. Exceptionally great this Arctic one. Wonder you can tell a little more about the truck tires that you had and how it turned out to be? I am planning on a trip to North myself in my AWD suv with a over-landing arctic rated tent. Due to the covid-19 I might have a late start.

Caitlin Morton

Sunday 29th of March 2020

I believe they were Michelin LTXs. They were very new, only had ~4000 miles on them when we started the trip. Hope you're able to make your trip this year with everything going on. Best wishes

Nicole Lewis

Wednesday 4th of March 2020

What time of year did you go up here? We are planning to do this trip summer of 2021 in August.

Caitlin Morton

Thursday 5th of March 2020

Hi Nicole, Check out our FAQ page https://www.mortonsonthemove.com/gonorthfaq.html we answer this in Q #3 :)

Bruce Bowens

Tuesday 22nd of October 2019

Love all your videos and particularly your Go North series . We are planning to go to Alaska & Canada in June 2020 in our 35' 5th wheel, including the Dempster Hwy to the Artic Ocean. I am interested to know while you have reaped the benefits of a truck camper on your trip, knowing what you have experienced, would you do it in your 5th wheel and be able to find boondocking spots for such a rig? Thanks, keep up the great work. Peace & Happy travels.

Caitlin Morton

Monday 28th of October 2019

Hey Bruce, while very possible to find boondocking for a fifth wheel of that size (very similar to ours) there would naturally be fewer options and/or not as tucked away. We personally would not do it in our fifth wheel due to what we know now about the various roads, and that was always our plan to do it in a truck camper. We'd definitely change our route if we ever did take a 5er. We did see one fifthwheel on the Dempster, and in following them on instagram they had quite the issue with dust in the rig from that trip! Safe travels and have a great time!

Francine

Sunday 22nd of September 2019

Congratz! You did it. As we watch your new vlogs we are concurrently watching your solar install series as we just bought 8 ( lightly used) Valence 12v 138 ah batteries with BMS systems.We are now looking at installing solar and needed components. We have printed out your diagrams and working from there. We could really use your recommendations as we have some questions as we are planning on installing on our 5th wheel and taking to the road for 6 months at the end of Oct. Tom-please email us.

Caitlin Morton

Monday 28th of October 2019

Hello Francine! Thanks so much for watch and so glad you're finding the info useful for your own solar installation. Unfortunately, Tom doesn't do solar consultations anymore as we've both been 100% focused on the Go North project this year. We've been recommending people contact AM Solar or OTG Camper for help.