Yukon's Highway No. 5 and Northwest Territories Highway No. 8 are better known as the Dempster Highway, a 461-mile (742-kilometer) long gravel road built on permafrost. It's a dead end, a route of extremes—and it’s open for adventure.
This unique road winds its way across the Arctic Circle through a breathtaking and varied landscape of taiga and tundra, over mountain passes and through the Ogilvie and Richardson Mountains. The Dempster Highway is located in one of the only parts of the world where untouched nature still exists—where some of most wild parts of the world can be found right at the roadside. On your way through the wilderness, you will meet bears, moose, wolves and arctic foxes, and you’ll come into contact with the locals who call this lonely region home.
But the track has two faces: When it rains, the road surface turns into a single band of mud. If you are even more unlucky, you will be eaten alive by mosquitoes as you push your bike. And don’t be too thrilled if the sun appears to be shining. This far north, the weather can change at a moment’s notice—so you’d be wise to prepare for the worst.
The starting point of the route is the legendary gold mining town of Dawson City. Eight days later you reach Inuvik, near the Arctic Ocean. In between, you’ll only ever do one of three things: riding, eating or sleeping. If you need a shower, a comfortable bed or a cool beer at regular intervals, this ride is not for you. You're going to be largely on your own. Incrementally, you’ll find simple campsites offering shelter and water, but without a few nights of wild camping, the route is simply not doable on a bike. Therefore, it’s worth bringing a water filter and a mosquito net along for the ride, as well as a rope to tie your food up high in case a furry local visits your camp overnight.
For the extreme outdoor enthusiast who just can’t say no to a challenge, you may also consider covering the route in winter. With a couple of hours of daylight each afternoon and being around -40°C (-40°F) on average, the sights of the northern lights, though utterly breathtaking, will be something hard-earned.
Sound like your type of trip? Then off on your Dempster adventure!
Tips for arrival and departure:
Arrival via Whitehorse. From there you can either get to Dawson City by bus or a connecting flight. If you have more time to spare, you can warm up on the Klondike Highway (#2) or rent a canoe and paddle the legendary Yukon River. To get you back again, there are direct flights from Inuvik to Dawson City or Whitehorse, however, it’s often easier to drive.
You start in Dawson City, the gold rush on the Yukon River. Even today, there is a lot of gold digging here and the town still looks the way you know it from Jack London.Before you get on your bike, you should pay a visit to the Northwest Territories Information Office. There you will be provided with weather and road reports and you can also have a package of provisions sent to the Eagle Lodge, which you will reach after about half of the kilometers to drive.Afterwards you start the adventure and follow the Klondike Highway parallel to the river of the same name. It's flat and you can enjoy your last paved kilometers. Then the legendary gravel road begins. Dense forests surround the track, it goes up continuously, later it gets mountainous.At the end of the first leg you will reach the Tombstone National Park. In the Interpretive Center there is a lot of interesting information about the lonely road in the far north and the flora and fauna of the region. For a deposit you can borrow bear boxes to store food and cosmetics.A few meters away is the simple campsite where you can finish your first leg.
The route now leads up to the North Fork Pass. At 1289 meters above sea level, it is the highest point of the whole route. So the worst is behind you! A look over the shoulder offers a magnificent view over the National Park and the Tombstone Mountains. In the direction of travel delighted the expanse and beauty of the taiga. After the descent, it continues flat through the Blackstone Valley. You pass the Two Moose and Chapman Lakes. Here is an ideal place to watch moose.Also a second pass offers this day's stage. It goes up to the Windy Pass, where again a great view awaits you. The landscape is here barren and the mountains look like huge pebbles. After the descent through the gray moonscape the route follows the Red Ceek, which is colored by minerals in the dark red.The second stage of the day ends at Engineer Creek. The campground has a shelter where you can protect yourself from the mosquitoes while you cook your dinner. You will certainly understand if you build your tent right away.
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The road leads along the clear Ogilvie River. The area is forested again, which often gives you a view of the river and the surrounding area. After the ascent to Seven-Mile-Hill you reach the Ogilvie-Peel Viewpoint. Thanks to the height-reduced vegetation, there is a fantastic panoramic view of the Ogilvie Valley. In the late evening the mountains to your right shine creamy and especially beautiful.Make sure you fill all your water bottles before climbing to Seven Mile Hill, then you will not have the opportunity to go to Eagle Plains Lodge. Since there is no campsite near you, you open your tent at the lookout point. Toilets are available.
Hilly it goes back to civilization. The destination of the stage are the first buildings on the Demster Highway. They belong to Eagle Plains, a place with exactly eight inhabitants. The route led through the so-called Drunken Forest. The summer thawing of the permafrost and the resulting movement of the earth have brought the trees in a special tilt.It goes up and down and with every meter you get closer to the lodge. You can expect a dry place with wifi and hamburger. In addition, there are hot showers to wash down all the sweat, dust, sunscreen and anti-mosquito spray.Let yourself be pampered, take your food package, half the way is done.
The fifth track starts with a great downhill. However, it is just as steep again uphill. After 36 kilometers you will drive over the polar circle into the land of the midnight sun. Many tourists in motorhomes return here again. But not you! The place with the information boards and the picnic tables is perfect for a break. It also offers stunning views of the Richardson Mountains.The trail then meanders through a lot of wooded area. The campground on the Rock River offers a mosquito shelter with a fire pit.
The road climbs the Wright Pass, the border between the Yukon and Northwest Territories. The pass is known as Wetterscheide and virtually always blows here an icy wind.The terrain remains hilly, but overall it is much more downhill. All climbs are then rewarded with magnificent views over the gravel band of the Dempster and the subarctic tundra.At the Peel River, the first river crossing is by ferry. On the other side of the river is the Nitainlaii Territorial Park with campground where you can spend the night.
After ten leisurely kilometers, you will reach the junction for Fort McPherson. The village has 800 inhabitants, mainly Kutchin Indians and a small supermarket.From now on, the Dempster is flat and leads into the Mackenzie Delta, a labyrinth of lakes and creeks. A gigantic swamp is populated by a huge mosquito population.The ferry on the Mackenzi River runs in a triangle. The first stop is Tsiigehtchic. The village is known for its dry fish and provides a home for 150 people.At the information center of the village there is a well-equipped campground. If you like it easier: The waterfront promenade with picnic tables is ideal for a night's sleep.
Unfortunately there is no sign of more than monotonous flatland and swampy spruce forest on the last stage. The endless straight track is raised 1.5 meters from the ground. The gravel bed underneath serves as insulation so that the street does not sink into the permafrost in summer. The height is enough to let your gaze wander over the seemingly endless expanse of untouched nature.Inuvik is located about 100 kilometers from Lake Beaufort and has 3300 inhabitants. To prevent the buildings from thawing the permafrost with their own heat and slowly sinking into it, they are placed on supports. Aluminum clad, heated tubes, lead on stilts from house to house. It contains the pipes for water, sewage and district heating.The village is exotic and interesting. After all the hardships you should spend at least a day here and see everything.Back is by car stop or by plane.