Looking for adventure, spectacular scenery, wide open spaces, and a place where one can be close to nature? The Dempster Highway is your calling.
The Dempster Highway is a 740 KM (460 miles) hard packed, but well maintained, gravel road that winds its way through two mountain ranges (the Oglivie and the Richardson), crossing the continental divide three times, traversing the Arctic Circle, and loosely follows the old dog team routes on its way to Inuvik and the Mackenzie Delta where access to the Arctic Ocean is available.
In the Northwest Territories, the highway crosses the Peel River and the Mackenzie River. In summer, access is via free ferries and in winter, by crossing ice bridges. As a result there are about 3-4 weeks in the Spring (thaw) and Fall (freeze-up) when the highway north of the Peel River is inaccessible. In summer, plan to arrive at the ferry crossing anytime after the first week of June to avoid you sitting at the ferry crossing where there are no facilities until ferry is operational. The ferry crossings are operational generally first week of June until the latter part of October. Ice Road crossings are accessible end of November until the end of April. Road and Ferry reports are available here.
The highway is gravel, so one has to drive according to the conditions of the road. Speed limit is 90 KM/Hour which can be done the majority of the time. But on the other hand, the slower you drive, the better the chances of spotting wildlife! They use calcium chloride on the road for “dust free” pass zones so, if it is raining, the road can be very slippery and one needs to slow down. Although most of it has been replaced with gravel, there still is some shale on the road, between Eagle Plains and the Yukon/NWT border. Start off with good tires, 4 or 6 ply recommended, drive the speed limit, slow down and pull over for oncoming traffic and one should not encounter problems.
Plan at least a week for your trip. The most common complaint we hear? “I wish I had left more
time to…” Although the highway can be driven in 12 to 16 hours from Dawson City, we suggest that you plan two days up and with the 24 hour daylight, one can drive back down in one long day. Appreciate the vastness of the land, do some hiking, fishing or photography. To experience summer conditions, including the midnight sun, plan your trip for June through to September. Late August or early September is a good month to view the fall colours. Herds of caribou may be seen either mid-September to late October, or again in March and April.
The Dempster is open during the winter but February to April is recommended. Even though we are back into longer daylight hours we can have high winds and the section between Eagle Plains and Fort McPherson can close without warning. The road is frozen and so is like driving on pavement only with snow drifts. Winter is the best time to see the northern lights.
Inuvik is access to the Mackenzie River ice highway to Aklavik or Tuktoyaktuk along the frozen Mackenzie River that turns into a public road and connects the communities with Inuvik from mid-December to mid-April, depending on the weather. Speed limit on the ice road is 70 KM/HR
Traffic will be very light so you must come well prepared. In the winter, carry a shovel, sleeping bag, stove, matches, emergency snacks, and of course, dress for cold outdoor temperatures. It would be wise to rent a satellite phone as cell service is not available in some areas on the Dempster Highway.
Take advantage of the services either in Dawson City or at KM 0 of the highway as next services are at Eagle Plains, 370 KM (230 miles) away. Eagle Plains has a motel, restaurant, lounge, gas station, RV park and campsites. Services are then available at Fort McPherson and Inuvik.