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Unspoiled wilderness along Canada’s Dempster Highway

It’s not for the faint of heart, but those who appreciate wilderness and northern scenery should not miss the experience of traveling with their RV on the Dempster Highway and crossing the Arctic Circle on their way to Inuvik in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Winding its way through three mountain ranges, over two ferries and 460 miles of a well maintained hard-packed gravel road the scenic and spectacular Dempster Highway leads visitor’s north while following parts of the old dog team routes.

From Dawson City, RVers head east toward Mile 0 at the junction of the Yukon Route and the Dempster Highway filled with unspoiled wilderness. Stop at the Gateway Interpretive Display at the junction before heading north toward an adventure not everyone gets a chance to have.

This is not a trip you want to take without some careful planning, but it’s well worth the effort and those who have traveled this route say, “The Dempster Highway is breathtaking and you have to experience it.” Others have been quoted as saying, “It’s the drive of a lifetime and there’s nothing to be scared of.” The general consensus is that driving the Dempster Highway is a “must do” if you are seeking an adventure away from the usual tourist areas.

Casino at Diamond Tooth Gertie's in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada. (Photo courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission)
Casino at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada.

Places to visit

Tombstone Territorial Park — After leaving the junction the first place to explore is the Tombstone Territorial Park and its Interpretive Centre. The nature walks and wildlife stories will amaze you and the information they give to travelers on road conditions and what wildlife are in the area will be appreciated.

  • Arctic Circle — The Dempster Highway is Canada’s only public highway that crosses the Arctic Circle, so stop and take your photo and enjoy some of the most amazing scenery in the world. Take the time to read the fascinating displays describing the Arctic Circle and the Northern Lights.
  • Fort McPherson — Although the population of Fort McPherson is only 900-plus, the community offers all kinds of services and is home to the Fort McPherson Tent and Canvas Company. Plan to stop here and stock up if you need anything.
  • Inuvik — This is the end of the road, at least as far as your RV can go. It’s worth traveling this far because there’s lots to see and enjoy not only when you arrive, but along the way as wel. You won’t want to miss the Igloo Church, the Aurora Research Centre, or the Inuvialuit Cultural Centre, which were created to support and preserve the Inuvialuit’s local culture.

The beautiful locally made Inuvialuit clothing and soapstone carvings are so unique it will be difficult to not take any home with you. Don’t fight it! The craftsmanship is wonderful and friends at home will be envious. Every Saturday local crafters, fishers, local growers and artisans sell their products at the Arctic Market in Inuvik, so mark it on your calendar as the place to be Saturday morning to buy fresh produce, fish and products not found anywhere else.

Carol - Dempster 4
(Photo courtesy of Paddy Pallin)

Things to see and do along the Dempster Highway

The Roads End Golf Course at Inuvik welcomes everyone from the more experienced to beginners who wants to try their hand at swinging a club. Yes, golfing waits for you at the end of the road, but don’t neglect the other attractions along the way before you reach Inuvik.

This might be the perfect time to try a few new experiences and paddling could be one of them. People travel from all over the world to enjoy the kayaking, canoeing and rafting adventures along the rivers and waterways of the Canada’s north and since you’re already here why not join them?

There are opportunities for wildlife viewing, bird watching, fishing, golfing, hiking, paddling, shopping, attending festivals and cultural events and for creating your own adventures. This is where you will find some of the most spectacular and breathtaking scenery in the world and you don’t want to miss any of it. Take both your movie camera and still-shot camera because there will be plenty of opportunities to add to your favorite photo album.

Carol - Dempster 1
(Photo courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission)

Wildlife

The most major draw after the scenery, which is spectacular, is viewing the wildlife visible alongside the highways and if you are careful to keep your eyes peeled you may see wood bison, moose, black bears, moose, fox beavers and muskrats.

If you have time, sign up with a local outfitter for a side trip to a wildlife sanctuary or have them take you into even more remote areas to get a better understanding of these native animals and their natural habitat in this harsh but beautiful area.

Summer events and festivals

July — The Annual Great Northern Arts Festival in Inuvik takes place in mid July and features 10 days of fun while celebrating the diversity of Canada’s north. There are Inuit, Inuvialuit, Gwich’in, Dene, Metis and other First Nations, as well as non-Aboriginal artists and artisans. The Shingle Point Summer Games take place during the last weekend of July at Aklavik with both cultural and outdoor games, competitions and prizes.

August — The Midway Lakes Festival at Fort McPherson is where old-time fiddlers and local bands get together in August for a weekend of family fun at Midway Lake. Inuvik is the end of the road and their annual End of the Road Music Festival in August at the Midnight Sun Complex offers two days of music, dancing and all kinds of interesting festivities.

Carol - Dempster 3
(Photo courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission)

Traveling to the top of the world

Give yourself enough time to thoroughly enjoy your trip. There is so much to see that you won’t want to rush. By slowing down and enjoying the scenery and the wildlife you see along the way you shouldn’t encounter any difficulty on this well maintained and safe highway. You will probably join hundreds of previous visitors who said they had wished they had allotted even more time and had come here sooner since it was an experience that stands out as one of their best.

Safety and travel tips

  • Drive carefully – follow the posted speed limits, which will be in kilometers and not miles per hour
  • Headlights and seatbelts are required
  • Rain can make the road slippery, so slow down
  • Bring a spare tire, jack, water, insect repellent, flares and a first aid kit.
  • Make sure your vehicle and RV are well maintained and your tires are in good condition.
  • Northerners are friendly and helpful people. If you do breakdown, don’t hesitate to flag down a passing motorist especially a truck who will have a radio to call for help.
  • Have travel insurance because if you get sick or have an accident and need to be flown out it can get expensive.
  • Ferries are free!
  • Carrying extra fuel isn’t necessary, but it’s a good idea to keep your tank as full as possible in case you run into difficulty.

Most of the above safety tips and just common sense no matter where you travel. It’s better to be prepared for an emergency rather than being caught off guard.

Campgrounds

Tombstone Territorial Park, at Mile 45 has 36 sites and staff are available with all the information you may need on wildlife viewing, hiking trails, nature walks and will even have information on road conditions.

  • Eagle Plains Hotel and RV Campground is at the half way point and offers every type of vehicle repair service you may need and a restaurant and lounge to relax in.
  • The Rock River Campground is found at Mile 278 after you cross the Arctic Circle and has 20 protected sites in a steep gorge of the Richardson Mountains.
  • Nitainfaii Territorial Park at Mile 336 has 23 campsites and a visitor center. If you are interested in the traditional lifestyle of the Gwich’in, people you should probably plan on stopping here.
  • Inuvik’s Happy Valley Territorial Campground has 36 sites with a laundromat and just outside of town is the Jak Park Campsite with another 36 sites.

The above listings are just a select few of the campgrounds available, there are more to choose from that offer services from the most basic to full hook-ups.

Resources

Map and directions

Festivals and Events

Parks and campgrounds along the Dempster Highway

To check on current road conditions and ferry schedules, visit the government of the Northwest Territories road conditions website or phone toll free 800.661.0750 and listen for your travel area.

About Carol Ann Quibell

Carol Ann Quibell is an RVer currently living in beautiful British Columbia. She is a freelance writer and columnist who enjoys sharing her travel tips and information. You can view her websites online at http://roamingrv.com and http://writefortravel.com

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