Driving the Dempster Highway is a bucket list adventure. This road runs for 456 miles (734 km) from its junction with the Klondike Highway in northern Canada to the town of Inuvik north of the Arctic Circle. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can drive all the way to the Arctic Ocean by taking the Inuvik-Tuktoyatuk Highway all the way to the shores of the ocean.
The Dempster Highway officially opened in 1979 and is open year-round except for a few weeks in the fall and summer, when the Peel and Mackenzie Rivers freeze and thaw. When the rivers are free-flowing, a free government-run ferry is available at both rivers to transport motorists across the rivers. Just be sure to check operating times before you arrive.
The first 5 miles (8 km) of the Dempster are seal-coated, and the last 6 miles (10 km) are paved. But the rest of the road is gravel. Drivers should watch out for sudden changes in the road surface, such as those from potholes and frost heaves. Also be aware that there is a lot of crushed shale, which can be hard on tires (and windshields if passing vehicles don’t slow down or move over).
And if the road is wet, be prepared for slick conditions. Calcium chloride is used to reduce dust and as a bonding agent, which can make a thick mud-like surface when it’s raining. You’ll want to wash your vehicle as soon as practical after driving this road, as calcium chloride can be corrosive to vehicles.
The speed limit on the Dempster highway is 55 mph (90 kmph) unless otherwise posted. But you’ll likely want to drive slower. The Dempster can be driving in 10 to 14 hours one way, but trust me, you’ll want to take more time on this amazing journey.
Also, it is strongly advised that those driving the Dempster Highway come prepared with two full-sized spare tires (on rims, fully inflated), the ability to change a tire, a windshield repair kit, extra water, and extra gas.
Do you really need all these extra supplies? Many make it without using any of their emergency supplies, but the quick answer is Yes!
I definitely experienced some drama on the Dempster.
Choosing the Dempster
During the summer of 2023, I set off on a solo road trip to Alaska. I drove from Minnesota to Alaska in July, then had a couple of friends join me to hike and camp around Alaska. After they left in mid-August, I had been in Alaska for almost a month but hadn’t made it north of Fairbanks yet. And I really wanted to experience this part of the world north of the Arctic Circle. I set a goal of driving to the Arctic Ocean.
I had two options to reach the Arctic Ocean by road: The Dalton Highway or the Dempster Highway. There are a lot of differences between these two roads, but here’s a quick comparison.
|The Dalton Highway||The Dempster Highway|
|Located in Alaska||Located in Canada |
(Yukon and Northwest Territories)
|415 miles||456 miles (734 km)|
|Ends at Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay |
(a few miles short of the Arctic Ocean)
|Ends in Inuvik, but you can drive another 87 miles to Tuktoyatuk on the shore of the Arctic Ocean.|
|Requires a Shuttle from Deadhorse to the shore of the Arctic Ocean ($69/person in 2023)||You can camp next to the Ocean in Tuktoyatuk|
|Road Surface: 25% Paved, 75% Gravel||Road Surface: Gravel|
|Highest Elevation: 4,800 ft at Atigun Pass||Highest Elevation: 4229 feet (North Fork Pass)|
|Also known as the “Haul Road,” it was built for trucks hauling supplies to Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay during the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline. There are still a lot of trucks using this road.||Built to provide access to the Canadian Arctic and to accommodate oil and gas exploration. No pipeline next to this Highway, but there are still some large trucks using the road.|
For more information about these highways, I recommend checking out The Milepost. They have a website (themilepost.com). Or if you are actually planning on driving these roads, you can purchase a physical copy of The Milepost on Amazon to bring with you on your trip. (I am an Amazon Affiliate and may earn on qualifying purchases).
I drove part of the Dalton Highway, up to Galbraith Campground at milepost 275. I might have gone further if weather conditions had been better, but I really want to save the Arctic Ocean experience for the Dempster Highway. Since I was solo traveling with my dog, I wanted her to be able to experience the ocean with me. So we avoided the shuttle in Deadhorse and set our sights on an overnight in Tuktoyatuk.
Drama and Near Disaster on the Dempster
After crossing the border back into Canada, driving the Top of the World Highway, and making a quick stop in Dawson City, I arrived at the junction of the Dempster and Klondike Highways late on Monday, August 21st. Subsequently, I will refer to Monday as Day 1.
Per the timestamp on my video, it was about 8:30 pm. Getting later, but still very light out so close to the Arctic Circle. So I decided to drive the first roughly 30 miles to spend the night at Tombstone Mountain Campground.
I had one full-size spare tire, a windshield repair kit, plenty of food and water, and 5 gallons of extra gas.
After the miserable, rainy, muddy, cold experience on the Dalton… When I broke the chain to the back door, bounced everything around in the cooler enough the milk exploded, and lost the plug for the cooler while cleaning everything out… I wasn’t sure I wanted to drive north on a dirt road again.
But as I started the drive, I was feeling pretty good. The day had started out sunny, which was super exciting after days of clouds and rain. The border crossing was easy. The Top of the World Highway was amazing with stunning scenery. The ferry into Dawson City was a unique and fun experience. The Visitor Center in Dawson City was open when I arrived and I was able to easily fill up water for my day pack. And Dawson City itself was super cute and a wonderful spot to take a break and walk the dog.
So at 9 p.m. that evening, I was happily driving down the Dempster Highway. I was taking it easy and moving over when semis approached to try and avoid any flying road debris. And I’m thinking to myself, “Man, today was a wonderful day.”
And as if the universe wanted to disagree, that’s when my low tire pressure light came on…
I’m still 17 minutes away from my campground for the night (per my Google Maps), so I pull over and check my tires. The right front tire is going flat. You can hear the air whistling.
I’ve already changed one flat tire on this trip, so this time it goes even quicker. I lower my spare, get out my jack, and get to work. I’m passed by a few cars and receive a few offers of help (people are friendly on the Dempster and really in Canada in general). But I’ve got it under control, so I thank them and let them drive on.
After I have my full-size spare on the truck, I toss the flat tire into the truck camper and make the decision to still drive to the campground tonight and figure out a plan for tire repair in the morning. The sun is setting at this point and I’m only 17 minutes away.
Of course, after getting a flat tire, I slowed down even more. Meaning that 17 minutes really took closer to 30 minutes. But I made it to Tombstone Mountain Campground and was able to get the last open campsite for the night.
I woke to another sunny morning and the need to make a decision. I started this journey with only one full-sized spare. I do have a budget tire repair kit in the vehicle and I could try to plug the flat tire. But I still have over 700 km to go before I reach the Arctic Ocean. And I got a flat tire in the first 50 km.
I have two options: drive back to Dawson City or proceed to Eagle Plains for tire repair. Dawson City was 111 km away (back in the direction I had come) and Eagle Plains was 297 km away further down the Dempster Highway.
I didn’t have any cell service at the Tombstone Campground, but I did have my Zoleo device with me. So I was able to text a family member and see if they would call Eagle Plains to confirm that they would be able to provide tire repair service for me.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t get ahold of them. So in the interest of safety first, I decided to drive back to Dawson City where there were a couple of options for tire repair. But I couldn’t waste such a beautiful day with driving and tire repair, so I took Glia on a hike in Tombstone Territorial Park.
The Grizzly Ridge Trail was one of the highlights of my Dempster Experience and honestly one of my favorite hikes from my entire summer road trip. The trailhead for this hike is located at km 58.5. Grizzly Ridge Trail then heads west from the Dempster Highway through boreal forest and then starts climbing steeply. The rocky slopes provide fantastic views of Mount Monolith and the North Klondike River. Most people will hike to the viewpoint of Grizzly Lake at km 3.5 (2-3 hour return trip). If you’re interested in backpacking, you can overnight at Grizzly Lake. Just be aware that you need to pre-book for an overnight trip.
Glia and I just hiked to the main overlook. And it was amazing. The perfect happy antidote to the flat tire blues. The views were wonderful and the weather was great!
After the hike, we drove back to Dawson City. Got information about tire repair locations, public showers, ATMs, and Laundromats at the Visitor Center. Then we ferried back across the Yukon River and spent the night at the Yukon River Campground. We enjoyed a relaxing night there and had our first campfire of the trip.
It was time to start calling tire repair companies. There are two main ones in Dawson City: Chief Isacc and NAPA. My decision on who to use was simple. Chief Isaac answered the phone and could help me the same day. NAPA didn’t answer their phone and when I stopped in, didn’t have any availability the same day.
Happily, the owner of the Chief Isaac mechanical location was great. He was very nice and talked things through with me. I was still running the stock tires on the Tacoma, so we did have a discussion about upgrading my tires. But the Dempster Highway was my last rough road of the trip and I didn’t have a way to save my current tires.
So ultimately, I elected to keep my current tires and follow the tip of not moving over much for approaching vehicles and driving in 4H (I had still been in 2-wheel drive when my tire went flat). A lot of the debris and sharp rocks that are a higher risk for puncturing the tires are on the shoulder of the road.
I dropped the tire off and then went to do laundry and shower. Then I drove up to the Midnight Dome for a good view of Dawson City, walked Glia along the river, went grocery shopping, and bought an ice cream treat.
My tire was ready for me around 6 pm. There had been a nail in the tire and a cracked spot (likely from hitting a rock). Both were repaired and I was ready to hit the road again. Hopefully without any incidents this time.
I got back on the Dempster and headed to Tombstone Mountain Campground again. I stayed away from the shoulder, despite passing a few trucks that threw debris at me and made it to the campground without any flat tires! All of the regular campsites were full, but I was able to use the group site and slept great.
Day four started out great. Glia and I hiked the Goldenside Trail, which wasn’t quite as amazing as Grizzly Ridge but was still fantastic. The Trail starts with a nice gentle hike up the side of a mountain and provides some wonderful views.
Then we continued our drive north. And man, this section of the road is just absolutely stunning. Even if you never drive further north than Tombstone Territorial Park, this drive is worth it. So gorgeous.
But unfortunately, nothing is ever perfect and it was during this drive that I noticed a crack in my windshield. And it was spreading. I stopped to pull over and examine the crack.
The windshield area over my rearview mirror attachment point had two chips. This damage had been blocked from my view by the rearview mirror until a crack started spreading from the lower one. These had likely occurred yesterday when a semi had passed me without slowing down. I’d heard rocks hit but assumed they hit the body of my truck as I hadn’t seen any windshield cracks.
Unfortunately, by the time I noticed the spreading cracks, they extended further than 6 inches away from the chip on both sides of the windshield. Windshield repair kits aren’t great for cracks like that, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try and slow down the damage to the windshield.
So I took some time to sit at a pullout on the side of the road and apply a RainX Windshield Repair Kit patch.
My goal on day 4 was to get north of Eagle Plains. However, the combination of the time it took to patch the windshield and my slow driving meant that I didn’t make it to Eagle Plains until after 8 pm. I was only driving 20-30 mph most of the way to Eagle Plains, and the last section before Eagle Plains was really rough, forcing me to slow down to 10-20 mph.
Since Eagle Plains was one of the only gas stations on the Dempster (the next gas station wasn’t for another 113 miles), I needed to stay the night and get gas in the morning.
The campground at Eagle Plains is nothing exciting. Just a parking lot essentially. But, the camping fee does include showers!! We walked around a bit before bed but kept it fairly short as there were several dogs at this location that barked a lot at Glia. Since Glia is dog-reactive, I worked to keep my distance.
Overnight, I woke up a few times to look out my window and check for northern lights, but unfortunately, I still didn’t see any.
I slept in too late again. It’s easy to get on a different time schedule with the sun not setting until after 10 pm. After I got up, I took full advantage of the included shower. We filled up on gas and hit the road.
It was a drizzly, wet day overall, but we did get a little bit of sun and some rainbows. We crossed the Arctic Circle and two rivers (both the Peel and Mackenzie). The ferry crossings always feel like a little bit of an adventure.
I finally saw some wildlife on the road. I had seen a Moose at the very beginning of evening one, but otherwise just birds and squirrels and such. Today I saw a black bear and a fox with a dead rabbit in its mouth.
My goal for the day was to drive to Inuvik, but again I was driving like a turtle. Finally, around 6:40 pm, I decided to camp at Vadzaih van Tshik Territorial Campground.
Day 6 was another overcast day, but we were finally getting close to our destination: the Arctic Ocean. Vadzaih Van Tshik Territorial Campground is only 50 km from Inuvik and 202 km from Tuktoyaktuk.
Since it wasn’t raining, we took a nice hike on the Tithegeh Chii Vitaii trail. Despite being north of the Arctic Circle this area reminded me a little bit of Minnesota’s north shore. With pine tires (albeit smaller ones) and rocky overlooks of lakes, it felt more like home than most of this region.
I stopped and filled up on gas in Inuvik, then began the final push to Tuktoyaktuk. The road was still damp with periodic potholes and washboards, so I continued to drive slowly like a turtle. I was almost there and really didn’t want any more problems now. Also, at this point, I noticed that I had somehow popped both of my truck’s AirLift rear airbags/airsprings.
My windshield crack wasn’t spreading any further and I still had my spare tire under the truck. I wanted to keep it that way.
The drive between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk was pretty remote, but we passed several other cars. Both travelers and locals. Glia and I made a brief stop to look at some Pingo formations in the distance. I also saw some more wildlife. A trio of young foxes and lots of birds.
And then a small town started to come into view. We had made it to Tuktoyaktuk!! I drove through town and found the Arctic Ocean waiting for me on the other side.
We had made it to the end of the road! It felt so good to reach this destination. The Dempster was the most challenging road I have ever driven. Not because it was so technical, but traveling this road solo with my dog in cold and wet conditions, despite a flat tire and cracked windshield and the anxiety of more car problems, took some resilience and determination.
But I had done it! I had driven from Minnesota to the Arctic Ocean. Now it was time to relax and enjoy a night by the ocean.
One week after I had started my journey on the Dempster, I woke up in my truck parked on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. It was cold and windy again, but before we left, it was time to swim in the ocean.
I was camping near some amazing fellow travelers whom I had passed/been passed by several times on my journey north. Without them, I might have skipped my swim. But I was so glad they let me join them for a plunge into the cold waters.
Now I’ve been to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans. Only two more to go (Indian and Antarctic).
After the swim, I changed and got in the truck to blast some heat. As we drove back to Inuvik, the weather changed to warmer and sunny. So Glia and I stopped early at Jax Territorial Park to hike, shower, and enjoy some time in nicer weather.
On Day 8 we drove from 9 am to 9 pm, with one stop to hike the Tithegeh Chii Vitaii trail again. Otherwise, we mostly drove until we got to Engineer Creek Campground. We saw some of our Dempster friends again at this campground, so they were making pretty good time back down the Dempster also.
Some fellow travelers who were also camping at Engineer Creek Campground told me about a nearby hike, called Sapper Hill. It is an unlabeled trail and the trailhead was difficult to find. But once we did, we really enjoyed this short 2.5-mile round-trip hike with great views.
After our hike, we finished our drive on the Dempster Highway and proceeded to begin our drive to Whitehorse. But first up, a stop at a car wash!
It took me 9 days to complete the Dempster. Longer than I had anticipated. I made it back in 2.5 days, but it took me 6 to get up to the Arctic Ocean. But even though the journey took longer and was harder than I expected, this was a journey of a lifetime. I’m so glad I was able to complete it!