The DEMPSTER HIGHWAY


I found a great web site for anyone to peruse if you are traveling Canada on a bike.  I will be posting some of its content here but use this link, GRAVELTRAVEL.CA to read all about the many back country roads up here.  The site also include the TCAT-Tans Canada Adventure Trail.  Plus, like last year….anyone planning to ride to Alaska please feel free to post any comments or questions if you feel we might be of any assistance in your planning.

The DIRT

Name: The Dempster Highway
Duration: 2-5 days
Rating:  Class 2
Accomodations: Camping, motels
Distance: 734 km one way, 1468 km return trip
Location: Yukon and North West Territories

Photo by Russ, Dempster Highway, Yukon

Photo By Russel Higginson

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Perhaps Canada’s most well known road for overland travellers, the Dempster Highway is without question a classic.  Situated in the province of the Yukon at its beginning and ending in the Northwest Territories, the Dempster is a long gravel road that heads north and crosses the Arctic Circle.  Many people travel from some very far away places just to travel this one road and for good reason.  The Dempster has everything that GraveTravel.ca is about, a long gravel and remote road that explores an area that not many get too see.

Dempster Highway

Photo by Alan Stewart

The Dempster began as a trail created by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer that went by the name of William John Duncan Dempster.  As a young man, William was known as the Iron Man of the Trail.  His dogsled journeys from Dawson City to Fort McPherson became legendary.  This 734 kilometre trail was originally created by the Gwitchin Indians who used it as their main trail between the Yukon and Peel rivers.  It is said that William travelled this route by dogsled no less than 10 times.  This is no easy feat given the gear at the time, the climate and conditions that would need to be faced.

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Above: Mike Strang creating dust on the Dempster, Photo by Don Moody
Below: A washout in 2010 caused a three day delay for travellers.  Photo by Gary Christman

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dempster
Photo by Mark Keating

This trail became the outline for what is now known as the Dempster Highway.  Like many of the roads in the north country, the Dempster was created as a means to transport natural resources.  Oil was discovered in 1959 and the Dempster quickly became the focus of the Canadian government.  The oil couldn’t be drilled or surveyed without the means of getting equipment in, so construction began in earnest.   Feuds between the Yukon government and the federal government along with the unexpected high costs of the project became its demise.  In 1961 the project came to a halt, 115 kilometres of the road were completed.

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Once again oil became the focus and the Dempster project started up again in 1968.  A quest to declare sovereignty over the sea bed in the Beaufort Sea and in turn gain rights to the oil that was discovered by the Americans.  1979 saw the completion of the highway.  A unique road, the Dempster was created by creating a berm of gravel that sits on top of the permafrost.  The gravel ranges from 3-8 feet in depth.  The gravel acts as insulation, without it the permafrost would melt and the road would sink.

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Photo By: Rob

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Photo by Alan Stewart

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Waiting for the Peel river ferry.  The Dempster gets notoriously slick when its wet Photo By: Rob

Fast forward to today, the Dempster is a popular road for overland travellers.  The Dempster begins approximately 40 km’s from the town of Dawson City, Yukon.  Fuel and lodging are available.  The government has a campground at km 71 and km 194.  The small “town” of Eagle Plains is the first sign of civilization you’ll encounter and is at km 370.  You’ll find gas and lodging here and not much else.  Campgrounds can also be found along the way between Eagle Plains and Inuvik. AT km 463 you’ll leave the Yukon behind and enter the North West Territories, cross a ferry (Peel River)  before entering the small town of Fort McPherson.  Gas and lodging can be found here.  One more river needs crossing by ferry (Mackenzie River) before getting to the end of the road in the town of Inuvik.

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Photo by Alan Stewart

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Photo By: Rob

Inuvik has a population of approximately 3500 and offers most services you could expect from a town of this size.  Inuvik translates to “the Place of Man” and is the largest settlement north of the Arctic Circle in Canada.  There are a small handful of accommodations to be had (4-6 hotels along with a campground).  It is highly recommend that you make reservations prior to showing up in town if you intend to spend a night or two.  If you do plan on spending some time we’d recommend an air flight out to visit some remote Arctic communities.

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After one day of rain the mud can get challenging

The Dempster is notorious for its road conditions.  When dry the road is considered a fun road to travel.  The rocks can be quite sharp (shale type) and flat tires are not uncommon, in fact some say they are the norm.  You would be wise to bring a spare tire and equipment to change tires.  When wet the Dempster becomes notoriously slick, in fact it can become very unsafe during periods of rain.  We advise you plan accordingly; this is not a road you want to be in a rush to complete if the weather turns.  Plan to wait out the weather or to slow your travel speed down dramatically if the weather turns bad.  Snow at elevations can be a reality in all months of the year.  It is perhaps these issues that have given the Dempster its reputation and notoriety.  Some folks travel the road in good weather and wonder what all the fuss is about, others come back with horror stories of axle deep slick mud for days on end.  But it seems no one comes back disappointed.  The Dempster offers a look at some very remote terrain.  Wide sweeping vistas with dramatic mountains as a backdrop, it would be hard not to feel small in the largeness of the landscape.

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Photo by Martin Hurley

 Dempster Highway Mileage

Photos below by Mike Stahl

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grizzlies on dempster

The Dempster Highway is notoriously hard on tires.  We highly recommend AT tires for trucks or somethign with a stiff sidewall and knobby tires for bikes.  If you luck out and have dry weather they may not be needed but if the weather turns the Dempster can become a very challenging and dangerous road.  Approximately half way up the road is the very small “town” of Eagle Plains.  This “town” basically consists of a lodge/restaurant/garage.  The gate to the north of the lodge is where they close the road down in bad weather, not a bad gig for the owners as it force4s folks to spend some time in their establishment.  The road before and after Eagle Plains is where most folks have tire issues.  The road surface consists of sharp shale rock and many tarvellers find themselves needing a new tire around here, so much so in fact that the folks in Eagle Plains make a decent living off of chnaging tires.  They carry many sizes and have a tow truck to come pull vechicles into their garage.  For bikes you are out of luck if you shred a tire in this area as it will take some time to get one shipped to you.

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Photo by Mark Keating

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Photo by Mark Keating

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Photo by Mark Keating

7 thoughts on “The DEMPSTER HIGHWAY

  1. A lot of the road surface is being replaced and the old shale covered over so tires are getting less of an issue. Saw folks travel it with a worn set of battlewings and not having any troubles this summer.

    That being said best to carry a tube with you as there are still areas where the shale shows near the edge of the road if you have to pull into it to allow a large truck to pass.

    It truly is an epic road and the scenery is not to be missed. An incredible riding experience.

    • plus a road not to be taken for granted…I say for those who want to ride this road…you can listen to 100 stories and they are might be a different story pending on the weather. See for yourself because if you are fortunate to have nice weather all the way up and back then you good as gold. If the weather turns which there is a good chance…just be careful and enjoy the skating! LOL No matter what worth the trip! Always an adventure!

  2. It is an epic ride. The scenery is beyond words or pictures. Waiting for the finish of the road from Inuvik to Tuktoyuktuk and then will return to ride it to the Arctic Ocean. Work began this year and they work winters only with a scheduled completion of 2015

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