Our Trip Along the Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highways
July 26-August 4, 2019
Part One – Whitehorse to Inuvik
To mark our 40th birthdays, we wanted to explore more of our beautiful country. The first part of our adventure included a trip to Wood Buffalo National Park – see that blog post here. Kory and I have always wanted to explore the north, and we figured driving to the Arctic Ocean would be an incredible adventure!
Day 1 – Whitehorse to Dawson City
We flew Air North from Yellowknife to Whitehorse and stayed the night at Skky Hotel, right across from the airport.
We enjoyed a tasty breakfast at the old-school diner in the neighbouring motel before taking a shuttle bus over to Fraserway RV. After impatiently waiting in line (it was a short wait but felt like forever because we were so excited!), we walked over to a huge Ford F350 with a truck camper over top.
We excitedly explored our home for the week. It was true glamping – a kitchen with a fridge and stove, bathroom with a shower, a queen bed fully outfitted with duvets and extra blankets, towels, everything for the kitchen, and even a heater!
After a tour of our truck camper and a bunch of paperwork, we grabbed lunch, groceries, and some last-minute supplies at Canadian Tire. It was finally time to hit the road!
The drive from Whitehorse to Dawson City was easy. The North Klondike highway is paved and passes through beautiful scenery. There are rest areas at regular intervals along the highway with toilets.
The Gravel Lake rest stop was particularly lovely. The girls played by the water while Kory looked at birds. We couldn’t stay too long, unfortunately, because we still had a long drive ahead of us.
We arrived at the town of Dawson City around 9pm, and pulled into the Gold Rush Campground. The office was closed but a they had a sign up saying that we could pick a site and pay in the morning. It was $31 for a small site in a gravel parking lot with a tiny picnic table and zero privacy. None of that mattered though, because it was already late and we just needed a place to sleep.
Thankfully, the campground was quiet, despite being quite busy, and we all slept well. The campground had an area for tent campers and clean bathrooms and showers. I loved the dredge buckets repurposed as flower planters!
Day 2 – Dawson City to Engineer Creek
After eating breakfast in our camper, we went over to the Northwest Territories Visitor Centre, which opened at 10am. There, we met Dawn Kisoun, who told us about current highway conditions (good) and helped further prepare us for our adventure. She was excellent with the girls and gave us tips on a local restaurant and where we might see Caribou! We felt well prepared for our trip with a full tank of gas, lots of food and water, spare tire and tools, and a satellite phone. This trip can definitely have its challenges and I feel that the staff at the Visitor Centre do their best to educate people about travelling on the Dempster Highway.
Dawson City truly looks like an old gold rush town. If it weren’t for the cars and RVs parked along the road, you would feel as if you were transported back in time to the old west.
We didn’t have time to explore, however, as we had some serious driving to do! On the way out of town, we passed pile after huge pile of rocks and gravel. This was left over from a previous mining era, before site remediation was a requirement.
Making our way out of Dawson, we stopped for a necessary photo-op – the beginning of the Dempster Highway!!! Kory and I had been dreaming of the trip for so long, and now here we were!
We pulled up to the sign and parked behind a Volkswagen Minibus plastered with travel stickers and emblazoned with a decal that read, “Alaska or Bust”. We met the owners of the van – they had driven from Mexico! They had been on the road since April, I believe. What an incredible journey – I would love to do that someday! We took their picture by the sign and they bribed our children with lollipops so we could get a pic of all four of us!
The Dempster is a 740km road from just outside of Dawson to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. It crosses both the Ogilvie and Richardson mountain ranges and traverses the Arctic Circle. The Highway starts out as a well-packed gravel road. The scenery is beautiful – I wanted to take pictures of everything! If you plan to drive the Dempster, I highly recommend downloading this travelogue. Make sure you set the trip odometer to zero at the start of the highway to make it easier to follow the guide. The guide covers potential nature sitings, areas of cultural and historical significance, and geological features.
On our drive, we saw many RV’s (almost all truck campers), cars big and small, trucks, cyclists, motorcyclists, and even backpackers! The highway is built well up above the permafrost to prevent to it from melting. The thick bed of gravel slopes quickly down on both sides of the road – there is no real shoulder. There are, however, occasional areas where the highway widens enough that it is safe to pull over.
As we drove, the mountains started to become less green and more jagged and rocky. I knew that we were approaching Tombstone Territorial Park! As I was preparing for our trip, I found myself drawn to Tombstone. The scenery was like nothing I had ever seen before!
We followed the highway to the Visitor Centre. What an awesome place! We examined a display of bones and furs and Kory talked to a park naturalist about birds. My favourite part was the wood burning stove with a pot of tea brewing – made with Labrador Tea, spruce buds, Moss berries and Yarrow! The girls loved the puppet theatre.
We went back to our camper to grab some lunch and conveniently, a quick rain shower passed through while we were eating. After refuelling with sandwiches, we decided to hike the interpretive trail right off the parking lot. This is a flat and easy gravel trail that follows a stream to a pond area. The scenery is so beautiful that it doesn’t even look real!
The late nights caught up with our 3 year old, and she enjoyed a post-lunch nap in the Toddler Tula carrier! I cherish these snuggles – it could very well be my last-ever “baby-wearing” nap!
While scanning for birds, Kory spotted what appeared to be some antlers way up on top of a mountain! He was able to take a picture with his long lens. The staff at the Visitor Centre confirmed that it was a Caribou! Our first ever caribou sighting – so exciting! Finally, around 3pm, we had to drag ourselves away from the Visitor Centre to continue our drive. Kory stopped at nearly every body of water to scan for birds. The girls were entertaining themselves with videos on their iPads and tons of snacks. At one point, we were driving along side a stream and I spotted two mammals. Kory turned the truck around just in time for us to watch two wolves feeding on a moose carcass! Another vehicle stopped behind us and the wolves retreated into the forest. I felt bad for disturbing their meal and we continued on down the highway.
We arrived at our campground, Engineer Creek, around 6pm. It was a lovely, small, unserviced, self-serve campground -and it was busy! In the Yukon, it was $12 to camp for the night – and that included firewood!
We ended up camping right next to the couple from Mexico that we had met at the beginning of the Dempster. It had rained earlier and the girls had a lot of fun running through the mucky puddles and throwing rocks into the creek. We could hear Peregrine Falcons calling – the campground backs onto a cliff where they nest.
We were well beyond internet access at this point, so I’m not sure what time the sun went down. The previous day in Dawson, the sun set at 11:40pm and it rose again at 5am! Land of the midnight sun, indeed!
Day 3 – Engineer Creek to Nataiinlaii Territorial Park
We awoke to a chillier morning at Engineer Creek (around 7 degrees Celsius) and enjoyed breakfast in our camper before getting back on the highway. We continued to drive through beautiful scenery as we continued farther and farther north.
We stopped at Ogilvie Ridge, which has a safe area to pull off the highway, interpretive panels, and toilets. The scenery continued to be absolutely remarkable. With the higher elevation, we definitely felt that we were moving north.
Fireweed was our constant roadside companion, and everyone’s favourite flower on this trip. After stretching our legs and taking lots of pictures, we jumped back in the truck to continue our journey. We had great timing, arriving at Eagle Plains just in time for lunch.
Literally in the middle of nowhere, Eagle Plains includes a full restaurant and bar, hotel, campground, gas/service station, showers, laundry, gift shop… even helicopter fuel! We enjoyed a tasty lunch before pushing onto our next stop – the Arctic Circle!
The weather was absolutely perfect and we all had an incredible time taking in the scenery and exploring the trails that lead down from the parking lot. It was just stunningly beautiful!
The ground was rocky, and the plants included dwarf birch, arctic willow, labrador tea, blueberry, crow berry, and cranberry, as well as plenty of lichen.
We could have stayed and hiked for hours in the perfect weather, but we had to pull ourselves away to continue our drive north. I had read an article on the CBC website about caribou crossing the Dempster, but the article didn’t specify the location. Dawn at the NWT Visitor Centre told us that the caribou were around the NWT/Yukon border. Sure enough, as we approached the border, there they were!
We pulled over onto a widened section of the highway to have a good look at the caribou herd. As soon as we opened the truck door we heard it – a loud hissing noise. A flat tire! We had read (and been cautioned many times) about the risk of getting a flat tire on the Dempster and we were prepared for it. We were lucky to have perfect weather for the adventure. I believe it snowed in the same location a week or two later! Several tourists and truckers stopped to make sure that we were okay and to offer help. Although I expected much more isolation on this trip, I was indeed relieved to know that if we needed it, help was available.
Carseats and gear needed to be pulled out of the truck to access the tools to change the tire. Our luck changed, however, when Kory brought out the spare. It was dangerously low on air! I entertained the kids as Kory got to work on the tire change. What followed was a slow and somewhat stressful 75km drive to our next campground. The Dempster continued to amaze us on our nerve-wracking journey – a Grizzly bear crossed right in front of us and we had great looks at a Willow Ptarmigan right beside the road!
We had a map of the Dempster showing the services and communities along the way. Our home for the night, Nataiinlaii Territorial Park, was only 9km away from Fort McPherson, and our trusty map showed that there was a service centre there. On the way to Nataiinlaii, we did our first of 2 river crossings. A barge ferried us across the Peel River. The ferries are free of charge and run most of the day.
At the ferry crossing, we unexpectedly (and briefly) had LTE internet service! I quickly googled tire service in Fort McPherson and came across someone’s blog. They mentioned that the garage was an unmarked white building outside of town. Thanks! We crossed the river and pulled into Nataiinlaii without issue.
The campground runs a generator at certain hours of the day to power the washrooms. We all enjoyed a hot shower! This campground was staffed and had a lovely visitor centre and interpretive panels at the office.
I enjoyed a lovely walk around the campground before trying to relax and go to sleep under the late night sun.
Day 4 – Nataiinlaii to Inuvik
We woke up to a chilly morning at Nataiinlaii and hoped in the truck to make the short drive to Ft McPherson. There actually was a sign indicating the service centre and we pulled right in. For a mere $40, we had our tire repaired and changed (and ensured that the spare tire was properly filled up). While waiting for our tire to be changed, a father and son that we had met previously on the highway pulled in to get their flat fixed! They had been on the road for weeks and were from New Hampshire, I believe. Happy to safely get on our way, we stopped to grab some snacks and gas in town and pressed onwards.
Our second river crossing of the trip was at the Mackenzie River. This ferry, also free of charge, is located near the community of Tsiigehtchic.
We were well out of the mountain ranges at this point, and the scenery was definitely looking more northerly. There were still some black spruce trees and scrubby birch and willow bushes.
I made sandwiches for everyone while Kory was driving. As much as we tried to take our time and enjoy every moment of this trip, we did feel rushed much of the time. We took a week to do the Dempster and Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highways, and we could have easily spent many more days on the road. Having said that, everything takes longer when you are travelling with small children. The girls were doing remarkably well on our long journey though Em missed her friends at daycare and Lyssa was exhausted from the late nights and altered schedule.
At about 3pm, we pulled into Inuvik! Inuvik is a decent-sized town with over 3000 residents. We stopped at the Western Arctic Regional Visitor Centre in town. What a great place! We were greeted immediately by the friendly staff and given lots of information about things to see and do. We had just missed the fish scale art project. The following day they were making moose hide earrings! I wished we had more time to spend there. Inuvik is a full service community and is the administrative centre for the Inuvik region (ie, it has government buildings).
After checking out the Visitor Centre, we drove through town to visit an acquaintance of ours. Jenny welcomed us into her home with open arms and gave us a better understanding of northern life. Our girls were delighted to play with her boys! We all enjoyed a delicious dinner at Alestine’s, where food is prepared in an old school bus, and then the kids devoured ice cream under the intense evening sun. I’m so thankful to Jenny and the boys for such incredible hospitality and to our friend Sarah for connecting us! It was a true highlight of our trip!
After our visit, we pulled into Happy Valley Territorial Park to camp for the night. It is located right in town which is very convenient. Under the bright evening sun, it was hard to believe that we were so far north!
This park was staffed and serviced and we enjoyed a good hot shower. It even had a playground!
It was tough to drag the kids away from the playground and help them to bed. The intense late night sun kept us all wide awake later than we had planned, even with a night time routine and blackout curtains on the camper. The sun is just so bright that it kept me wired. Sunset that night was 1:13am, with sunrise at 4:50am. We were about 10 days too late in the year for the 24 hours of sun. Having said that though, I awoke in the middle of the night and peeked outside – it wasn’t really dark. We were also pretty excited for the next day’s journey – the Arctic Ocean!!! See our next post for details about our trip on the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway!