Canada: The Dempster Highway

Posted by James Anderton on June 12th, 2019

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I cycled the Dempster Highway as the final leg of my trip up through North America to the Arctic Ocean. It is a 736km cycle through wild country. This is a truly remote part of the world. A vast and thinly populated wilderness. Most four legged species far outnumber humans. The few people who do live here eke out survival hunting and trapping as they have done for thousands of years. It was a wonderful cycle and a fitting finale to my journey up through North America.


Tombstone National Park just 100km along the route

The level of difficulty of the Dempster depends on two things. Rain and wind. I was lucky with the rain. It only rained once and gave me a taste for why wet weather is not your friend on the Dempster. The road soon turns into a mud bath making progress slow and miserable. I only had to suffer 25km of mud but it was enough. It's more what it does to your bike than anything else. The mud gets everywhere. Between your brake pads and all of a sudden your chain is making noises that will make you wince. With the wind I was not so lucky. I had headwinds all the way. It is definitely easier to do the road north to south. It's not just a headwind. It's an Arctic headwind. I picked a bad week to break the zip on my cycling jacket. The wind goes right through you. It's no place for the old. In dry weather and with the wind behind you it is a relatively easy cycle. It's a dirt road all the way but it's in pretty good condition and a lot of the time you can zip along at a good speed. Sure at times it can be a little rough. At times the surface can be quite soft. There is plenty of loose gravel and the occasional section of washboard. All this is appropriate though. A road leading through such wild and remote lands should have its challenges. It would lose something if it was perfectly paved. I wasn't thinking that the morning I was pushing through mud.


Heading towards the Richardson mountains up on Eagle Plains

Another factor is the lack of supplies en route. It is over 600km from Dawson to the first grocery store at Fort McPherson. I was budgeting to do a 100km a day but with potential for mud and headwind you will want some contingency food. Therefore you would need to carry 6/7 days worth of food. It's quite a load and therefore important to follow some food packing light tips. However it is not as bad as it sounds. The Dempster Highway Visitor Centre in Dawson offers an excellent service. If you give them a food box they will give it to the next tourist driving up the Dempster who will then drop the box, 400km up the road, at the Eagle Plains Lodge. This saves you having to carry a week's worth of food. Instead you only need to carry 3/4/5. This was a great help. Billed as an 'Oasis in the Wilderness' the Eagle Plains Lodge certainly is that. There are hotel rooms (v. expensive), a campsite (12 CAD) and a reasonably priced restaurant where you can get a meal. They don't sell groceries but you can buy peanuts and chocolate bars.


An Oasis in the Wilderness. Eagle Plains Lodge. Pretty much the only building for the first 600km of the Dempster

You will see bears on the Dempster. I saw a couple of enormous grizzlies one afternoon heading up a scree slope away from me. I saw a few black bears along the way but they tend to scarper quick smart when they see you. The most alarming was a grizzly I encountered early one morning. We had a Mexican stand-off in the middle of the road whilst I reached around for my bear spray just in case. He thought better of it and headed off into the trees. What concerned me was that I had seen him first thing in the morning. Less than a kilometre from my camp spot which he was striding towards when we met. Glad I made an early start that day. I have written in greater detail about how to deal with bears when I had an uncomfortably close encounter with one on the Top of the World Highway. Needless to say you should be carrying bear spray and should always cook and hang up your food well away from your tent. They say you should hang up your food 4m above the ground but I'm not Tarzan. The best I ever managed was a couple of metres. There's plenty of less threatening wildlife to enjoy along the route. It really is nature at its finest. Moose, elk, foxes, a million squirrels and a paradise for bird watchers.


Wrights Pass in the heart of the Richardson mountains. Expect wind...

The route begins easily enough from Dawson city. 40km of tarmac before the turn off to the Dempster Highway. After 50km you enter the stunning Tombstone National Park. The park protects over 2,100 square kilometers of rugged peaks, permafrost landforms and wildlife. It's a beautiful ride as the road meanders through the heart of the mountains. Here I saw a Yukon moose as the road climbed to the highest point of the Dempster at a little over 1,200m. You then drop down and follow the Blackstone river before climbing up to Eagle Plains. Here the road stays high and you get stunning views out over the Eagle Plains basin before hitting the first milestone on the road, the Eagle Plains Lodge. I was delighted to find my food parcel waiting for me. Took the opportunity to eat a meal that wasn't noodles and I continued along the road to the Arctic Circle boundary and the obligatory photo.


The Arctic Circle

After Eagle Plains you climb up to Wrights Pass where I got battered by the wind. The valley before the pass is known as Hurricane Valley in winter. It's not much better in spring. Still the views were stunning as you dissect the Richardson mountains before the descent to the first river crossing and onto the town of Fort McPherson. The small town is sandwiched between the Peel river and the McKenzie river. For two months of the year in May and September there is not enough ice to form a bridge across and too much ice for the ferry boat to cross safely. In those periods the inhabitants are stranded. I asked a few of the locals about this. They didn't seem too bothered. Fort McPherson and Inuvik are the homeland of the Inuvialuit and Gwich'in peoples. Aboriginal people perfectly attuned to the long winters living a traditional way of life unchanged for millennia. They are a friendly bunch. A lady in the grocery store brought me a coffee as I browsed the shelves as she said I looked cold. The road on to Inuvik is not so scenic. Ploughing through endless northern boreal forests. Trees no taller than you and I yet there is always a wonderful feeling of being in a remote corner of the globe under a boundless sky. Inuvik marks the end of the Dempster Highway. It's a fascinating place. There's always something going on in summer. The first time I passed through was on Inuvik day (June 4th). There was singing, speeches, dancing and free food. I only took part in the latter. I passed through again on my way South and it was Inuvik Pride day. Not quite on the same scale as the Sydney or Rio Pride celebrations. There was only one float but a great way to sample the local culture and pride it takes in its customs and traditions. There's even a 10 day long arts/music festival in the middle of July. For a place that spends most of the year in cold and darkness (there are 30 days of uninterrupted darkness in the heart of winter) you can't blame them for making the most of the long summer days.


Inuvik (Photo Credit : Spectacularnwt)

The Dempster may officially end in Inuvik but the road carries on to the Arctic Ocean. There is another 150km to go to the coastal hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk and the journey's end. The road has only been open a couple of years. Before there was only a winter road along the McKenzie river and Tuktoyaktuk was isolated during the summer. This road was a big motivation for me choosing to cycle the Dempster in Canada over the Dalton Highway in Alaska. On the Dalton you can only get to Deadhorse and there is still 14km of private land to the Arctic Ocean. You need to go on an organised tour to actually reach the ocean. I thought it would be nice to dip my toe in the Arctic (or your wheel as is the tradition for cycle tourers) having cycled all the way up the continent. The road is a little rough but rideable and takes you through a wonderfully wild and untouched landscape as you edge closer to the top of the world. You can see for miles across treeless tundra dotted with arctic lakes. A fantastic way to finish my cycle up through North America. I hit the Arctic Ocean on a beautiful day under a clear blue sky. The ocean is still mostly ice in June and made for a glorious view all the way out until the horizon melts into the sky. I sat down and reflected on a wondrous journey that began 8 months ago in Bogota, Colombia. Then I got hungry and went for a burger at Grandma's kitchen.


Final camp spot on the road to Tuktoyaktuk


Journey's End

Getting there/away:

Once you've hit the Arctic Ocean you need to get out somehow. Of course you can cycle back. As much as I loved the Dempster once was enough. I hitched back to Inuvik (Thank You Colin and Jill!) and then flew to Whitehorse with Air North who were excellent. The flight was 250 CAD which is very good for a flight in such a remote corner of the world booked at pretty short notice. It cost an extra 50 CAD for the bike. The good news is you don't need to box it. It is just a small carrier plane so Air North were happy to wheel the bike on board as it was. I only had to deflate the tyres. I was able to take my bear spray with me. I was also well fed for such a short flight. The other option is to hitch back. It might take a few days but the people out here are really helpful and if they can take you they will. There are lots of jeeps which can carry your bike.

Time to Go:

I cycled it in late May/early June and it is an excellent time to go. It's a touch on the chilly side but it wasn't a problem. The weather is settled at this time of year. May gets less rain than June/July in this part of the world and rain is not your friend on the Dempster. The best thing about this time of year is that there are very few mosquitoes. The mosquitoes come out in full force mid June and apparently they can be a bit of a nightmare. I spoke to one guy who cycled it in July. He said he would wear his mosquito head net from the moment he got out of his tent until the moment he got back in it at the end of the day. I wonder how he ate. Be aware that the 2 river boat crossings just before and after Fort McPherson don't normally start running until the beginning of June. There is no fixed date. They run when the ice has melted, the river is deep enough for a safe crossing and the boat is actually working. This was June 3rd the year I rode the Dempster. Don't worry though you can still get across if the boat is not yet up and running. There are a few fishermen in canoes who will help you across if you wait around a bit. They will expect a little tip. The river boats stop running in mid October when the ice comes.


The first kilometer of the Dempster is paved. Enjoy. The rest of the way it is a dirt road but as mentioned above it's a pretty good one. Until it rains...

Wild camping:

Easy and excellent. There's plenty of water along the way but you will need to treat it. The only exception is a 90km section about 240km from Dawson where there is no water. Maybe a few roadside trickles in spring. Be very mindful of bears. Don't camp anywhere where you see berries growing. Look out for fresh bear poo. Cook and hang up food away from your tent. Carry bear spray and have it close to hand at all times. Mosquitoes can be a big pain during summer. Try and camp somewhere windy if you can. Although you may also want some tree protection from the constant daylight. Good luck watching the sun go down. It doesn't. You can get camping gas in Dawson City and Whitehorse. I didn't see anywhere selling camping gas in Inuvik or Fort McPherson but I didn't look very hard.


If arriving overland into Canada you don't need to apply for an eTA. You can just rock up at the border with your passport. Most visitors can stay for up to 6 months in Canada. If flying into Canada you will need to apply for an eTA. It only costs 7 CAD and takes a few minutes.

Bicycle Shops:

There's a bicycle shop in Dawson City. The Squeaky Chain Bicycle shop. My chain had being squeaking since forever but I figured it would serve as a bear bell equivalent. You can hear me coming a mile off. There are no other bicycle shops on the Dempster but there's plenty of people on bikes (mostly kids) in Fort McPherson and Inuvik. Ask around and someone might be able to help. There's a good bicycle shop in Whitehorse.


There is free Wi-Fi (something of a rarity in this part of the world) in the library in the heart of Inuvik.

From Fort McPherson northwards the road can be quite dusty and any traffic can whip up a nice dust cloud for you to cycle in. Carry a dust mask. The good people at the Dawson Visitor Center will give you one.

A sleeping eye mask may be your most important bit of kit out here. For 56 consecutive days from the end of May the sun does not set at all in Inuvik.


Side of the road: