In late summer of 2023, I planned a trip from my home in Minnesota to Tuktoyatuk (hereafter referred to as Tuk), a village sitting on the Arctic Ocean in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Tuk has a population of just under 1,000 people who harvest Beluga Whales and Caribou and is home to Pingo’s, hills that are filled with permafrost. It’s one of the farthest points north one can drive a vehicle in North America, and the only road that you can drive directly to the Arctic Ocean. The Dalton Highway, that runs from Fairbanks, Alaska to Prudhoe Bay is similar in length, but access to the Arctic Ocean there is by permit only as the land is owned by the oil companies.
Prior to 2017, access to Tuk was on an ice road open only in winter after first driving the Dempster Highway to Inuvik. A permanent year-round road had been considered for years but building a road on permafrost is a challenging engineering problem given the constant freeze/thaw cycles that far north. After four years of work, a permanent road was finally opened in November of 2017.
The main road north is the Dempster Highway, an all-season road built in 1979 that is Canada’s only road to cross the Arctic Circle. It begins at an intersection on the Klondike Highway just outside Dawson City and runs 450 miles to Inuvik, a town of about 3,000 people that sits 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 65 miles south of Tuk. The Dempster is paved for a few miles at the start after you cross the Klondike River, but it’s gravel and shale the rest of the way. It is used by tourists and commercial vehicles delivering goods to the towns along the way and serves as an emergency airstrip.
Before I share highlights of the trip, let’s talk about preparation for your vehicle. For perspective, I drove a 2015 Ram 3500 with 140,000 plus miles carrying a Bundutec Odyssey truck camper. It has good all-terrain tires, and the maintenance is up to date. I saw vehicles of every description on the Dempster, including RVs of all sizes, travel trailers, motorcycles, and bicycles. The most common vehicle I saw were truck campers, which should come as no surprise to anyone reading this. There are tons of articles that suggest only high clearance 4WD vehicles carrying two complete spare tires should even attempt it. Locals drive these roads in Prius’, small compacts and pickups, many of which are dated. If you have a well-maintained vehicle with good tires and a full-sized spare, you’ll be fine. Trailers seemed to have the toughest time, especially with flat tires, and I suspect it’s because trailer tires are generally poor quality.
Here are some suggestions for getting your vehicle ready:
- Repair services are limited. Make sure all maintenance is up to date—oil changes, tire rotations etc.
- Check your spare and make sure it’s in good shape.
- IMPORTANT! Wax your truck and camper—it will make removing mud and dirt later MUCH easier.
- Carry at least one extra fuel can. The longest stretch without gas is the 240 miles between the Klondike Highway and Eagle Plains. I carried 6 extra gallons and never needed it, but if you don’t, someone else might.
- Bring a way to purify water. Unless you buy bottled water, the water available at campgrounds may not be potable. I had some bottled water, and bleach.
- Bring enough cash to buy a tank of gas and to pay for the campgrounds. The internet is not very reliable there, so credit card machines are sometimes inoperable.
- Bring rags and glass cleaner to keep your windows and taillights clear.
- If your camper is rear entry, put tape over the handle and door lock so you can access it without getting covered in dust/mud. Don’t carry your stairs outside the camper.
- For Verizon, there is virtually no cell coverage anywhere except at the beginning near Dawson City, in Inuvik, and in Tuk. I carry a Garmin InReach, which I can use to send text messages home and an SOS if things get bad.
When its dry, the Dempster and the road to Tuk are incredibly dusty. When it rains—as it did for almost my entire trip—the roads become slippery, muddy, and covered in an oily substance that when dry, forms a nice crust all over everything. As I write this, I’ve been home almost a month and after repeated power washings, and several days traveling through driving rain, Dempster mud is still falling off.
The total distance one-way between the Klondike Highway and Tuk is a little over 500 miles. The terrain ranges from boreal forests to miles and miles of tundra so there is always something to see. The route includes two, free ferry crossings at the Peel and Mackenzie rivers that run a regular schedule throughout the summer. There are numerous public and private campgrounds in both the Yukon and Northwest territories with only a few in Inuvik having full hookups. I traveled in mid-August and early September without reservations and had no issues finding places to stay.
The provincial campgrounds charge $20/night Canadian on an honor system and generally provide free firewood (you split it) and water (not always potable) with pit toilets. There are private campgrounds in Eagle Plains and Inuvik as well. In Tuk, they created a campground right on the water with 15-amp electrical service and potable water for which they charge $60 Canadian a night. It may seem a little expensive, but that money supports the community which is trying to constantly improve services for the increasing number of visitors. There are numerous places to boondock as well.
The first day, I filled up my gas tank at a 24-hour pump where the Dempster begins and headed to Tombstone Territorial Park, a drive of about 50 miles. There is an excellent interpretive center there and a great campground (which fills quickly). Tour groups and others from Dawson City come in buses to experience the Dempster without having to commit to the entire drive. There are some great hikes in the area, but the entire Dempster is in bear country, so ALWAYS have bear spray with you. The fall colors were just starting to turn and there were some beautiful views of the mountains surrounding the park.
On Day 2, I left early to drive to Eagle Plains and beyond. Excessive speed is the reason people typically get in trouble here, so I generally traveled at 35 mph or less, stopping frequently to take pictures. The commercial trucks are generally traveling much faster, so to avoid rock chips in my windshield, I would stop to let them pass. The rain was heavy and constant at this point, but the scenery was still beautiful as the rain gave the tundra a lovely sheen. I passed several pull-offs with interpretive signs as well as Engineer Creek Campground which offers a total of 15 sites. Arriving in Eagle Plains, I gassed-up and then checked out the hotel, which has a full-service restaurant and bar, a repair facility and a collection of historic photographs that are worth seeing.
Continuing north, after a few miles, I crossed the Arctic Circle, which has a huge pull-off with signs that make for an excellent photo opportunity. The terrain north of Eagle Plains gets hillier with expansive views of the tundra and surrounding mountains. The road is also built 8 to 10 feet higher here because it sits directly on permafrost. I passed by Rock River Campground. (20 sites) before entering the Northwest Territories boundary (one hour later than the Yukon) and crossed the Peel River. The crossing is short, and the ferry is pulled across on a cable system. Because of the rain, several tractor trailers had a very tough time climbing through the mud heading north so it took a while to make it to Fort McPherson. The town has gas and other services as well as the Fort McPherson Tent and Canvas Company, a native-owned business that makes tents and other products for miners and travelers. It’s worth a stop and they have a small gift shop that sells high quality canvas bags and other items. The rain was steady all day, so I was looking for a place to camp. Just south of Fort McPherson, I came upon Nitainlaii Territorial Park, so I headed south for a few miles and found a very nice private site. The bonus was the brand-new bathhouse with hot showers, a luxury of which I took advantage.
It continued to rain all night, so I got an early start for the trip to Inuvik. A few miles further north found me at the Mackenzie Ferry crossing which is much larger than the Peel crossing. The Mackenzie River is quite wide here, but one of the deck hands informed me that because of the extreme summer drought, the river was so low that the boats bringing supplies to Inuvik and Tuk could not make the trip, requiring supplies to be trucked in. The distance to Inuvik was relatively short, but this became the worst section of road of the entire trip. The rain had turned the surface into a quagmire of deep ruts which required 4WD and very slow speeds. I had to hand it to the folks on motorcycles who could barely maintain their balance and forward motion while covered from head to toe in a thick coating of mud.
The road becomes paved as you enter Inuvik and I stopped at the Western Arctic Visitor Center which has a lot of historical information about the area and the people who have lived here for centuries. I stopped to photograph the Igloo Church and paid a visit to North Mart, a truly unique store. Given Inuvik’s isolation, North Mart is a one-stop shopping experience with aisles of snow machines and outboard motors sitting next to clothing and groceries. The prices reflect the effort it takes to get goods here—a box of Rice Krispies was close to $10 Canadian!
It was still early and still raining so I got gas and started the trip to Tuk. Southbound travelers reported that the road had been recently graded and in good shape, but the constant rain had destroyed most of that. Its only 60 or so miles to Tuk but it took a couple of hours at a slow speed. Arriving in Tuk, I found the visitor center and reserved a spot at one of the sites on the ocean. There were already quite a few travelers there, so I found a spot and got set up. At this point, the temperature was about 45F with a strong wind, so people were mostly hunkered down in their campers. I took the dog for a walk and a swim—the dog, not me—and wandered around a bit before the weather forced me back into the camper. The rain and wind were steady all night, so I never had the opportunity to sit out and enjoy the scenery which was a bummer.
Waking to rain again, I packed up, got gas, and started the drive south. The road had deteriorated even more, so it took a while to get back to Inuvik. Once in Inuvik, I got gas and a few supplies and made the very slow journey back across the Mackenzie and Peel Rivers before stopping at the Rock River Campground for the night. The weather forecast I had seen in Inuvik showed rain for at least a few more days, so I decided to get back as close to Dawson City as I could in one day. Honestly, this section was probably the prettiest stretch because the fall colors had gotten brighter and despite the rain, the surrounding mountains and tundra were beautiful. I stopped for a grizzly bear crossing the road and saw a small herd of caribou and a few black bears, all a bonus.
I made it back to Dawson City late in the day and booked a few nights in a campground that had a laundry and a car wash. Given the rain, every square inch of both the truck and camper were completely covered over and $25 later, I was able to remove much of it and could now see out the camper windows again. I hung out in the campground the next day sharing stories with fellow travelers and doing some routine maintenance and cleaning.
Overall, I drove just over 7,500 miles to and from Tuk, following the Alaska, Campbell, Klondike and Cassier Highways and the Ice Field Parkway between Jasper and Banff before re-entering the US at Sweet Grass Montana. Given all the fires in Canada, there was plenty of evidence where fires had burned, and the smell of smoke was constant, but the only fires I saw were along the Cassier Highway. It was a challenging trip, but with good preparation and planning, easily doable, especially in a truck camper. If you’re considering the drive, don’t wait—just do it.