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Cycle the Dempster Highway to the Arctic

Dempster Highway, Yukon Territory



453.6 miles

Elevation Gain

4314.3 ft

Route Type



Added by Jonathon Reed

Take on one of Canada's most rugged roads through mountain passes and Arctic tundra all the way to the vast expanse of the Mackenzie Delta.

If you've looked at travelling in northern Canada at all, odds are you've heard of the Dempster. It's a rough 740 km gravel road that runs from the Klondike Highway near Dawson to Inuvik in the Mackenzie Delta. It was started in 1959 and completed in 1979 as part of oil exploration in the Arctic, and was Canada's first all-weather road to cross the Arctic Circle. For most of its length, it has absolutely no signs of human presence. Just you and the wilderness.

It's a hell of a ride.

There's several travel guides for the Dempster Highway, so rather than give kilometre-by-kilometre guidance I'll connect you to those resources, and then add some of my own advice for cycling.

First of all, here's the route on Google Maps, just to give you a vision of what we're talking about. There's also a useful map on The Milepost with coordinates of key junctions and waypoints, and dempsterhighway.com, a site run by Northwest Territories Tourism. The most detailed and valuable resource, however, is Environment Yukon's Dempster Highway Travelogue. (If that link expires, check the list of booklets on Environment Yukon's website.)

The Dempster Highway Travelogue offers descriptions of different regions, close-up maps, information on things like history, geology and the local environment. Each piece of information is logged with a kilometre marker to help you keep track of distance in a place with no cell reception and very little human presence. I recommend printing it out at home, or finding a copy in Whitehorse or Dawson. It will prove invaluable on the road.

Now, on to my own advice.

The Dempster is not a cycling road. It is an industry service road, and a road driven by off-the-beaten-track travellers. It is an access point through a vast wilderness. Therefore, you should approach it with respect and preparation. You need to consider your equipment, your food, and your emergency preparedness.

You should have cycle touring experience before you consider riding the Dempster. Cut your teeth on paved roads with accessible alternatives and cell service before you head north. In terms of bike equipment, all your normal gear—touring bike, panniers, rain gear, helmet, water bottles, camping gear. You definitely want off-road tires and spares. The gravel on the Dempster used to be more treacherous for tires (something to do with shale rock being used) than it is now, but it's still a force to be reckoned with. I saw maybe seven flats and experienced one of my own—plus the gravel rattling off a nut on my rear axle. You definitely want bear spray. Grizzlies have been known to chase lone cyclists. And you definitely want appropriate clothing and outerwear. Use a site like The Weather Network's statistics for Inuvik to predict the temperature and weather and prepare for the worst. Depending on when you visit, you could face snow, frost, sleet, rain and mud. 

Packing enough food for 740 km of riding will be a challenge, and you want your bicycle to be as light as possible on the gravel. I rode the Dempster with a daily support vehicle, which made it easy to have more than enough food. If that's not possible, research sending food packages ahead to Tombstone Territorial Park, Eagle Plains, Fort McPherson and Inuvik. Tombstone is a park and campground, and Eagle Plains is essentially a gas station and motel. Fort McPherson and Inuvik both have post offices.

On the Dempster, you essentially need to be prepared to self-rescue. That means being able to solve bicycle maintenance issues like flat tires and broken chains; it means having first aid equipment and knowledge, bear spray and weather-appropriate gear. A GPS tracker like SPOT or inReach is not a bad idea if you're on your own. Depending on the time of year, you will be likely to cross paths with motorists driving in both directions—and they will likely be supportive and helpful—but with no cell reception it's not a good idea to count on strangers showing up when you need them.

In terms of terrain, you can expect mostly uphill on your first day(s) until you reach North Fork Pass at the end of Tombstone Territorial Park. From there, you'll enter the Blackstone Uplands, a long open stretch of tundra surrounded by the Taiga Range. The road narrows into the valley of the Blackstone River, and then crosses a mountain pass to follow Engineer Creek and the Ogilvie River. After that is the Eagle Plain Plateau, which is more challenging than it sounds—the road dives into steep river gullies on the edge of the plateau—but has a stunning, long-lasting view of the Richardson Mountains. After you cross the Arctic Circle, it won't be long before you enter the mountains for one last challenging ride through Wright Pass at the Northwest Territories Border. After that, all that is left is the Peel River Plateau and then the Mackenzie Delta. Fort McPherson to Inuvik is flat through black spruce and willow forests. The largest river delta in Canada.

All that is to say, it's a challenging ride, but it's also rugged and beautiful and a memorable experience. You'll feel the mud and the open air and the wildness of the Arctic. If you have a bit of adventure in your veins and hard enough muscles in your legs, you won't regret cycling the Dempster.

P.S. Once you have cell reception in Inuvik, keep an eye on the Space Weather Prediction Center's Aurora Forecast. If you didn't see the northern lights on the road, you're sure to see them—this time to the south.  

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