Driving on the Dempster up to Inuvik

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Dempster Highway

After spending a few days at the Tombstone Park, I took the Dempster Highway to Inuvik. I spent about a week in Inuvik and went back to the park to do other hikes. In this article I will only talk about (and show you) the route round trip from Inuvik park.

Dempster Highway, the facts

Infos on the Dempster Highway (Yukon Highway 5 and Northwest Territories Highway 8)

  • 736 km of dirt and gravel (465 km in Yukon et 271 km in Northwest Territories)
  • Built between 1959 and 1979 (115 km in 1961, the rest between 1968 and 1979), following an old dogsled trail
  • Opening on August 18th 1979
  • Named after “William John Duncan Dempster”, from Wales
  • Built 1 to 2m above the ground to prevent the permafrost to melt
  • 1 gas station / mechanics / hotel / camping, km 369
  • Arctic Circle crossing au km 405
  • 2 river crossing by ferry (Peel et Mackenzie) – free
  • 140 km extension in progress to reach Tuktoyaktuk (Arctic Ocean)

My experience

I found that the road was in pretty good condition, much better than what I expected with all that I had heard about this “highway”. The maximum speed is limited to 90 km/h. The first kilometers and about forty last ones before Inuvik are paved. This is funny because it is only arriving on the tarmac road, before Inuvik, that there is a sign “Caution road in poor condition”!
The whole road is dirt and gravel with more or less gravel. This is when there are more of gravel that it becomes more slippery. When it rains, there are very muddy areas (without gravel), possibly with deep ruts. The best parts are therefore those without gravel in dry weather, it gives a firmly packed dirt road, just a little dusty 🙂
The driving etiquette, displayed when entering the highway, recommends to slow down and move on the side when passing another vehicle. Few do, whether trucks, maintenance vehicles or locals.

All along the road, there are rest areas with bins and toilets in good condition (always with paper). It is not always allowed to spend the night, but there are other areas without service to stop. There are also some parts of the road enlarged to serve as a landing strip, on which it is prohibited to park.

For most of the journey, I drove at about 50 km/h. I wanted to save my tires and also be able to enjoy the scenery, because it’s the interest of this road! I only drove at 80-90 km/h on the last part which was almost entirely packed earth without gravel and then asphalt before reaching Inuvik.

On the way to Inuvik, no problem. I have had good weather, just a few drops of rain at times. I have been able to enjoy beautiful sceneries, watch the animals from the road, stop taking pictures, fall asleep looking at the mountain and endless sunsets.

But my luck stopped there, the return, it has been a bit more hectic:

1st Damage: After 160 km, crossing a truck just before Fort McPherson, I heard a loud sound of impact. I have not noticed immediately, but he projected a pebble on the windshield. Fortunately not in my field of vision, but I do have a beautiful impact of 3-4 cm at the bottom left of the windscreen.
We were both driving too fast (80-90 km/h), and neither of us has slowed down.

Dempster Windshield Impact

2nd Damage: After that first incident I slowed down to about 60 km/h, but a few hours later, I felt a little loss of control and my tire pressure indicator lit … a flat tire! The left rear tire. I changed it and I drove 40 km further up the border between the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, where I slept.

First Flat Tire

I stopped at Eagle Plains (100 km after the border) to have a coffee and use their Wi-Fi ($ 5 for access). Shortly after, it started to rain downpour and it lasted quite a while, so I decided to stay there for the night … I slept in my car in the parking lot of the hotel. I returned in the morning to the “restaurant” for a coffee and a quick breakfast. Returning to the road, I crossed some parts quite muddy, but nothing blocking or dangerous, as long as you drive slowly;)

3rd Damage: 110 km later, already driving only 50 km/h, I started to feel the impact of the gravel a bit more, but no loss of control and the tire pressure indicator remained lit since it does not work with spare wheels. I arrived at the rest area “Ogilvie Ridge” where I wanted to stop, and it’s walking around the car that I found my second flat tire, the rear right one. After changing the tire and a quick nap, I hit the road again, driving even more slowly and praying that everything goes well from now on 🙂

Second Flat Tire

After that, I have been able to reach the camping and interpretive center safely, but driving at 30 or 40 km/h most of the time 😛
I also left safely, a week later, the park and the Dempster Highway for good …  relieved!

My 1 cent thought:
I have no idea if my two punctures are because of my way of driving or if I would have had flat tires anyway, even while driving more slowly. My tires were not brand new when I left Vancouver, and definitely not off-road. Moreover, I was really loaded with the weight mainly on the back. More than just the risk of driving on a sharp pebble, it’s more a progressive wear that causes punctures. There are 1500 km of gravel road to go through after all! Speed and load being of aggravating factors. I might not have had other punctures because I slowed down and/or because my front tires were subject to less weight.

That’s my story on the Dempster Highway!
As usual, leave a comment at the bottom of the post and/or on your favorite photos 🙂



Video of the return coming soon …


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