Reader Ride: Doing the Dempster

Text: Wendy Crockett • Photography: Wendy Crockett, Mike Loomer

Stretching across the Yukon and Northwest Territories of Canada, the 720-kilometer Dempster Highway wanders for days through untamed wilderness to reach the frontier outpost of Inuvik. Backtracking its length is the only way off the tundra, but rest assured that not a single moment of this incredible adventure will fail to amaze.

The journey begins in Dawson City, Yukon, a wildly enjoyable destination in itself. Forty kilometers east of Dawson on the Klondike Highway stands the marker announcing the start of the Dempster. The road appears unassuming enough, but it doesn't take long for first-timers to realize that whatever schedule they had planned has gone completely out the window. The top speed limit is 50 mph, but our actual average was about 25. Road conditions do play a part: the Yukon side is primarily hard-packed dirt or gravel, which is to your advantage until even the slightest rain results in an impassably slick surface; and in the Northwest Territories you will find that "maintenance" often consists of dropping large, axle-deep piles of loose shale at random unmarked intervals along the road. The primary culprit compromising your schedule, however, is the fact that over its relatively brief distance this road will introduce you to some of the most awe-inspiring and diverse landscape you are ever likely to see.

The first major landmark is the Tombstone Mountains. These majestic granite peaks are among the most easily accessible alpine recreation areas in North America. A beautiful campground and interpretive center are open from July through early September, and although it's located only 72 kilometers up the Dempster, it is a fantastic place to stay if you enjoy hiking, photography, or just absorbing the immense wildflower-strewn valleys and their inhabitants. Moose, caribou, grizzly bear, Dall sheep, and wolverines are all frequent visitors to the Dempster area, as are bald eagles, falcons, Arctic chickens, and a host of smaller creatures. The majority of visitors to the area do not venture beyond Tombstone, and only a handful continue beyond the next campground, the thickly forested fishing destination of Engineer Creek at the 194-kilometer mark. Because of the remoteness and sparse human habitation, creatures of every size use the road daily and as part of their migration routes. Be alert at all times, and remember that these are wild animals! Give them plenty of space, and bring a camera with lots of zoom.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the September/October 2008 back issue.