I heard from several people that cycling the Dempster Highway to Inuvik was one of the best cycle trips in the world. But how did it compare to the Dalton highway. Better roads, less hills, less traffic, more facilities along the way for travellers and stunning scenery. I found out they were right.
I set off from Dawson City in the Yukon Territories with the goal of cycling the Dempster Highway to Inuvik. Lucile joined me for the first 40km out of Dawson City as she was on her way to Skagway to catch a ferry south.
Prior to leaving Dawson City I checked the weather for the next week, all looked good with possible showers and storms at about day 4 or 5. The windmap indicated that I would have headwinds for most of the journey, at least for the first couple of days. I thought that if the bad weather arrived it might also come with a change in wind direction.
I packed enough supplies for about 8 days with the knowledge that I could get a roadhouse meal at the halfway point at Eagle Plains Lodge and stock up on groceries at Fort McPherson about 200km from the end of the road at Inuvik.
Cycling the Dempster Highway
The first 40km out of Dawson City was flat, quick riding. As I turned left and started cycling the Dempster Highway I was greeted by headwinds as I slowly but steadily climbed towards Tombstone National Park. The first 30km was manageable but by late afternoon it was apparent that I would not make it to Tombstone Territorial Park as the wind was now a raging 40km/h headwind that made forward progress difficult. I stopped next to a small flowing creek that was sheltered from the wind and made camp for the night.
Next morning I was keen to cycle early before the wind picked up too much. I made good time on the uphill climb to Tombstone National Park Visitors Centre. Just before the centre I spotted a Moose and calf on the other side of a Beaver Pond. I sat near the road watching them for about 15 minutes while about 6 cars went past. None of them saw the Moose and about half were busy reading or looking at their computers (the passengers of course). Shortly after the Visitors Centre I was at the highest point of the trip. I had been climbing uphill for over 115km from Dawson City. I was above the tree line at this point and the mountain scenery and open land was great. Mt Tombstone 20km distant from me. A peak not unlike Federation Peak in Tasmania.
Leaving Tombstone National Park
Mid afternoon there were strong winds but I was going downhill by now so the headwind didn’t seem to make progress too slow, although I did half my normal downhill speed. I stopped for dinner at a small roadside pullout area and afterwards continued with a view to camping at the next available spot off the road. Several kilometers down the road I found a great sheltered spot. I decided not to stay there as I found Bear tracks all around the area. They appeared fresh so I decided to move on further and make some distance between myself and the fresh Bear tracks.
After about 5km I couldn’t find any areas that would make a place to camp so I continued down the valley while watching Dall Sheep clinging to the sides of steep mountains till I made it to one of the formal campgrounds at Engineer Creek. It was now late but I was still full of energy and set up the tent, I found another cyclist in the campground.
I met the other cyclist Murat from Vancouver the following morning. We chatted for a while before he set off and I had breakfast. 50km later I caught up with Murat and we had lunch on the side of the road before the big climb to where the road follows the plateaus and ridges to Eagle Plains Hotel. We filled up water and set off.
Running low on Water
Once on the top of the ridge line it was apparent that water would be a problem. I didn’t think I would have enough water to make it to Eagle Plains Hotel. Neither did Murat. We continued for most of the rest of the day until I saw a truck driver stopped on the road, I asked him for water and he was able to spare a couple of litres. Without which we would have been in trouble.
The weather was very hot on this day. Murat made camp early and I continued another 40km or so closer to Eagle Plains. I thought I would have enough water to get me there around lunch time the following day. On this stretch of road I clocked up 5000km for the trip!
I set off early to beat the heat of the day and made it to Eagle Plains Hotel very thirsty and hungry. In a thirsty blur I demolished about 5 litres of water along with several cups of coffee. I asked the staff to advise any travelers heading south to supply some water to Murat if they saw him. I knew he would also be in need of water.
Murat made to Eagle plains only an hour behind me. He started very early and also ran out of water. He told me that some trucks stopped him and offered him water. Great to hear that they stopped to see if he was OK. Its about 120km with no water, except for some mud puddles or putrid tundra water. Made worse by my steripen which I use to purify water failed on me. Damn, back to purification tablets.
Cycling in the Arctic
I set off in the late afternoon after hydrating and eating with the intention of making it to the Arctic Circle marker. I planned to camp there. It was very windy when I was there and I considered cycling a little further to find shelter. A Swiss couple, Peter and Susan, offered to use their camper as a wind break for my tent which worked well and assisted in stopping the tent from rattling so much that I couldn’t sleep.
Cycling North West Territories
Peter and Susan offered me breakfast the next morning which I accepted then I headed off through the rolling hills and treeless plains before climbing to Wright Pass which marks the border of Yukon Territories and North West Territories. I had heard from the Swiss that there was a Bear here yesterday. I saw lots of fresh Bear poo but no Bear, only great scenery as I pass through the Richardson Mountains.
On the descent from Wright pass I overtook my first vehicle. It was a grader, traveling slow making the road smooth. I don’t get a chance to overtake vehicles often.
I continued through the treeless hills and valleys of the Richardson Mountains and made another climb to the final large mountain pass of the trip. The weather started to threaten rain as I ascended and headwinds did their best to blow all the mosquitoes and black flies away from me.
When I made it to the top of the pass I was quite tired from climbing the 2 mountain passes in one day so thought I would find the first available spot to pitch the tent. Not long after starting the descent I spotted a Brown Bear about 300-400 meters away. It was just walking along stopping on occasion to dig around in the dirt before moving off. It stopped at one point and looked in my direction and waved its head around. I waved back and said, ‘Hello Mr Bear’. He continued on with the same walk downhill stopping only to dig around in the dirt. I though it prudent to make some kilometers between myself and the bear. As I was descending a valley there was nowhere for the bear to go other than nearby to the road.
I was tired by now and wanted to stop at the next spot to pitch my tent, but I peddled for about 20km from the pass to a place where I could stay the night. I don’t have a bear proof food container. My food, toiletries and other nice smelling stuff is placed in one pannier which I stash in the bushes 25m-50m from where I sleep. If a bear comes to my camp and finds my food while I sleep there is little I can do, but at least it should prevent the bear from entering my tent.
At about 1am it started to rain and continued until around 10am. From my previous experience with roads like this I should have stayed in bed and read a book while the road dried out. Instead I packed up and cycled through the horribly slow and sticky mud. When the road gets wet there are some parts that stick like glue to the bike. On several occasions so much mud got stuck in the front guards that the wheel would not turn. I thought to myself, it cant get too much worse so I didn’t take the guards off. Well it did get worse and I should have taken the guards off. It took me the whole rest of the day cycling mainly downhill to make the 40km to the next campsite.
The following morning Murat came to my camp. He arrived late after being hit by the same storm and didn’t eat dinner till midnight. We set off together for the short journey to Fort McPherson. We wanted to visit the store for groceries. Not that we needed any, we both were traveling faster than we thought and had enough food. We just wanted the luxury of some fresh fruits and vegetables. The grocery store was well stocked with everything a hungry cyclist would want, including good coffee!
Crossing the Mackenzie River
Most of the hills for the trip were now behind me, there were a few rolling hills on route to the ferry that crossed Mackenzie River, one of the longest in Canada. The road from Mackenzie River was now almost completely flat and completely straight, very little in the way of corners here. Murat and I made good time for the next 90km. We stopped for dinner next to a river and I thought it would make a good campsite.
As the weather was so incredible and I was still full of energy I set off after dinner at 10pm for another midnight cycle. Its a great time of day when the weather is clear. There is little traffic, its peaceful. The next 2-3 hours of cycling was memorable. My mind was clear to think about how great cycling the Dempster highway had been up to this point and how great my whole trip had been.
The midnight sun
I stopped for the midnight sun cycling photo and pulled into the Vadzaih Van Ttshik campground. The mosquitoes greeted me. I made a deal with them. If they stay outside the tent they can live, if they enter the tent they will die.
I slept very well during the night and woke to find that Murat made another early start on what would be our last day as we cycled into Inuvik. For the first time on the trip the wind was in our favour and we were blown into Inuvik.
I finished cycling the Dempster Highway. I arrived at Inuvik and headed to the Information Centre to be greeted by the Mayor, Editor of the local newspaper and other municipal staff who informed me I was the ‘Tourist of the Week‘. A local promotion to increase awareness for tourism in the area. I received some gifts including an Inuvik T-shirt and the most prized NWT vehicle number plate which is shaped like a Polar Bear, I will attach it to the back of my bicycle, very cool.
Great Northern Arts Festival
My visit coincided with the opening of the Great Northern Arts Festival. I timed my arrival for opening ceremonies. I witnessed the traditional local dancers and drummers perform. Feeling very welcome in Inuvik, a great northern town with every facility that a traveler might want and for anybody cycling the Dempster its a great place to either start or finish the journey. I liked the place so planned on staying here longer than anticipated. I couldn’t believe how tropical the weather was while I was here, very similar to my hometown in the tropics!
Cycling from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk
A new road recently opened linking the small remote village of Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Coast. Previously this road was only open in winter as an ice road. Now there is another option for reaching the far northern coast in the arctic. Will more cyclists take this route or continue cycling on the Dalton highway in Alaska to Prudhoe Bay?
I have cycled both routes and they both have stunning scenery, wildlife, great camping and more. They are both so good. I did see more wildlife on the Dalton wwy in Alaska. But had great interactions with the indigenous people on the Dempster hwy. Both are two of the greatest bicycle touring journeys in the world.
Cycling the Dempster Highway Stats
Dawson City to Scoutcamp Creek = 89km
Scoutcamp Creek to Engineer Creek Campground = 147km
Engineer Creek Campground to Roadside Rest Area = 132km
Roadside Rest Area to Arctic Circle = 81km
Arctic Circle to Near Midway Lake = 97km
Midway Lake to Nitainlaii Campground = 40km
Nitainlaii Campground to Vadzaid Van Tshik Campsite = 150km
Vadzaid Van Tshik Campsite to Inuvik = 53km
Are you planning to cycling the Dempster Highway? When do you start? Let me know in the comments section below.