SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Jennie Flaming recently completed a road trip from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean in Tuktoyaktuk, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. This is her report.
I have done a lot of road trips in my day, including all over Alaska and the Yukon and I have to say I think this is the most unique and remarkable road trip I have ever done! It has stunning and unique scenery everywhere, from crossing four mountain ranges, to passing through the only unglaciated area in Canada to ferry crossings on three epic northern rivers, to standing at the shore of the Arctic Ocean. Early September is an amazing time to do it, the fall colors were perfect (and no bugs!).
Me at the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Yukon
We spent four days on the Dempster Highway, plus a day getting from Fairbanks to Dawson City to start the Dempster (and then some more days after that aren’t covered in this trip report). We drove a new cab-over “Scout” camper from Go North.
See map (from Google Maps), below.
I love how bizarre the light is above the Arctic Circle. In the spring and fall the light feels like early morning or late afternoon all the time. It’s beautiful and also a bit disorienting. It’s remarkable how different it is even from Fairbanks, which is pretty far north but not above the Arctic Circle, or even that close to it.
Midday filtered sun near Tuktoyaktuk
Day 1: Fairbanks to Dawson City, Yukon
This has long been one of my favorite road trips. The views over Top of the World Highway between Chicken and Dawson City and especially around the US/Canadian border are stunning. The road is mostly gravel but is quite well maintained. It’s winding and slow but you wouldn’t want to go fast anyway since it’s so beautiful. NOTE: The Top of the World Highway is open between May and mid-September. It’s now closed until May, 2024.
We spent the evening in Dawson City after taking the George Black Ferry across the Yukon River. Dawson is without question one of my absolute favorite towns anywhere. So fun to be back!
The Yukon River at Dawson City, Yukon Territory
Day 2: Dawson City to Seven Mile Hill along the Dempster Highway
The next morning we spent more time than we really had exploring and visiting our favorite places in Dawson because we love and miss it so much! Eventually we got on the road in the afternoon and headed out onto the Dempster Highway.
Our first stop was Tombstone Territorial Park. Then we drove up a couple more hours through beautiful landscapes to camp in a pullout on Seven Mile hill. That night there was a beautiful Aurora display in the middle of the night and a heavy frost.
The Tombstone Mountains
Day 3: Across the Arctic Circle Dempster Highway to Inuvik
This was another gorgeous day of driving (my birthday!) with rivers, mountains and the only gas station for 250 miles. We also ate lunch at one of two restaurants in 500 miles just for fun. It was pretty good, even though they were out of vegetables. It was a beautiful sunny day!
Our Go North rig at the Arctic Circle
We crossed the Arctic Circle and two river ferries, the Peel River and then the Mackenzie. Jay and I thought the Arctic Circle rest area on the Dempster was much more beautiful than the Arctic Circle crossing on the Dalton Highway in Alaska.
The Mackenzie River was a definite highlight of this trip for both of us. Its delta is immense and an important nesting area to millions of birds. The river is large enough to moderate the climate in its ecosystem.
The MV Louis Cardinal takes travelers across the Mackenzie River and to Tsiigehtchic. Often the ferry landing is being rebuilt during the crossing!
The Gwich’in Community of Tsiigehtchic is also served by the ferry crossing and has been a community in this location for about 1400 years. The Gwich’in name for the river is Nagwichoonjik (river flowing through a big country). The river is called Kuukpak (Great River) by Inuvialuit. The Inuvialuit have lived near the mouth of the Kuukpak and it’s delta for about 1000 years.
We arrived in Inuvik and set up camp in Jak Territorial Park Campground and saw a gorgeous sunset.
10:30pm sunset in early September in Inuvik, Northwest Territories
Day 4: To the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk
This was the day we made it to the Arctic Ocean! I was so grateful and excited that we made it. This is the only place in North America where you can drive a private car right to the Arctic Ocean (no oil field tour here).
The Arctic Ocean in Tuktoyaktuk
We spent a couple of hours in Tuktoyaktuk exploring the beach and making hot drinks in the back of the camper. Then, it was time start the long journey back south. That night we drove back to the Mackenzie River to camp at Nitainlaii, Northwest Territories Campground.
Day 5: Finishing the Dempster
We retraced our drive back to the Tombstones and got there in time to walk around a bit and enjoy the evening. It rained quite a bit on this day, so we were glad we got lots of great sun on the way north.
After we finished the Dempster we drove down to Eclipse Nordic Hot Springs near Whitehorse (used to be Takhini Hot Springs). It felt so luxurious to be back on pavement! The hot springs and campground were the perfect way to wrap up this trip along with the giant cinnamon roll from Braeburn Lodge.
Final Thoughts if you want to do this drive yourself
- A pick up camper was the ideal vehicle for this drive. With high clearance and excellent tires, we were able to navigate random construction and potholes no problem. The camper was great since there aren’t many hotels. Learn more at Go North’s website.
- There was no cell phone service for nearly all of this drive. We had a Garmin inReach and that or a satellite phone would be a good idea.
- There were limited places to get food, either groceries or restaurants. We were very glad we had plenty of provisions that we had bought in Fairbanks and Dawson.
Jennie Flaming is a born and raised 4th generation Seattleite and former Fairbanksan living back in her home, Seattle. She writes about outdoor adventure and travel in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada. Follow her online at Ordinary Adventures.
Jennie and Jay in Tuktoyaktuk
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