In late June 2023, I bicycled the length of the Dempster Highway and the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway. My ride was incredible: the scenery was beyond imagination, the never-setting sun was a fantastic experience, and the people I encountered were kind and welcoming.
I’ve set out below some details that you might find interesting if you also want to ride the Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highways.
For reasons that will soon become apparent, you will see that, while I don’t want to dissuade anyone from engaging in bike trips, I don’t recommend this specific route to many cyclists.
What are the Dempster & Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highways?
The Dempster Highway and the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway are separate highways, but in practice they flow together seamlessly and feel like one continuous road.
The Dempster Highway is 736 km long. It’s southern terminus is at Yukon’s Klondike Highway (about 40 km south of the City of Dawson), and it’s northern terminus is at Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. The Dempster Highway opened in 1979 and is Canada’s only highway to cross the Arctic Circle.
The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway is 138 km long. It connects Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, a small town located on the shores of the Bering Sea. The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway was opened in 2017 and is Canada’s first all-weather road to the Arctic Ocean.
What is the Appeal of Riding the Dempster & Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highways?
There are endless reasons why you might want to bike the Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highways.
The natural beauty of the area is unique and in and of itself a compelling reason to visit. Cyclists may also be attracted to the rugged remoteness of the area and the general lack of traffic.
I took the highways because I want to ride coast-to-coast-to-coast across Canada. I started with the Arctic Ocean (Tuktoyaktuk NWT) and plan to visit the Pacific Ocean (Victoria BC) and Atlantic Ocean (Halifax NS) in the coming weeks and months.
Other cyclists may similarly be attracted to Tuktoyaktuk if they are engaging in big bike treks. For example, Tuktoyaktuk would be a good starting or finishing point for anyone wanting to cycle Canada’s west coast, travel on Canada’s northern-most road to southern-most road (near Lake Erie, ON), or bike tip-to-tip across the Americas.
With respect to the latter example, Prudhoe Bay has traditionally been the North American starting or finishing point for cyclists riding across the Americas. Tuktoyaktuk is now a potential alternative.
How Bike-Friendly are the Highways?
I’ve set out below three key factors to consider when thinking about the bike friendliness of the Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highways: road surfaces, traffic, and remoteness.
The Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highways are gravel. Only a few kilometres are paved around Inuvik (from the airport into town), and several hundred metres at the southern terminus of the Dempster Highway (where it connects with the paved Klondike Highway).
The type of gravel used on the road changes with regularity because local gravel was used to build the road. And I mean “local” — you can see the many quarries used for road construction as you travel along the road.
Based on my experience, you will encounter three main categories of gravel roads:
- KM 0 to KM 369 (the junction with the Klondike Highway to Eagle Plains): In this section, the road generally consists of fine stones held together with a clay-dirt mixture. The road is solid and packed down when dry, often smooth although there are a lot of potholes and washboard patterns. When wet, the road is soft and muddy. Rolling resistance will increase, and you will get mud all over your clothes. The mud is sticky and will clog your gearset.
- KM 369 to Inuvik: In this section, the gravel generally consists of chunkier stones, some of which are loose but on the whole the gravel is compacted and smooth. I encountered a lot of cobblestone gravel but fewer potholes and washboarding compared to segment no. 1. In rain, this gravel isn’t as sticky or prone to spraying as segment no. 1 gravel, but it is soft — I felt like I was riding on partially deflated tires.
- Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk: This section is made of chunky stones without much holding them together. Many of the stones are the size of golf balls. Riding on this section of the road is like riding on a dry river bed. Your tires may have trouble gripping the gravel, and you are likely to slip (especially on hills). Wide, knobby tires are essential. I didn’t experience any rain on this section, but I don’t expect it to get very muddy in the rain.
The Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highways have modest amounts of traffic. The small population of the region and general remoteness help in this respect.
However, on account of the ruggedness of the road, the traffic on the Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highways tends to be big vehicles. Many transport trucks drive this road, along with construction vehicles (road maintenance is a constant issue) and recreational vehicles (large camper vans, pick-up trucks with sleeping cabins, etc.). Small passenger vehicles are a small minority of vehicles on the road.
I often went hours without coming across a vehicle, especially in the early morning and mid- to late-evening. At other times, I’d have several vehicles pass me in quick succession. Passing vehicles can be dangerous. Cyclists are not always visible because of the hilly, twisty terrain. The road is quite narrow at some points, and poor road surfaces can make it hard for cyclists to keep to the edge of the road (often, the middle of the road has the best surface so it can be tempting to ride there).
When a car passes in dry weather, they leave a big dust cloud in their wake. This dust may make you invisible to other vehicles. It can also choke and blind you.
When a car passes in wet weather, it can spray you with mud. This shouldn’t impact your safety, but it will impact your comfort.
Remoteness & Access to Services
The remoteness of the Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highways is what makes riding them so challenging. I can’t emphasize this enough: the road is remote, rugged, and you will have little support along the way should you chose to travel it.
Starting from KM 0 at the Klondike Highway junction until Fort McPherson at approximately KM 550, you will not encounter a grocery store, gas station, post office, bank, medical centre, or other any other amenity. The only exceptions are (a) basic campgrounds with outhouses (no running water, no electricity); and (b) Eagle Plains, which has a restaurant, mechanic, hotel and basic campground. Eagle Plains does not have groceries or much in the way of supplies.
After Fort McPherson, the next settlements are Tsiigehtchic, Inuvik, and Tuktoyaktuk. I cannot stress how far apart these settlements are from one another.
You are unlikely to have any mobile phone reception outside of settlements. Eagle Plains does not have reception.
If you encounter any difficulties on your journey, you are on your own unless you can flag down a passing vehicle or otherwise make it to one of the aforementioned settlements. Outside of these settlements, there is no where for you to seek shelter from the rain or cold, no food should you become hungry, and no medical centre should you be injured.
There are no bike repair shops on the road. You are on your own unless and until you can get to a bike shop in Whitehorse.
If you ride the Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highways, you must be capable of being self-sufficient for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres.
Would I Recommend Biking the Dempster & Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highways?
I can’t recommend this road to the average bicyclist: it is probably one of the most dangerous routes in Canada to bike, if only because of how remote it is.
Preparation is key to a successful ride on the Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highways. You need to be ready to handle any and everything day after day. This is not a road to take chances on.
I rode the road supported: I had a camper truck following me, which allowed me to end each day with a warm meal and a dry bed. But even so, it was a challenging ride. For example, I had two days of rain. On the second day, it sucked putting on wet biking gear that hadn’t yet dried. I also had to go nearly a week without showering; that’s not enjoyable after biking for days through mud and dust.
If I rode unsupported, it would have been a very different experience. The key consideration would be how I could have carried enough food in my panniers. After that, I question how dry and mud-free my equipment would be after a day of riding the road (answer: not very) and how I could fit all the necessary repair equipment and parts in my panniers.
An unsupported ride is possible — I encountered a few cyclists doing exactly that — but it creates many additional challenges that you need to prepare for.
I highly caution any cyclist against a solo and/or unsupported trip along the Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highways. Only undertake this challenge if you are experienced and well-prepared.
If you chose to ride the Dempster and Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highways, I want to hear about it. Drop me a line or leave a comment below. Happy riding!