In August 2011, I went on an epic road trip up the 740km (460 mile) Dempster Highway with my uncle and cousin.
Our total road trip distance was over 7500km long. We started in Calgary, Alberta and made stops in British Columbia (BC), Alaska, Yukon, and the NWT. Even if you don’t plan to drive all the way to Inuvik, this post describes some of the best road trip destinations throughout Western Canada.
Our plan was to take a helicopter from Inuvik, Northwest Territories (NWT), for a week of remote camping and fishing. While the chopper trip didn’t work out because of weather, the drive to Inuvik was spectacular and one I’d highly recommend.
Inuvik is the most northerly town in Canada accessible by road in the summer months. In the winter, once the Mackenzie River freezes, there is an ice highway even further north to Tuktoyaktuk.
Our Dempster Highway Road Trip Driving Route
Beginning in Calgary, we drove west to Canmore, Banff, and Lake Louise on the Trans-Canada Highway. We then drove north on Highway 93 to Jasper.
The route from Calgary to Jasper is a tourist favourite for good reason. The highways offer spectacular scenery of the Canadian Rockies and the stretch of highway from Banff to Jasper is especially scenic.
My favourite parts of the Banff to Jasper drive are the Columbia Ice Fields and Mt. Robson. Mt. Robson is the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies at 3954m making it a treat to see on a clear day.
As born and raised Calgarians, we have done the 5-hour drive to Jasper numerous times before. We did not stop very often, but we were thrilled to see a beautiful black bear cub and some mountain sheep off the highway in Banff National Park. Although I saw a lot of wildlife off the highway as a child, it is becoming less and less common due to the increased amount of traffic and number of people using Canada’s National Parks. These days, seeing moose or bears near the highway is a real treat.
On day one, we drove approximately 900km to Fort Fraser, a community of around 1000 people, where we set-up camp for the night. Most tourists would want to take several days to cover this terrain as it is some of the most spectacular in Canada, but as our target was the Arctic Circle, we had to make good time.
Columbia Ice Fields, British Columbia
From Fort Fraser, we drove to Smithers, B.C., (pop. 5,400) and camped at a Par 3 Golf Course which was hosting some of the nicest motorhomes I’ve ever seen. Several of these rolling mansions had license plates showing they had come from as far as Florida, Texas, and South Carolina, which shows how popular Western Canada is among road trippers. I picture Smithers as an ideal retirement town in the summer months but am curious how it would be in the winter.
Thanks to my uncle’s expertise on B.C.’s geology, we were able to hike to an old Gold Mine that was originally worked in the 1940’s to collect gold-tellurides. I picked up some nice mineral specimens while enjoying the great weather, scenic views, and fresh air, making it a perfect break from driving. If you are interested in the mining history of the region, check tourist information for gold panning tours.
From Smithers, we drove north to Stewart (pop. 400), which is right on the BC / Alaska border. On Highway 37A, you can’t miss the Bear Glacier.
During the drive, we saw a couple of solo black bears. Then, at a rest stop, we saw a pair of black bears who were not terribly shy of our presence. I was able to take photos from ~10 meters, but stood right next to our vehicle in case they took interest in me and I needed to seek refuge.
Tourists are often seriously hurt or killed by getting too close to wildlife in Canada’s National Parks. Never approach or feed Canadian wildlife – maintain a safe distance!
The area surrounding Stewart is very rich in minerals and was a booming mining town in its day. Now, the population of Stewart is only around 400 people, many of whom are transient, and it is apparent that the town is not what it once was. That said, since gold was hitting record high prices in 2011, there was a lot of excitement in the air with numerous stores displaying fresh signs marketing various businesses related to mineral extraction.
Black Bears on Highway, British Columbia
From Stewart, we crossed the border into the American town of Hyder, Alaska (pop. 87) and continued up a mining road to check out the grizzly bears who often fish for Salmon on the creek right next to the Highway. There is a US Wildlife station there now, and it is possible to pay an admission to see the grizzly bears from the safety of a boardwalk. When I was younger, we were able to simply stop and view the grizzly bears for free from a gravel bridge, but obviously the area has gained in popularity since then and the US Wildlife team decided that is is now necessary to protect people from themselves. After viewing the grizzly bears, we continued driving on the gravel road which criss-crosses the US/Canada border all the way up to the Salmon Glacier, the world’s largest glacier accessible by road. All I can says is WOW! The Salmon Glacier is truly breathtaking. The gravel road was built to serve several mining operations deep in the bush, and although many of the mines have closed their operations, others were showing signs of new life as the rise in commodity prices drew prospectors back to the claims.
Once back in Stewart, we met up with one of my uncle’s friends who is the longest living resident of Stewart. I believe he’s in his 70s and has lived in the town his whole life. He’s an old geologist / prospector type and has a really fun and quirky Australian wife who is still filled with energy despite her age. We crushed a few beers as they told stories of Stewart over the years, many of which were unbelievable but true. One of the more impressive stories was with respect to Stewart’s snowfall records and how the snow piles up so high next to the streets in the winter that you’re unable to see the mountains or neighbouring houses from your vehicle. My uncle’s friend also brought out a few revolvers from his collection to show us. One was from the 1898 gold rush, another from a shoot-out in Mexico in 1910, and the final was a newer .44 Magnum that he carries “for the bears” when out prospecting. Pretty neat stuff! I would have loved the opportunity to pop a few of our emptied beer cans with them, but sadly my gun slinging days will have to wait for a future visit…
Waking up at our campsite in Stewart, we had a quick, greasy breakfast with a bunch of miners at Stewart’s King Eddy hotel. We then drove 12 hours north up to Teslin, Yukon (pop. 450), only stopping in Dease Lake (pop. 300) for lunch. Once we were north of Stewart the highways became really quiet and I truly felt as though I was in the remote North. I really enjoyed the drive between Stewart and the Yukon as the scenery begins to change drastically from what I am used to in the National Parks around Banff and Jasper. In northern BC and the Yukon the mountains become less rocky, the topography flattens, and there are trees as far as the eye can see; no wonder the air is so crisp and fresh! We had a quick lunch at Dease Lake, which seems to be the biggest town in the area, and then crashed for a night at the Yukon Motel in Teslin. Teslin is nothing to write home about, but the bridge that brings you into town is beautiful given its contrast with the otherwise untouched wilderness!
After a good night’s sleep in the Yukon motel, we drove another 8.5 hours until we were near Dawson City, where we camped. It was a long day of driving, but at least we had the opportunity to cast some fishing lines into the Klondike River and enjoy the spectacular scenery along the way. Unfortunately, we didn’t catch any fish, so it was canned beans cooked on the campfire for dinner.
The next morning we drove the final 30 minutes into Dawson City, Yukon (pop. 1,320). When driving around Dawson City it’s amazing to see the piles and piles of rocks which are leftover tailings from the dredging of the rivers and hill sides back during the gold rush. Environmental regulations have certainly changed since those early days when it comes to reclamation work but it’s a reminder of how much our respect for the environment has changed over the last century.
Our timing to visit Dawson City was excellent since the Dawson Days Festival was on. There were a lot of good looking gals in town partying so I definitely enjoyed the eye candy after so many long days in the car seeing very few people on the highways and small towns along the way. Historically, Dawson City was the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush which began around 1896. By 1898, Dawson City was thriving with a population of 40,000. All big booms come to an end, and in Dawson City’s case, after only a year, in 1899, the gold rush ended and the town’s population plummeted back down to 8,000 people. These days, although only around 1,300 people call Dawson City home, the population still swells in the summertime.
Dawson City has done its best to preserve its history and past and has become an excellent place to visit if you are interested in the history of the Klondike gold rush or early settlers. There were lots of displays and walking tours available to describe the history of the area and its people. While in town, at one of the antique stores that caters to tourists, I also found pieces of Mammoth Ivory dating back 14,000 years to the last ice age, and antique salt and paper shakers from the early 1900’s, which have been great additions to my travel souvenir collection.
After exploring Dawson City for most of the day, we hopped back in the car and started driving up the Dempster Highway, stopping off at the Interpretive Center in Tombstone Territorial Park. Tombstone is my favourite park in Canada, and I’d love to visit again in the fall when the colours of the trees and vegetation are changing. If you are as far north as Dawson City, I would highly recommend you continue a little further north up the Dempster Highway to at least see the spectacular landscapes of Tombstone Territorial Park.
We continued our road trip up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, in the North West Territories, crossing the Arctic Circle on the way (Inuvik is ~200km North of the Arctic Circle). As expected, the Dempster Highway was great in some sections and awful in others, but overall it was in much better condition than I expected given its reputation for causing flat tires. I was able to drive 90+km/h in areas, while slowing to under 30km/h in others, making it a road that you need to concentrate on driving rather than just setting the cruise control and enjoying the scenery. The highway surface is gravel and it all has been built upon huge amounts of fill due to the fluctuating seasonal temperatures and heaving permafrost. An asphalt road wouldn’t last a season due to the fluctuations in the earth through the freeze / thaw cycle so the design is really as good as it will ever be. During the summer, there were graders working all over the place and it’s obvious the Canadian Government is spending a lot of money to maintain the highway, which is another reason I wanted to make the drive given I’m paying for it’s construction and maintenance as a Canadian taxpayer!
Besides the spectacular scenery, we also saw a couple of black bears and a tundra grizzly on the drive. In total, the drive from Calgary to Inuvik with our various stops was 3995.2km.
Although I was thrilled we had made it to our road trip’s final destination of Inuvik, NWT (pop. 3,500) I was sad to awake to a forecast of cloud and rain. Originally, our plan in Inuvik had been to charter a helicopter for a fishing trip, but we were now uncertain if the chopper would be able to fly us in, or more importantly, pick us up a week later. Given the $6k+ quote for the chopper and the risk of rain all week, we figured it wasn’t worth the money this time and were forced to cancel our plans. It was somewhat disappointing since the back-country fishing was one of our main goals for the road trip, but with all of the great wildlife spottings, incredible scenery and beautiful weather we enjoyed during the drive, I could not complain.
Inuvik was built in 1953 to replace the hamlet of Aklavik on the West Mackenzie Delta as it was prone to flooding and had no room to expand. When the Dempster Highway was completed in 1979, Invuk became the most northerly town one can drive to in Canada in the summer months (in the winter, ice highways can be built further north).
After spending a few hours walking around Inuvik I realized there was not a lot to see or do, but it was definitely still a town I am thrilled to have visited. My favourite parts of Inuvik are the igloo church, the wildly colourful hospital & houses, which I imagine are designed as bright as they are to help avoid depression in the winters, and all of the beautiful women. You probably think I’m joking, but I’m really not, as there actually stunningly beautiful women in the arctic circle! My guess is the Russian and Inuit genes in the area have joined forces to form such naturally beautiful women, but I will admit that after a week in a car staring at nothing but landscapes my perception of beauty may have also changed somewhat.
Since we couldn’t go on our helicopter fishing trip due to the weather, and there was not a lot to do in Inuvik, we turned around the car and began our long drive back to Calgary. We had originally planned to camp in Tombstone but the campground was full so we carried on to Moose Creek, driving the entire 735 km (457 mile) Dempster Highway in a day. The highlight of our long day behind the wheel was certainly the wildlife, as we saw 2 tundra grizzlies, 2 arctic foxes, 2 cats (perhaps bobcat or lynx?) as well as a very large porcupine.
Continuing our long return drive to Calgary, we made it to Watson Lake, an interesting little town. The major highlights of Watson Lake are its Northern Lights Center, where we enjoyed interesting films on Astronauts and the Northern Lights, and its ‘Sign Post City’, where people have placed over 10,000 signs.
The final days of the trip were relatively uneventful and mostly consisted of putting in miles with quick stops for meals. We managed to put in up almost 900km each day, making the long drive home go by quite quickly. To confirm that this was the most wonderful collection of wildlife I have ever seen on a road trip, we saw more bears, big horn sheep, caribou, and a large herd of bison. Spectacular! We didn’t pull over to take too many photos, but I did grab a couple shots of the buffalo as we drove by. On the way towards Edmonton, we stopped in Fort Nelson and Fort St. John, and I thought both towns were quite beautiful given their surrounding scenery. Both towns are known for currently booming with oil and gas activity, and there were lifted trucks and new buildings popping up everywhere giving a real boom town feel to the area.
Canadian Bison, British Columbia
All-in-all, our road trip of Western Canada was spectacular. In many ways, I wish I had a couple of months to travel the same route, with many more stops and hikes included, but even though the change in weather forced the cancellation of our helicopter fishing trip, I was very happy we had driven all the way from Calgary to Inuvik. Many tourists are only interested in the highly worn trail from Calgary to Jasper to Vancouver, but I would highly recommend exploring the remote regions of Canada where things are less developed and there is still an abundance of wildlife to be seen. I personally look forward to returning to returning to the Yukon and spending more time visiting Tombstone Territorial Park and Dawson City as their beauty and history are difficult to surpass.