August 26, 2022
We woke up to a mixture of sun and clouds and headed down the road from our hilltop campsite. Before we went into Dawson City for breakfast, we briefly detoured to nearby Midnight Dome Viewpoint.
As we approached the viewpoint, clouds hovered beneath us and swirled above.
The lookout provided views of the town and the Yukon River snuggled beneath clouds. It was a breathtaking place to begin our day.
Down in Dawson City, an old Klondike Gold Rush town, the day began slowly. We were passing through today, as we were eager to start our trip (way) north, but we hoped to return and explore Dawson City on our return and maybe even stay at one of the rustic inns. The town seemed not much changed from a century ago with dirt (now mud) streets, wooden sidewalks and some small stores.
Only a couple of small cafes were open but we found good coffee and a flavorful breakfast burrito at a place with plywood booths and sleepy locals, most wearing heavy jackets. Perhaps there was heat on inside the café but it felt about the same to us as it did outside in the 45-degree temperatures. At least we had a warm breakfast and were out of the wind.
After, we took a brief walk along the Yukon River waterfront where we were humbled by a display that described the tragic sinking of a steamer carrying 343 passengers and crew—all perished.
From there, we headed to the visitor center, which opened just as we arrived to get some information about the Dempster Highway. It turned out there were two visitors’ centers in town, located across the street from one another—one for tourist information about the town and a tiny second one for the Dempster and the Arctic.
The Dempster Highway was originally an old dog sled road. In 1958, oil and gas were discovered in the Mackenzie Delta and for years, the Canadian government slowly built the road, eventually reaching its terminus in 1978 at the small settlement of Inuvik. Along the way, the road crosses the Ogilvie and Richardson Mountain ranges. There are virtually no intersections from other roads along its length. The Dempster is 456 miles long, but to get to the Arctic Ocean, we’d have to drive another 91 miles on the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Road, also a dirt road and newly opened in 2017, to dip our toes in the ocean – for a total of 547 miles, each way. Nearly all of the miles were dirt, some in decent shape, some not. Because there is little commerce along the road, few large trucks travel it and some services are 200 miles apart.
The first few miles of the Dempster are seal-coated, lulling you into a false luxury. Soon it was all loose dirt but in surprisingly good shape. Another lull.
Then the road twists around and up into hills and soon you feel like you’ve made a mistake and the dirt road must end soon.
But the road keeps going for miles and miles and winds its way from the high valley up into spectacular mountains until you are in Tombstone Provincial Park, with one of the mountains soaring over 7,000 feet above the lowlands. Potholes and washboard surface abounded.
Traveling up the Dempster and crossing the Arctic Circle by vehicle was a long-wished-for bucket list item and we expected it would be one of the highlights of the trip. Ultimately, we wanted to dip our toes in the frigid Arctic Ocean, a few more hundred miles north of the circle. We’d anticipated a boring drive through endless, bland tundra but we were in for a surprise.
The colors were not like anything we’d seen before, with golds, reds, greens and black carpeting the mountains as the end of August signaled fall here. We stopped at the territorial park visitor center out of the chilly wind to learn more about hiking opportunities.
It was partly cloudy and cool when we set off to hike up to Goldensides Mountain, aptly named because of the golden-colored low bushes growing there. In the trailhead parking lot, we met Marge and Brant who had driven up from Florida and we’re on a six-month road trip. Susan recognized their accent and it turned out they were from Philadelphia, where Susan grew up. They slept some of the time in their Ford pickup and like us were unencumbered with luxury. We quickly realized that anyone up here was not your typical vacationer. This was a place for adventurers and we had a lot in common with almost everyone we met. We hoped to see our new Philly friends somewhere but they were on their way back from the Arctic and were just starting in that direction, so it seemed unlikely. Such are the friendships of the traveler.
The hike was steep but less than three miles long. It was incredibly beautiful as we trekked through low tundra vegetation, climbing toward the tree line. Behind us, a huge wild valley opened up, stretching back for miles.
We kept our eyes on some rain coming down the valley, but it mostly blew to the north, away from us. Some of the mountains were bathed in gold from the low plants growing on the flanks, and the sun and clouds played changing colors on them.
Eventually, we reached a ridge above the trees and scrambled up the rocky trail. As we climbed, I felt like I was struggling a bit on the trail and realized I seemed to be coming down with a head cold, but it was easy to ignore while taking in the scenery.
Once we reached the summit and made our way around the giant, rough boulders, another giant valley and more mountains suddenly stretched out for miles before us.
The scenery was breathtaking, but we noticed more rain approaching from the canyon behind us so we started heading back. It was cool and windy and we didn’t want to add wet to that.
Too late. The rain caught us midway back down the mountainside but at least we were well-bundled.
I was amazed that my $25 Costco camping coat kept me warm and dry. I’m sure they didn’t design it to challenge the Yukon Territory but it did. Back at the truck, we laid out our wet coats in the back on top the cooler, turned on the rear heat on to dry our gear, cranked up the front heat and our seat warmers and continued north on the Dempster.
The road got worse. This late in the season (the aspen were already changing color), the dirt road was full of potholes and rough sections. The road is regraded in spring and by this late in the season the weather had taken its toll. The speed limit was an optimistic 50 mph but we barely went 40 so we could avoid the worst. It would take longer than we thought to get to the end of the road.
As we continued up the highway through more of Tombstone Territorial Park, more gorgeous scenery (including the spectacularly rust-colored Red Creek) was around every corner.
There were odd cone-shaped gray mounds, distant glaciers, and nearby mountains covered in every possible autumn hue.
We saw a sign advertising a campground and decided to stop to cook an early dinner at one of the picnic tables. Unexpectedly, just as we got out of the truck the sun came out. It was suddenly in the 60’s and we were warm for the first time all day.
We continued driving for a few hours after dinner, continuing to be awed by the ever-changing scenery.
Eventually, we left the mountains for a high plateau. We stopped for the night on a side road leading to a microwave tower. From our campsite, we had a 270-degree view of distant mountains, rain storms and a tiny rainbow.
A single vehicle rumbled by on the Dempster below us. High up, the wind kept any mosquitoes at bay. I went to sleep thinking about what might start rattling apart in the truck. With over 1,000 miles of rough dirt road to go, I was hopeful our sturdy Rocky was up for it. Sunset came late this far north but we were tired from the days activities and fell asleep before dark.
Yo! How’d youse rekignize the Philly aksent anyhow?