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ADV NewsTo Where The Road Ends: Dalton Or Dempster Highway – Which One?

To Where The Road Ends: Dalton Or Dempster Highway – Which One?

The good and not so great of both northern routes to the end of the Earth.

Published on 09.09.2022
The end of the road beckons. “Why” is a question as old as time. When a reporter asked George Mallory why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, prior to his third fateful attempt to summit the highest mountain on earth, he simply responded, “Because it’s there”. 

That seems as good a reason as any. 

For those of us likewise fascinated with traveling to the ends of the earth, the Americas offer a unique challenge. Ushuaia, Argentina – at the tip of Tierra del Fuego – widely considered the furthest navigable point on the South American continent, to the Arctic Ocean at the farthest reaches of North America. Completing this circuit, commonly referred to as the “Pan Am” (despite the fact the actual Pan American Highway falls significantly short of reaching either point), generally places one in the ranks of a serious overlander.

Riding the Dempster Highway

Up North in Alaska, Deadhorse is an oil camp at the end of the famous 414 mile (667 km) Dalton Highway on the north slope of Alaska’s Brook range and often the placemark for the northernmost “end of the road.” However, another, albeit slightly more obscure, Canadian village by the name of Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk for short) at the end of the 458 mile (740 km) Dempster Highway is the preferred last stop for many!


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Some, me included, may argue “why not both,” but for many, both simply isn’t an option. For others, getting to the end of the road (any road) is enough. So the question then becomes, “which end of the road?”. 

Deadhorse (70.2002°N) at the end of the Dalton, is technically further North than Tuk (69.4454°N). The Dalton Highway however does not take you to the Arctic Ocean, while the Dempster Highway does. The Canadian highway also has almost twice the dirt as its Alaskan counterpart… So, taking these factors into account, which highway is better?? 

After an impromptu trip to the Arctic, and riding the Dalton and Dempster back-to-back, I’ve analyzed, detailed, categorized and ranked them, in an attempt to answer that very question. So for those of you planning a ride to the furthest-most northern reaches, please read on!

1. Gateway Cities:

Fairbanks (Dalton Hwy) is the 2nd largest city in Alaska, and as such affords most modern conveniences and necessities. I say “most” because while you will likely be able to find things like tires and chains for common ADV motorcycles, unusual requests (as in my case, suitable 17” front AND rear tires) will probably need to be satisfied in Anchorage (360 miles away). Moreover, the perception of convenience has left more than one moto-traveler stranded – especially this year when anyone and everyone on two wheels descended on the 49th state – thus leaving a lot of motoshops unable to meet demand.  

Riding the Dalton Highway
Photo Brent Rostad

Another common notion is that no one in Alaska, including those who call it home, is particularly fond of the city. While it may be flush with strip-malls and over-priced accommodations, it is decidedly lacking in soul, making it the kind of place you’re anxious to pass through on your way north….

Dawson City (Dempster Hwy), considered the Heart of the Klondike, is perched on the shores of the Yukon river, with historic buildings and dirt roads that instantly transport you back to the days of the gold rush. Despite being the 2nd largest city in the Yukon Territory, after Whitehorse, it lacks many of the conveniences of Fairbanks. However, it more than makes up for it in heart. 

And for those with the intestinal fortitude of a true Klondiker, you can partake in the slightly cannibalistic and undoubtedly nauseating tradition of “kissing the toe” at the Sourdough Saloon. The “sourtoe cocktail” involves a shot of whiskey (typically and appropriately, Yukon Jack) and a severed, mummified human toe. For those unwilling to partake, as was I, you are more than welcome to observe and marvel over the throngs of brave souls who line up every night to join the Sourtoe Club!

Winner: Dawson City, Yukon (Dempster Highway)

2. The Road:

The Dalton Highway (aka Haul Road) extends 414 miles between the Elliott Highway (approx. 90 minutes north of Fairbanks) and Deadhorse, Alaska. Approx. 30% of the Haul Road is paved and the remaining 70% a hard-packed gravel / dirt super-highway which, aside from patches of fresh road base due to never-ending road construction, and the occasional bottomless pothole, is amazingly flat and well-graded. In fact, the road is so smooth, you can comfortably cruise in excess of 60-70mph – when it’s dry… 

Riding the Dalton Highway on motorcycle

When it’s wet, it’s a completely different animal. 

The beautifully smooth surface of the highway is due in large part to calcium chloride, a chemical cocktail applied not only as a stabilizer, but as a means of dust suppression. The downside is that it becomes slick as grease when it gets wet, and bakes to your bike in a fine, ceramic-like coating…

The Dempster Highway runs 458 miles between the Klondike Highway (approx. 30 minutes east of Dawson City) and Tuktoyaktuk, the final 86 miles of which was not completed until late 2017. Only approx. 5% of the Dempster is paved, with the remaining 95% almost identical to the Dalton: flat, wide, smooth, subject to never-ending construction, and deadly when wet. 

Riding the Dempster Highway

It seems that calcium chloride is as popular in Canada as it is in the States…

The real danger of both the Dalton & Dempster Highways, is the false sense of security one is unwittingly lulled into when the roads are dry. People often find themselves cruising comfortably one second, and a pig on ice-skates the next. Coupled with the wrong tires, an overcorrection, or the urge to hit the brakes, and you can easily end up in a ditch, or a helicopter. 

Riding the Dempster Highway

My first day in Fairbanks, 2 riders racked up unwanted frequent flier miles in separate incidents. One with a broken leg, and another with a broken back. Whoever first muttered the phrase “god made dirt and dirt don’t hurt,” clearly never high-sided a motorcycle at 60mph.

Motorcycle ride on the Dempster Highway

When the road gets wet and the going gets slow, many (me included) would likely welcome the additional pavement of the Dalton. But weather conditions notwithstanding, most of us are here to chew bubblegum and ride dirt, making the Dempster the preferred choice. Not only does it boast almost 2x the dirt of the Dalton, but it also has the distinct advantage of extending to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, and requires 2 ferry rides along the way.

And who doesn’t love a ferry ride?

Winner: Dempster Highway

3. Traffic:

The Dalton Highway was built for, and serves almost exclusively to provide access to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. As a result, the majority of the traffic consists of trucks and big rigs hauling supplies and equipment. While many of us choose to ride the road in the name of fun, for these truckers it is business, and their driving reflects that fact. Time is money…

Riding the Dalton Highway

Recreational users have complained of aggressive (or at the very least, indifferent) driving tactics, including overly-assertive passing, hogging the road, etc… I personally did not find this to be the case. Perhaps due to the fact that, oncoming traffic aside, I was never passed, and was given the appropriate leeway by the traffic I overtook. 

That said, when the road is dry and you cross paths with a 16-wheeler, you might find yourself in a brown-out at speed, praying for a bit more of that aforementioned chemical cocktail…

The Dempster Highway was likewise originally built to accommodate resource exploitation and a pipeline that never came to pass. A supply road connecting the Northwest Territories to Southern Canada, and later extended to Tuk in a “symbolic effort to link Canada’s coastlines by road, and an aid in Arctic sovereignty”. 

Riding the Dempster Highway

Intention and symbolism aside, the road primarily serves as access to Inuvik & Tuktoyaktuk, with a focus on Tourism, and as a result, sees fewer big rigs and more overlanders.

Winner: Dempster Highway

4. Facilities:

Both the Dalton & Dempster have similarly long stretches between fuel – between 240-250 miles – which for many, requires packing a little extra go-juice. Both have gas stops which may, or may not have unleaded fuel, and may, or may not be closed… Issues like weather, wildfires or road construction, all of which seem to be constant in this part of the world, can affect food and fuel deliveries. 

The two fuel-stops along the Dalton – Yukon Camp & Coldfoot – are camps, with small general stores, basic menus, rustic lodging and sparse provisions. Whereas the 3 fuel-stops on the Dempster – Eagle Plains, Fort McPherson & Inuvik (particularly the later two) – are villages, with a permanent population. As such, there are more options in terms of food and accommodation – perhaps not great options, but options nonetheless…

Riding the Dempster Highway

Inuvik, the last stop before the Tuk and the Arctic Ocean, has an airport, a modern hospital and copious accommodations (which are always inexplicably booked). It also has a problem… one that unfortunately plagues many remote communities in this part of the world. 

After one night in Inuvik, I was anxious to move on…

For my money, I enjoyed the quaintness of the camps along the Dalton. Coupled with the colorful personalities of those who call these remote pitstops home, it lends to the feeling of being “out there” – in all the right ways.

Winner: Dalton Highway

5. Camping:

The Dalton Highway is easily traversed in two days, weather permitting. On my way south, I made it from Deadhorse to Fairbanks in a 13-hour push, including an hour in Coldfoot. No fuss, no muss. That said, paid camping is available at Yukon Camp, and free camping opportunities abound at the Arctic Circle, as well as any number of turn-outs, rest stops or side roads. Although lacking in amenities, there is no shortage of spots to pitch your tent.

The Dempster Highway requires a bit more time, and therefore a bit more consideration when it comes to when and where to lie your head. Many established campsites and wild camping opportunities abound throughout the Yukon, but once you enter Northwest Territories and Indigenous land, wild camping is strictly prohibited. 

Riding the Dempster Highway

Tombstone Mountain Campground, in the shadow of its namesake mountains, on the banks of the North Klondike, is one of the most picturesque established campgrounds I’ve ever stayed in. River Rock Campground, just North of Eagle Plains is another great spot to call home for the night. Coupled with free firewood (I’m not talking a “bundle” of wood, I’m talking sheds full of pre-cut spruce) that is a mainstay of most Yukon campgrounds, and you can’t lose.

Free firewood for the win!

Winner: Dempster Highway

6. Scenery:

The Dalton Highway winds through dense forest, before crossing the mighty Yukon on its way to the 66th parallel and the Arctic Circle. Following meandering rivers as it approaches the jagged and remote Brooks Range, you’ll pass through the Gates of the Arctic and sumit the continental divide at Atigun Pass – at 4,736 feet above sea level, the highest navigable pass in the State of Alaska. 

Riding the Dalton Highway

Descending the pass onto the North Slope, the mountainous terrain gives way to vast, open tundra, dotted with lakes, wildlife and remote pump stations servicing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. While some will surely disagree, I enjoyed and was fascinated by the infrastructure of Alyeska Pipeline (as it is legally referred) as it wound its way across the tundra and over the mountains.

The Dempster Highway likewise pierces forests, follows rivers, summits passes, and traverses lake-studded tundra. And honestly, the scenery is very similar to that of the Dalton – the primary difference being that the Dempster just has more: More mountain passes, more rivers, more lakes… and more “wow” factor.

Motorcycle ride on Dempster Highway

Riding through the Ogilvie Mountains, across plains and high plateaus, before climbing up and over the windswept Richardson Mountain pass into the Northwest Territories, is dramatic to say the least. 

If the scenery along the Dalton is a 10, the Dempster goes to 11.

Winner: Dempster Highway

7. Wildlife:

For many, a highlight of any trip to the wilds is the opportunity to get reacquainted with the natural order of the food chain. Having done very little research myself prior to departing for parts unknown, I had no notions of what to expect when it came to wildlife. I just knew I wanted to see a grizzly, which ironically, was one of the only animals I didn’t see on this journey…

Along The Dalton Highway, I had the opportunity to see lynx, fox, moose, musk ox, dall sheep & caribou. Many, surprisingly close and, in some cases, nonchalantly wandering the streets of Deadhorse.

Riding the Dalton Highway

Despite The Dempster Highway’s reputation for having more wildlife, I only saw a few moose and an arctic fox in my four days on Canada’s northernmost road. Admittingly, a lot of locals informed me that this year had been particularly sparse in terms of wildlife (for reasons unknown), but the lack of wildlife on the Dempster, especially compared to the Dalton, left me wanting…

Of course, wildlife isn’t just limited to these specific roads. Elsewhere on my journeys I was fortunate enough to come across multiple black bears, giant porcupines, buffalo, wolves, red fox and bald eagles, just to name a few – but a winner must be crowned! 

Winner: Dalton Highway

8. The End of the Road:

Alas, we’ve come to the end of the road! The only thing to do now is soak in, turn around, and do it all over again… But before we do, perhaps we should rest-up a bit. Remember, more mountaineers perish on Everest descending the mountain, after exhaustion has set-in.

So, where’s the best spot to relax and kill a bit of time??

Deadhorse exists solely to service the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay. With only an estimated 25-50 permanent residents, the city swells to over 5,000 temporary residents, many of whom are on an alternating weeks-on / weeks-off schedule, facilitated by the small airport in town. 

Riding the Dalton Highway

While perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, I personally found the infrastructure and equipment of the oilfields fascinating. It all lent to the feeling of being “out there” – like a colony on Mars. The other striking characteristic of the city is how amazingly clean it is.

Due to strict environmental regulations, Deadhorse is spotless. There isn’t so much as a cigarette butt on the ground… What it does have, is wildlife coexisting peacefully among the industrial complex, which lends to the otherworldly atmosphere.

Riding the Dalton Highway

Most lodging in the area caters to oilfield employees, with bunkhouse-type ambiance and cafeteria-style dining. That said, oilfield workers eat – they eat a lot – and they eat well. The copious amounts of buffet-style dining offered at bunkhouse hotels such as the Aurora will keep your tank topped-off for the long ride back to civilization. 

Tuktoyaktuk is an Inuvialuit village with a permanent population of approx. 1,000 residents. Riding into town, one can’t help but notice (and smell) the municipal dump and junkyard on the outskirts of town. Not the best first impression…

But first impressions aside, the village itself is quaint and picturesque – complete with kids playing ball and families picnicking on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. With a handful of lodging options (primarily B&B’s) and Grandma’s Kitchen serving local dishes like fried whale blubber, you can rest-up and refuel before making the long ride southbound.   

Despite the charming nature of Tuk, I have to give the nod to Deadhorse on this. Not only because of its cooler (and easier to pronounce) name, but due to its unique atmosphere, which really does make you feel as if you’re at the ends of the earth…

Winner: Deadhorse (Dalton Highway)

9. Bragging Rights – “Doin’ it for the Gram”:

We can pretend it doesn’t exist, but in a world where nobody does anything without posting it to social media, it’s hard to deny… Whether we admit it or not, bragging rights come into play, perhaps even subconsciously, for many of us. 

Riding the Dalton Highway

Case in point: During my years-long tenure in Patagonia, at the helm of the spot in the town where many an overlander stopped on their way to the southernmost end of the road, I argued over-and-over again against the reigning champion of Ushuaia. My points were researched, well-reasoned, largely agreed upon, and almost always ignored… 

Why? Because who the hell has ever heard of Caleta Maria?  

Much in the same way, Deadhorse is the “end of the road” of record. It’s got the cool name and the cool sign that everybody wants to take their picture in front of. I ran into riders in Dawson City (the gateway to the Dempster), who were only there to ride the Top of the World Highway en route to Deadhorse. They had no interest whatsoever in riding to Tuktoyaktuk – a town they had never heard of, and couldn’t pronounce even if they had.

Riding the Dalton Highway to Deadhorse

Thanks in part to reality shows like Ice Road Truckers (which ironically, was originally inspired by a book based upon Canada’s Northwest Territories), the Dalton Highway and Deadhorse has become renowned beyond the world of overlanding, as the be-all and end-all for farflung, end-of-the-road bragging rights.

Winner: Dalton Highway

Final Score

CATEGORY DALTONDEMPSTER
Gateway Cities
The Road
Traffic
Facilities
Camping
Scenery
Wildlife
The End of the Road
Bragging Rights
SCORE:45

With a final score of 5 to 4, the winner is… YOU! 

No matter which road you choose, as long as you don’t end up racking up any of those frequent flier miles, you’re going to win. Better yet,  Fairbanks and Dawson City are a scant 387 miles apart, via the Alaska and Top of the World highways – 2 more to check off your list!

Since you’re already in the neighborhood, I humbly suggest you ride them both and make your own conclusions. Don’t take my word for it – I’m just some guy on the internet…

And once you do, please comment below and let us know which has the worst mosquitoes.

A winner must be crowned!! 

Photos Chad Horton | Brent Rostad

Author: Chad Horton

Originally from Los Angeles, Chad threw a leg over a motorcycle for the first time at the ripe old age of 30. Instantly hooked, he competed in his first District-37 NHHA race less than a year later. Whether racing in the Mojave, riding mopeds through Thailand, Route-66 on a Harley, surviving “Mad Sunday” during the Isle of Man TT races, or riding his Honda Africa Twin solo from California to Patagonia, Chad lives and breathes all things two wheels. When not behind bars, Chad is an active SCUBA Diver, skydiver, avid snowboarder, world traveler and below-average surfer.

Author: Chad Horton
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8 thoughts on “To Where The Road Ends: Dalton Or Dempster Highway – Which One?

  1. I rode the Dalton in 2014 on a Triumph 955 Tiger. The bike rode well no problems,We left No Cal and rode up the coast Oregon and Washington The border crossing was a hassle they searched our M/c’s. Border was open at only certain hours, check before you get there. Once into Canada the ride through the Frazier River area was great Lots of hassle with our money exchange rate. We rode to Watson Lake and payed a high price for a sh**ty cabin The next day we rode 663 miles to Tok Ak The roads were mostly dirt their was a lot of construction and delays. They all had good looking women manning the stop signs Hint always pass the cars in line and go to the front it is ok in Alaska to do this Hope for a pilot truck driver that goes above the posted speed as there is a lot of loose deep gravel and the faster you went the better to get over it. Lots of mosquitos W e went to Coldfoot and then on to Wiseman W e stayed with a fellow named Clutch in Wiseman great choice went back next year with Grandsons he is the real deal gol miner and great story teller Northern most VFW post played golf at 1 am. then on to the Atigun pass and on to Deadhorse and stayed at the Black and Gold Due to security we could not swim in the ocean as we had planned Dont buy into the bs about the truckers been jerks they are the first to stop if you need help Respect them and you get there respect. Carry gas and tubes although we never had any flats. I enjoyed this ride very much I rode it the age of 67 and would do it again!

  2. Love the vivid language accompanied by the beautiful pictures! Always a pleasure reading! Sooo….where do they get the supplies of sourdough toes from?! Frost bit victims donations?

  3. Very good article! I rode both roads in August 2017. The Dempster unfortunately did not open north of Inuvik until November of that year. Also unfortunate, I ran into a full-on blizzard on Atigun Pass and after the third trucker stopped me, concerned for my safety, I turned around. So i also found the truckers to be friendly and didn’t have any issues with the way they drove either. Personally I saw way more wildlife along the Dempster, but also found the Dempster to be much more treacherous when wet, compared to the Dalton. It’s a tough call between the two, but I’m thinking a lot more about going back to ride to Tuk than I am thinking about Deadhorse.

  4. I did the Dempster July 2019. The plan was to do one and/or the other based on the weather window after reaching the start. When getting to Dawson City, we had good weather so that forced a decision. Although we encountered some riders coming back from the Dempster that had various broken parts of their motorcycle from some mud related crashes due to wet weather a couple of days earlier. The weather held out all the way there and back for a 5 day round-trip from Dawson City to Tuk and back.
    A week later after camping at Chena Hot Springs north of Fairbanks close to the southern approach for the Dalton, it was raining quite hard with no sign of letting up in the short term. That forced our hand to skip the Dalton for this trip.
    In general it is good to have some flexibility for riding in the northwest of Alaska or Canada based on the conditions at the time, adjusting your route accordingly.

  5. In 1996 I rode from Maryland to Deadhorse via Top of the world highway among the Alaska loop.. and back home.. Always in a tent and many meals with a little camp stove set up.. Have done other trips in other countries and the states but nothing compares to Alaska!! Met some great people and many great memories.. If you can go, just get on the road. Don’t delay.. You don’t need an adventure bike either, I did it on a BMW K11LT.. Enjoy.

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