Dempster Hwy or Dalton Hwy?

Mention either one of these highways to motorcyclists and you’ll probably get the routine response of, “I so want to do that’ or “I know someone who did that” or maybe even “which one is better?" Many long rides are launched from this area.

         Our 2014 Dempster Highway ride.

    It went well. Either road can crush you.

... like this poor chap. I borrowed these 3 Dalton Hwy pics.

Let me state right away, I have not ridden the Dalton Hwy. I have, however, been fortunate enough to have ridden the Dempster Hwy in July of 2014. My point to be made here, is that the Dempster Hwy, at this time, should be your immediate choice.

Let’s first look at how these highways stack up, with a quick overview, and see how they are same same, not same. These two roads are in a unique part of the planet and have been conctructed specifically to meet the conditions and challenges that the weather, and terrain (tundra) present.

  1. The Dalton Hwy runs through Alaska whereas the Dempster Hwy winds through Canada. Doesn’t mean much except you may want to remember your passport. Both places abound with friendly northeners.
  2. Both roads have around the same amount of gravel to be traversed, (app. 400mi/700kms one way). From what I’ve read, the Dalton Hwy actually has some paved stretches, sort of. Only pavement you’ll see on the Dempster is a 10 mile stretch coming into Inuvik, and it's barely pavement.
  3. The Dalton has some steep, longish, climbs. Any hills on the Dempster, even if steep, are short. More like winding slopes.
  4. Both have places to camp, cave person style, or find a bed, or chow. There's more humanity travelling on the Dalton, but perhaps longer stretches of nothing. Both are pretty slim pickings for just about anything except 'skeeters' and scenery.
  5. Both roads are Jeckly  and Hyde...ish, depending on whether wet or dry.  Seriously.
  6. You will probably have to ride hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles, in a northerly direction to even get to either of these roads, through some absolutely amazing country, full of bears, bison, sheep, tourists, trucks, weather, and of course….fellow bikers.  You’ll have to eat amazing small café cinnamon buns and visit hot springs, hotels, campgrounds and have a dozen conversations at various gas stations. Hmmmm, that actually sounds pretty cool. If you come north from the USA, or even southern Canada, expect whatever tires you have on your bike to be half scrubbed off before you even scratch gravel on either highway.
  7. On these highways, if things get topsy turvy, you may get picked up by a helicopter. Medivac. Check your medical insurance.
  8. Yes, Harleys, Gold Wings and various other street bikes can traverse these roads, but look back at number 5…seriously. Do your research. What to ride, tires etc. is another conversation for another time. We rode Vstroms with enduro type tires, and had no serious problems. Most certainly, a few entertaining moments, of fear and adrenaline, were experienced.
  9. Although isolated, either of these highways are safe enough when it come to thieves or bandits. It's the northern hemispere, and banditos are sparse. Probably too cold. Of course ordering a part from up here may feel like highway robbery.
  10. The Dalton Hwy ends at a massive oil field where you can stay in an open camp. Not a 5 star hotel, but you’ll be well fed, warm and dry.
  11. The Dempster highway ends in Inuvik, a small community of 4500 residents. There are hotels, pizza, and yes wait for it...beer. It’s been a cross roads for Inuit, first nations, traders and explorers, for a long, long time. You cannot drive to Tuktoyuktuk at this time, but...

Now it gets interesting, and here, for me, is what really separates these two mighty highways, but not for long. The Dalton Hwy was built initially as a heavy haul transport road, servicing the huge Prudhoe Bay oil fields. That means you’re going to pass, and be passed, by dozens of semi trucks, doing what they do; dragging 100,000 lbs or more, in units 75’ to 85’ long, or longer, and some wider than a dozen feet. As a retired truck driver, I know these drivers mean well, but those rigs can toss rocks the size of baseballs, and at fast ball speeds. Stay frosty, and ATGATT, comes to mind. If your bike gets finicky, check that air filter right away. Embrace the dust/mud/potholes/gravel/bugs/wind/rain, and heat. Yes, heat. It was 25 degrees celcius when were in Inuvik, early July. Even the mosquitos wore SPF 30. All that aside, the experience is so outstanding, any headaches encountered will make for some great stories. Think of the character building.

The Dempster Hwy has more of, what I would call, a country road feel to it. Well, a really long, isolated, unique, country road. We encountered maybe a half dozen semis over 4 days, and on the whole, saw very little traffic of any type. We did go through 2 construction zones, and there was more localized gravel trucks and graders, but that was over a 40 mi/65km stretch. We did catch up to the truck spraying the road, with calcium and magnesium. That was messy, and slippery. See below.

Now for the kicker; a short 90mi/140km stretch of road is being built at this time to connect Inuvik to Tuk. This is expected to be done sometime in 2018. The Canadian Govt. calls this, and I quote, “a road to resources”.

And my point is made. You ride the Dalton Hwy knowing full well you’re on a heavy haul truck route. Not a deal breaker, but an absolutely different feel than the Dempster Hwy. In 2014, when we rode the Dempster hwy, you could park, pretty much in the middle of the road, eat a granola bar, swig some coffee, have a nature break, and be interrupted only by the bugs, or a small motorhome with a couple from Idaho, who stopped to chit chat. I’m guessing that after 2018 that is going to start changing. Some of the resource companies are already stating that they hope to be hauling exploration equipment north by 2020.

So there it is. The Dempster Hwy really is perhaps the most pristine and less traversed of these two, mighty highways. But the winds of change are blowing. I’m sure in years to come, either one will still be an adventurous ride, yet, it’s only for the next few years, the Dempster Hwy may stay...less traversed. Same same, not same.

Saddle up my friends, don’t put it off any longer. You’ve always wanted to see this part of the world and now you have even more reason, perhaps even a sense of urgency to do so. Heck, you may as well go up and down the Dempster Hwy and then head over and ride the Dalton Hwy. There, it’s done. Now, why didn’t we do that? I suppose, in the end, either highway is the right choice. This is just a few thoughts for your tickler file. Happy trails my friends, rubber side down, and we’ll see you on the other side.