In late 2017, an all-weather highway opened in the Northwest Territories, making it Canada’s first public road to lead directly to the Arctic Ocean. The 86-mile-long Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway (ITH) replaced the Tuktoyaktuk Winter Highway, an ice road that connected the town of Inuvik with the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk during the winter—or, more specifically, until it melted. (Even then, summer access was by boat or an expensive flight only.) The new, two-lane gravel highway snakes around the area’s many lakes and creeks and, for the first time, opens up the Territories’ far-flung northern reaches to visitors all year round. You can make the journey up the highway and back within a day, but if you’ve gone that far (68 degrees north, to be more precise) you might as well stretch out the trip and make the most of it.
The trip: Three days, 172 miles
What to drive
Anything, but ensure that your vehicle and tires are in good condition. Highway conditions vary widely based on weather and time of year: check this government website for updates. Note that there is no cell phone service for much of the road. You can rent a vehicle from Driving Force, which has two locations in Inuvik, but book in advance.
When to go
This drive can be done all year but promises a vastly different experience in winter compared to summer. I did the trip in late winter (mid-March) and, while I often claim to feel at home in the north, I found conditions on the edge of bearable, with temperatures averaging -5°F and an occasional wind chill so fierce I feared it might flay me alive. Summer brings more comfortable temperatures of up to 60°F, as well as more facilities and longer days: the sun doesn’t set from late May through late July. Winter, however, brings the promise of activities such as sleeping in an igloo, reindeer herding, and northern lights viewing—aim for February for longer daylight hours.
How to get to Inuvik
First Air flies direct to Inuvik from Yellowknife, Northern Territories, while Air North can get you there from Whitehorse, Yukon (with a connection). For a longer road trip, get on the Dempster Highway in Dawson City. The 458-mile unpaved, gravel highway crosses the Arctic Circle and ends in Inuvik, connecting to the ITH.
On the eastern channel of the Mackenzie Delta, Inuvik is Canada’s largest community north of the Arctic Circle and the area’s administrative and government center. Stop into the Western Arctic Regional Visitor Centre (open June to September) to check out exhibits on local culture and to source some last-minute travel tips. Afterward, a tour of Inuvik’s highlights should include Our Lady of Victory Church, better known as the Igloo Church: The silvery, snow house-inspired dome structure is a striking sight from the outside, but be sure to also take a look at the interior, decorated with paintings by Inuit artist Mona Thrasher. The region is home to some very talented artists so don’t leave Inuvik without browsing some of the native art and craft galleries—The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation Craft Shop sells carvings, jewelry, and hand-stitched wall hangings. In summer, you can also check out the 10-day-long Great Northern Arts Festival, meet local artists, and participate in workshops.
Have an early dinner at Alestine’s before turning in: dishes like whitefish tacos and reindeer chili are prepared in a school bus and served (with a little sass) in the tiny adjacent cabin. Inuvik has a handful of hotels and B&Bs and you can camp in the summer. Winter brings the more adventurous option of sleeping in an igloo on top of a frozen lake at the Aurora Igloo Camp, and I promise it’s cozier than it sounds. The camp is run by Tundra North Tours, an Inuit-owned, Inuvik-based company that organizes tours and bespoke experiences around the region.
Today you hit the ITH. Leaving Inuvik, the landscape changes suddenly and dramatically as you head north, crossing the tree line, past boreal forest and onto stark rolling tundra sparsely dotted with stunted birch and Arctic willow. There are few designated pull outs along the highway, so stopping for photos and spotting wildlife—such as ptarmigan, grizzly bears, lynx, foxes and moose—requires pulling over far to the side. The road passes close to the winter grazing grounds of Canada’s only reindeer herd, introduced (from Russia via Alaska) to the region 80 years ago in an ambitious project that hoped to provide food security for local Inuvialuit. (Caribou numbers at the time were in rapid decline). The reindeer have become something of an attraction and visitors can help assist their lone herder in his daily chores, rounding them up on the frozen lakes far off the side of the road. Keep in mind that you’ll need an introduction, so talk to Tundra North Tours first.
Approaching Tuktoyaktuk (known locally as “Tuk”), great pingos—dome-shaped earth-covered mounds with ice cores—come into view. Pingo Canadian Landmark features eight of the 1,350 pingos found in the region, including the 160-foot-high Ibyuk Pingo, the second-tallest in the world. In summer you can get a closer look, but you’ll need a boat: Find a local outfitter offering motorboat tours or rental canoes in Tuk.
Tuk has no hotels yet, but there are a few small B&Bs—none have websites, so find phone numbers here.
Before turning around and heading back down the ITH, explore Tuk, whose population of around 900 is predominantly Inuvialuit. You’ve made it to the Arctic Ocean so head first for the point and dip a toe in—or if you’re brave, take the plunge. Because I visited in winter, I had the odd experience of actually walking on the frozen ocean; while there, I saw few signs of life beyond husky dogs yelping on chains outside colorful houses and the occasional snowmobile zipping by, but summer brings better opportunities to meet locals. From Thursday to Saturday, the community hosts the Pingo Market, an opportunity to not only purchase locally made crafts, but also to learn about life in the area. Traditional culture thrives here and many residents continue to hunt, trap, and fish.
While exploring Tuk, you’ll likely spot the retired schooner Our Lady of Lourdes. Berthed outside the town’s Catholic church, it once delivered supplies to remote Catholic missions and carried Inuvialuit children to residential schools. Also look out for the sod house, a recreation of a traditional Inuvialuit dwelling, built from driftwood and sod. When it’s time to hit the road back to Inuvik, make one last stop at the Hamlet Office to purchase a bumper sticker bearing a simple legend that encapsulates have far you’ve come: I Made it to Tuk.
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