I am one of the few people who actually enjoy driving. I am not talking about driving on the streets of New York or in stop and go traffic on I-95. I mean driving on open roads passing through beautiful scenery with no traffic lights and no de facto speed limits. The roads where you can actually admire the view of the mountain edges or the ocean in the distance and feel the soft wind blowing through your hair or a summer rain covering the windshield with dozens of small drops.
Dalton Highway is one of these roads for me. Mostly known as a haul road it is heavily used by trucks to transport equipment to the old field at Prudhoe Bay, the Arctic Ocean, so called “the North Slope”. The 414- mile or 666 km road from Eliott highway to the village of Deadhorse is entirely unpaved with no cell phone reception and no services throughout the way. Travelers are advised to follow the rules of the road- trucks always have a right of way, bring a spare tire, a satellite phone, and be prepared for any emergencies as it may be a long wait and walk for help. Rental car companies prohibit travel on Dalton except for a few specialized ones in Fairbanks that provide a 4WD vehicle with all sorts of extras. Flat tires and cracked windshields are common due to numerous potholes and gravel stones flying set into motion by trucks’ passing by. To avoid driving yourself, you can always take one of the tours going up to the Arctic Circle or to the Arctic ocean, where you would spend many hours sardined with strangers in a van- well, it just takes out all the fun out of this drive.
Dalton only has two stops with gas and services – Yukon River Crossing camp at mile 60 open only in summer and a village of Coldfoot and Wiseman at mile 175 that have 24 permanent residents combined. No services are available for 240 miles from Coldfoot to the highway terminus in Deadhorse. My initial idea was to drive 174 miles to Wiseman and stay in Wiseman overnight but their cabins were completely booked by June. Gilad’s initial idea was to drive 0 miles because he watched too many episode of Ice Road Truckers show overdramatizing Dalton hwy, though I have no doubt it is an incredibly challenging route to drive most of the year when it is covered by a thick sheet of ice.We settled on crossing the Arctic Circle at mile 115 and calling it a day. We had a spare tire, camping equipment, food, water and fuel, as well as Milepost magazine with detailed description of the route. Milepost is generally the best source for road travel in the North especially in the areas with no cell service and is updated every year to reflect any changes in road patterns, pullouts, scenic points, gas stations, restaurants and anything else you may need to know of while driving on these remote roads.
We leave the cabin around late morning and drive 70 miles on Elliott highway before we get to the junction with Dalton. The pavement ends immediately and the gravel road begins with 50 miles/hour speed limit. Even though unpaved, the road surface is in great shape with few potholes or frost heaves. As we move further north, we rarely see any other vehicles on the road except a few large rigs coming the opposite direction, a couple of motorcyclists, and several SUVs and RVs. We pass one bicyclist riding along the shoulder with large gear packs. We occasionally hit a few paved sections along the way but they are in a worse shape than gravel parts with cracks and potholes.
Traversing through the hills the road keeps climbing up and immediately going downhill, a section nicknamed “rollercoaster”- we slowly make it uphill in a low gear but it must be a more challenging task for trucks with heavy loads. In fact one section of the road is so windy and the turn is so sudden that it deserved a designation of the “oh shit corner,” where many truckers lost their loads going too fast, and has a road sign to that effect.
Skeletons of spruce trees burned down by a large fire back in 2004 dominate the surrounding taiga. Summer in northern Alaska brings frequent thunderstorms that generate lightning strikes causing approximately 200 wildfires annually but wildfires are viewed as beneficial in the region and are rarely suppressed unless they threaten people or property. Wildfires rejuvenate the forest by reducing mineral-rich wood to ash and releasing phosphorus and sulfur into the soil that serve as fertilizers; they also open up the canopy and expose the forest floor to sunlight thus promoting new growth. The 2004 fire burned over 483 acres from Yukon crossing to the Arctic circle making it one of the largest in history of the region.
Parallel to the road passes the 800-mile long Trans-Alaska oil pipeline moving along in a zigzag fashion disappearing underground and reappearing on the other side. Several pullouts to pipeline access roads are all equipped with gates to prevent unauthorized access and tampering with the oil flow. Halfway to our destination we cross the Edward L. Patton Bridge over a mighty Yukon river. The first ever bridge over Yukon built in 1975 and designed to provide access to the North Slope and to support the pipeline, it remains one of the most expensive construction projects.
Just on the other side of the river we stop at the Yukon camp, get a salmon bisque and a sandwich for lunch, and fill gas at $5.40 a gallon compared to $4 in Fairbanks. Fuel around Dalton is scarce and expensive despite the proximity to the oil fields as there are no refineries in the state. We walk down to the river to the boat launch and see river tours being offered. No fishermen are around since salmon gets to Yukon only in early fall and that’s when the bears are known to frequent the river banks, one of them breaking the Yukon camp window as the boarded window with a bear drawing on it informs us. On the opposite side of the road, just under the pipeline, is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) visitor center staffed by volunteers. Scattered around a small cabin are pamphlets about the area and a map to Gates of the Arctic National Park. A person behind the counter asks us to sign in and after learning that we are going to the Arctic Circle presents us with an “Arctic Circle crossing” certificate.
We pull off the road at mile 98 to the Finger Mountain BLM wayside with interpretive displays and restroom. Finger shaped granite pillar, a tor, is looms in the distance but appears closer than it is. We scramble to the tor through networks of loose boulders pushed to the surface by expanding ice within the soil and cautiously passing through marshes completely soaking our shoes. We finally get to the finger rock, climb up for a few photos, and rest enjoying the panoramic views of alpine tundra on a clear sunny day. Going back we pick up a few wild blueberries abundant in the area along with low bush cranberries.
We continue driving north for 15 more miles crossing the Arctic Circle at latitude 66° 33′. We stop to take a few photos with the Arctic Circle sign and turn around toward Fairbanks. On the way back we drive faster and more confidently on a familiar road. When we stop by the Dalton Highway sign to take a photo, a large rig pulls up next to us. The driver gets us and offers to take our picture together. He comes from Texas but says the money is better here, up North. He warns to slow down for upcoming trucks and gets back on the road; it only takes 12 hours to reach Deadhorse – you leave Fairbanks at 8 and by 8 you are in Prudhoe bay, he adds.
We are back on the paved Eliott highway but still moving slowly stuck behind a large rig and four motorcyclist unwilling to pass it. Getting to Fairbanks to late to get dinner in town we decide to continue driving toward Anchorage as far as possible. Switching to Parks highway we hit roadwork and wait for almost 20 minute until we are allowed to pass. It is past midnight and the road is completely dark with no lamps along the highway and few vehicles coming our direction. We finally get to Denali by 1 am, it is another 2-3 hours to Talkeetna but the hotels there are completely booked. Too tired to look for a place in the middle of the night further down the road we settle on a cabin in Denali to continue toward Anchorage the next morning.