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Tackling The Dalton Highway

One minute you’re rolling through steep hills on smooth gravel, the next you’re cruising on uneven pot-hole ridden asphalt, minutes later you might find yourself navigating deep slippery mud and then just as abruptly, you roll onto glassy smooth highway complete with divider and shoulder lines just around the next bend, only to find that it randomly has a divot that tries to send you into the trees.

Any and all of these road conditions will randomly appear and disappear just as quick along the Dalton Highway. The hardest part about driving the Dalton is staying super alert ALL the time. Don’t be fooled and lulled into finding your groove. It’s just a ploy before this road decides to throw something hard and potentially life threatening at you, such as a: bear, moose, caribou, speeding wide load semi truck, pot hole of death or massive unforeseeable undulation in the road that bottoms out your suspension—any of which always seems to appear just before a curve.

Scenic In Nature

Now that you understand the Dalton’s demonic nature, you should understand that it is spectacularly gorgeous and worth everything it might throw at you. The rolling, steep, wooded hills north of Fairbanks turn into hills of low shrubbery as far as the eye can see, which eventually turn into the amazing vistas and steep mountain passes of the Brooks Mountain Range.

Once over the mountains, you roll out onto the relatively flat and mostly barren tundra that seems to get progressively foggier and more eerie as you get closer to Deadhorse, the end of the road. Be sure to stop often along your journey, and soak in the majesty of this truly remote and expansive place.

“Don’t be fooled and lulled into finding your groove. It’s just a ploy before this road decides to throw something hard and potentially life threatening at you…”

Also, don’t forget to remove your stare from the ever-changing road conditions to spot the plethora of wild beasts that roam this remote wilderness. I was treated to a snow owl, red fox, arctic fox, a gaggle of geese, a sea of swans, a few herds of muskoxen and a pair of napping grizzlies on my July traverse of the Dalton. You can’t help but take in the impressive feat of engineering and industrial will that is the Alyeska Pipeline, which parallels much of the road. The many majestic rivers along the route also captivate your attention, which you should quickly put back on the road, so pull over to fully appreciate it all.

Galbraith Lake Camp, one of the very few established camping areas.

Expectations

Expect mud, lots of mud! With that said, 4×4 is not required. I would recommend some ground clearance, healthy shocks and good tires, but honestly none of this is mandatory, just generally good ideas. This road is traveled by just about every type of traveler known to man; from massive heavy-load extra-wide semi trucks, all the way down to a guy I saw on the road pulling all of his supplies in a small two-wheeled cart, who happened to be walking around the globe. You will encounter cyclists, motorcyclists, RVs, Subarus, pick ups, fifteen passenger vans, overland expedition vehicles and so much more on this one of a kind remote highway.

“This road is traveled by just about every type of traveler known to man; from massive, heavy-load extra-wide semi trucks, all the way down to a guy I saw on the road pulling all of his supplies in a small two-wheeled cart, who happened to be walking around the globe.”

You can’t actually drive all the way to the end of the road, or to the Arctic Ocean, just to two different checkpoints in Deadhorse that guard the secured areas of the oil fields. There are well over twenty more miles of road to get to the furthest north “end of the road” in this area, past the checkpoints. If you actually want to get closer to the “end of the road,” see the oil fields and/or see/touch the Arctic Ocean, you must pay to get on the Arctic Ocean Shuttle. It’s quite literally a shuttle bus that takes you through the security checkpoints, out past many of the oil rigs and delivers you to the shore of the Arctic Ocean. You get a little narration along the way from the very friendly shuttle driver, about all the industrial craziness before you, and a bit about the wildlife living amongst it as well.

Stunningly beautiful mountains and glassy smooth highway are only seen on a tiny fraction of the Dalton Hwy.

Barely Above Freezing

Once you get to the Arctic Ocean you are “allowed” to go in up to your knees, but no further. Apparently one tourist a few years ago jumped in and went hypothermic, which of course made the tour company’s insurance company put the kibosh on the “polar bear plunge.” However, I was also told about a group of bikers that recently stormed out of the shuttle, stripping off their clothes as they ran for the ocean to take the plunge, and with no repercussions for their actions. Apparently the shuttle driver doesn’t get paid enough to tackle a bunch of naked bikers.

“Now that you understand the Dalton’s demonic nature, you should understand that it is spectacularly gorgeous and worth everything it might throw at you.”

The air temperature was barely above freezing on my trip, and the ocean was somewhere around 38-degrees Fahrenheit, so I figured standing in the ocean to my knees was a better idea than full immersion against the rules. I also had this grand desire to drive all the way to the Arctic Ocean, which the oil companies just aren’t going to let happen, so I talked the shuttle driver into letting me bring my spare tire onto the shuttle, then roll it into the ocean. Cheesy I know, but it was as close to driving into the Arctic Ocean as I was going to get on this trip.

The gravel pullout in Deadhorse where many overland travelers spend the night.

Accomplished Goals

For me this was a bucket list, overlander kind of thing. I wanted to go to the end of the road, so that I could feel like I was truly kicking off a grand adventure. Check, and check. Even though it was expensive, time consuming, the industrial exploitation of such a beautiful place was a bit depressing and the amount of bugs were insane, it was well worth all the effort. Not only did I accomplish the goals I had set out to check off the list, but it also allowed me to experience a truly unique, beautiful and remote place, as well as meet amazing people along the way. Those are the two primary reasons that I strive to travel to new places, and why the Dalton Highway is worthy of your attention.

A Red Fox near the Arctic Ocean

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Traveling Dalton

Practical Considerations

 

The vast industrial machine in Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay is something to behold.

Distance
Roughly 500 driving miles each way.

Time
12-14+hrs of driving (each way), depending on conditions.

Best Time to Visit
Late May through early September, as this is the best weather, has the most flowers in bloom and is the only time the Arctic Ocean Shuttle runs.

Weather
Expect it all! In 4 days on the Dalton I experienced temps from the low 30s to the mid 80s, tons of fog and low clouds, some rain and even some intense sun.

Camping
You can pretty much turn off where ever you’d like and set up camp, so long as you don’t block any access roads to the pipeline. Also remember that big trucks spraying big rocks as they pass, will be going both directions all night, so be sure to get far enough off the road to avoid these projectiles. I stayed at Galbraith Lake Camp my first night, an established free campground complete with pit toilet, garbage, picnic tables and fire rings. While these amenities and the flowing creek next to it are quite nice, I’m not so sure they are worth the all-night noise from the active gravel pit, or the pretty rough four-mile long road to get there. In Deadhorse, there didn’t appear to be many good spots to post up and camp, but most overland travelers seemed to all find the good-sized pullouts along the river, which are located maybe a mile towards town from the Deadhorse Camp hotel, the location where you meet the Arctic Ocean Shuttle.

Fuel
Once on the road it is expensive! There are basically three available fueling locations: 5 Mile Camp, Coldfoot and Deadhorse. They progressively get more expensive as you drive north. Fuel up in Fairbanks, carry extra fuel and refuel early and often to save the most money.

Food
Stock up in Fairbanks! Very little in the way of groceries are on the road, and what restaurants and snacks you can buy are quite pricey.

Recreation Along the Way
There are lots of float trips available along the many rivers that parallel and cross the route. There are two good sections of class III to IV+ whitewater (Atigun at Mile Post (MP) 271 & Sag at MP 306) that are accessible from the road, but require good timing to catch suitable water levels. There are little to no hiking or biking trails along the route, but you are free to roam in the backcountry as much as you’d like. The best areas for this are along the ridgelines and streams found in the Brooks Range. Other options to recreate include hunting, fishing and gold panning throughout the region.

Worthwhile Stops Along the Route
Yukon River (MP 56), Finger Mountain Wayside (MP 98), Arctic Circle Wayside (MP 115), Arctic Interagency Visitors Center (MP 175), Sukakpak Mountain (MP 203), Antigun Pass (MP 244)

Things to do in Deadhorse
Number one is to remember to refuel! I also recommend the obligatory photo op at the Deadhorse National Forest, located in front of the Halliburton services camp. A stop by the Deadhorse General Store is also recommended in order to enjoy all the fun tee shirt sayings, pick up a patch or sticker and maybe buy and mail a postcard to a loved one from the “end of the road”. Otherwise it is a pretty bustling work site with not much to offer the traveler.

Arctic Ocean Shuttle Tour
Schedule at least 24 hours in advance for your tour, as a background check is required. The easiest way is to schedule online (ArcticOceanShuttle.com), and be sure to bring with you the same form of identification that you enter for your background check. The tour runs twice a day, 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., lasts about 2 hours and costs $69 per person. Pickup is at the Deadhorse Camp building, the first main structure you encounter as you enter town.

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The Dalton Highway

From Supply Route to Overland Destination

The Dalton, formally known as the James W. Dalton Highway, is advertised on maps and road signs as Alaska Route 11. It is a 414-mile road in Alaska that begins just north of Fairbanks and ends near the Arctic Ocean in Deadhorse. Originally built as a supply road to support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in 1974, the road now draws adventurists and sightseers from all over the globe for its beautiful vistas as well as rugged environment.

 

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in print in the July/August 2017 issue of Tread magazine.

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