Driving the Dalton Highway- Fairbanks to Coldfoot

My previous post covered all the pre-trip considerations that needed to be given to drive Alaska’s Dalton Highway. These next two posts will cover the highway and it’s sights and points of interest.

The Dalton Highway actually does not start in Fairbanks, but at a crossroads named Livengood, 84 miles north of Fairbanks via the Elliott & Steese Highways. The first 11 miles, to the tiny hamlet of Fox, are on the Steese Highway, before the Elliott Highway carries the traveler the next 73 miles to the start of the Dalton Highway.

8.5 miles outside of Fairbanks is a turnout for viewing the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. This is a good place to learn about this engineering marvel that is in sight of the road almost all the way to Prudhoe Bay.

The last chance to get gas & services is 5.5 miles north of Fox. The next place to fill up is 124 miles north at Yukon River Crossing. While there are not a lot of places to stop along the Elliott Highway, this stretch of road is a good warmup for the Dalton Highway. Although it is paved all the way to Livengood, there are multiple stretches of potholes and a number of prominent frost heaves.

Once reaching the beginning of the Dalton Highway, there are a number of signs worth stopping to take pictures of. The first is at the junction of the Elliott and Dalton Highways, where the Elliott turns west to head 77 miles toward Manly Hot Springs. The sign here is elevated, indicating it was probably a popular target of thieves previously. There is not am official turnout here, so make sure the car is completely off the road and out of the way of traffic before stopping here.

At mile marker 1.1, there are more signs worth stopping to photograph. The famous “Welcome to the Dalton Highway” sign, as well as a mileage sign giving distances to Yukon River, Coldfoot & Deadhorse. There is also an information board on the road’s namesake, early Alaskan surveyor James W. Dalton.

The next 20 miles after leaving the turnout for the signs is another good introduction to what to expect on the road. The surface is unpaved, and there are some sharp turns and steep inclines to go over. The overlook for Hess Creek is at mile marker 21, and gives a sweeping view of Hess Creek and fire damage from the 1991 & 2003 fires that ravaged this area.

The up and down road continues as the road makes it’s way to the Yukon River. At mile marker 55 is the impressive Yukon River Bridge and just past that, at mile marker 56, is Yukon River Camp.

Yukon River Camp has a restaurant, small store and fuel, as well as lodging.

On the opposite side of the highway, there is the BLM Yukon Crossing Visitor Contact Station. This is an excellent place to gather information on the condition of the road further north.

A short trail leads to the overlook for the river and the bridge. Information boards along the way give facts about the Yukon River, one of the continent’s major river systems.

Roughly twenty miles past Yukon River Crossing, the road begins a stretch called the ‘Roller Coaster’ because of its steep ascent & descents.

The turnoff for the Finger Mountain Wayside is next, just after mile marker 98. There is a larger rock formation a short hike north of the turnout, which allows for views for the northbound road as well the distant peaks of the Brooks Range. Finger Mountain, one of the road’s most distinct features is in the distance to the south.

Seventeen miles beyond Finger Mountain is another well signposted wayside, this one for the Arctic Circle. Many solo travelers as well as tour companies only make it this far. There is a good sign to get a picture with, but this is also one of the most famously buggy places and one of the only places on the road we still encountered mosquitoes in September.

The turnout at Gobbler’s Knob has signposts on the building of the road, as well as views of the road to the north as it begins some steep descents toward Prospect Creek.

One of the road’s more popular wildlife viewing spots is at mile marker 150, Grayling Lake. This lake was one of the territorial divides between the Inupiat tribe to the north and the Athabascans to the south. Archaeological evidences around the lake shows human activity there as far back as 3,000 years.

Finally, at mile marker 175, Coldfoot is the last place to get services before Prudhoe Bay. On the east side of the road is a turnoff for Coldfoot Camp, with gas, as small cafe & bar, and a very basic hotel.

On the west side of the road is the excellent Arctic Interagency Visitor Center, with tons of displays and educational materials on the tundra ecosystem. It is also an excellent place to stop and check on the condition of the road as it heads north. Coldfoot’s tiny airport is also located a short drive west of the Dalton on a side road. Flights further into the interior are available here.

The next post will be the northern half of the Dalton Highway, from Coldfoot all the way to Deadhorse on Prudhoe Bay.

 

 

The Dalton Highway- Before You Go

Alaska’s Dalton Highway is northernmost road in the United States. It runs 414 miles from the end of the Elliot Highway (84 miles north of Fairbanks), to Deadhorse, and oil camp a few miles from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean.

Northbound approach to Atigan Pass

This marvel of engineering was constructed in 1973 in only 153 days, mostly to serve the needs of the companies who would be building the pipeline from the vast oil fields discovered in Prudhoe Bay a few years before. Called ‘The Haul Road’, the majority of the road was closed to the public until 1994, when hearty tourists were allowed to start making the trip all the way up the Deadhorse.

The road was named after James W. Dalton, a lifetime Alaskan and civil engineer, whose knowledge of the North Slope proved invaluable in the building of the original Haul Road.

Southbound toward the Brooks Range

Travel on the Dalton is not to be taken lightly. It’s purpose first and foremost is that of an industrial road. Due to the difficulty of the terrain it passes through, it is well-maintained by the State of Alaska, but it still remains wild and rough for most of it’s length. A trip of the Dalton requires a good amount of preparation.

There are a few excellent resources available. Alaska511 is the best site for up to date reports on road conditions and weather along the road. The Bureau of Land Management has an excellent 24-page PDF brochure that contains quite a bit of useful information. Alaska.org offers a page on the various stops and mile markers along the highway. The best printed resource on the Dalton Highway is The Milepost, a part magazine/part guidebook that bills itself as ‘the bible of North County travel.’ This gives an incredibly detailed account of the road, from turnouts to stops to where to look for animals. The Dalton Highway section is one small part of The Milepost- it covers all the major roads and highways of Alaska and part of Northwestern Canada.

Ready for the journey

Since the road is mostly unpaved, all of the big rental car companies prohibit use of their vehicles on the Dalton. There are two agencies in Fairbanks that will rent vehicles specially outfitted for the drive, Alaska Auto Rental and Arctic Outfitters. We rented through Arctic Outfitters and were quite pleased with our vehicle and the services provided. Arctic Outfitters is operated by The Northern Alaska Tour Company, which handles organized tours as well. When reserving your vehicle, they can also make reservations for your lodging in both Coldfoot and Deadhorse, as well as the shuttle to the Arctic Ocean.

Rental Car toolbox

Our vehicle through Arctic Outfitters was a Ford Escape, one of the most popular min-SUVs in the country. The higher clearance it gave was perfect (and essential) and the larger tires and mud flaps were also necessary additions specifically for this drive. The car came with a CB radio, which we used many times, calling out when crossing over the mountains, coming over steep hills and rounding some corners. The rental also come with one full-sized spare and one smaller spare tire, as well as a well stocked tool/emergency supply kit.

Deadhorse Camp Hotel

Booking lodging through Arctic Outfitters is probably a good idea for those who are not camping. There are only four areas with indoor lodging- Yukon River Camp, Coldfoot Camp, Wiseman and Deadhorse. Wiseman has a few private B&B style cabin rentals (Arctic Getaway & Boreal Lodge– we stayed at both and would certainly recommend both), where the other 3 have serviceable hotels operated by the Northern Alaska Tour Company. Deadhorse has other hotel options, but these cater to workers in the oil business and those contractors that service the industry. They will rent to private parties if space is available, but they do not accept reservations more than 10 days in advance, if at all.

Arctic Ocean Shuttle Bus

For those driving all the way to Deadhorse, it is imperative to reserve a spot on the Arctic Ocean Shuttle, as there are no public access roads to the ocean itself. (The roads on the oil field lease are all privately owned and maintained by the oil companies.)

Oversized load coming out of Atigan Pass

Since the main function of the road is industrial, truck traffic dominates the rules on the Dalton. These truck generally have large loads and travel at higher speeds than recreational traffic does. Some of the rules of the road include:

  • Truck traffic has the right of way
  • Check your rear view mirror constantly. Slower traffic should slow down and move over to allow trucks to pass.
  • Always drive with your lights on, and try to keep headlight and taillights clear of mud.
  • Do not stop on bridges, hills or curves.
  • Stay on the right side of the road.
  • Slow down when passing other vehicles as to minimize throwing rocks up

Rough road on southern portion

The conditions of the road differ wildly throughout the length of the road. Potholes and frost heaves mean the driver needs to be constantly vigilant. On top of the road resources listed above (specifically Alaska511), the BLM visitor center at Yukon River Crossing is a great place to find out the latest information on road conditions further north. Consulting other travelers is also common.

Paved Stretch north of Wiseman

While the road is mostly gravel, there are some long stretches of paved road. Some of these paved roads are quite good, specifically the stretch northbound past the turnoff for Wiseman, but much of the older paved portions can be much more difficult to drive than some of the gravel sections. We were lucky during our visit that much of the road north of Galbraith Lake (mile 275) had been recently reconstructed after bad weather the previous month necessitated it. Rain and snow can cause road conditions to change quickly. We found that freshly graded gravel part became much more difficult to drive when wet.

The road commission also puts down a chemical, calcium chloride, to keep the dust down in the summer months. When wet, however, this mixes with the mud and becomes more paste-like than viscous. We had been warned about this at the rental car agency, who forbade us to mark in the mud on the side of the vehicle as it cause scratches in the paint.

The speed limit for cars on the Dalton is 50mph, but we rarely reached that, most of the time feeling more comfortable in the 40mph range. There were plenty of times we slowed down to 20-25mph, especially when going through heavily potholed paved parts (we found this from mile 90-125) and especially wet parts of the gravel surfaces.

Freshly Graded

While one of the rules of the road is to stay on your side, we found that most people drove in the center of the road. We did not find this to be a huge issue except coming over or going down inclines, or coming around corners, where it is essential to be on your side. We also stopped in the road sometimes to get pictures (pulling over as far as we safely could), but only in parts of the road where we could see for miles in each direction. Since there is a lack of ambient sound, it is usually possible to hear vehicles coming from miles away, especially the bigger trucks.

Wildlife Crossing

The reason for the road, the Alyeska Pipeline, is an almost constant companion on the road. When above ground, which is most of the journey, it is never out of sight. There are also a number of pump stations along the way, which serve the purpose of monitoring the oil flow as well as the maintaining pressure enough to get it to Valdez in the south. Information boards along the way stress the consideration given to the environment when building the pipeline, and there are even places where the pipeline is put below ground and also elevated as to make it easy for wildlife to cross.

Rain on the Arctic Coastal Plain

Peak Fall Colors in early September

The weather along the Dalton can be as variable as the road itself. We traveled it in fall (early September) and we saw sun, rain, snow & fog- all almost every day. The southern portion of the route was lit up with the brilliant yellows of the birch tree leaves changing colors. During the summer, the road north of the Arctic Circle experiences constant daylight. The opposite side of that is that there is a 39 day stretch in the middle of winter where the sun does not rise in Deadhorse. The road stays open in the winter, with only occasional closures due to impassable conditions.

One of two gas stations in Deadhorse

Eating well in Deadhorse

As mentioned previously, there are only 3 places to get services, Yukon River Crossing, Coldfoot and Deadhorse. Gas & Food are available in all 3 locations. We enjoyed a lunch at Yukon River and dinner in Coldfoot, and the buffet dinner at Deadhorse Camp was prepared by a certified chef and was rather gourmet. These are the only 3 places to get gas as well, and we paid over $5 a gallon, but that was to be expected given the remoteness of the loactions. We had good cell signal in Deadhorse, even doing a Facebook Live of me wading into the Arctic Ocean, and my travel companion Pat had a limited amount of service in the vicinity of Coldfoot. There was satellite internet also available for a fee in all 3 locations.

Deadhorse across Lake Colleen

A quick note about Deadhorse- there is no alcohol allowed in the camp. It’s not like they searched our car or bags, but it is not allowed even to be brought in by any of the oil workers. There are no bars in the town, and entertainment options for the common tourist are non-existent. Deadhorse is a service area for the oil fields and had no qualities of a town. We drove the road around Lake Colleen, the man made lake at the end of the Highway, and we stopped by and had our picture taken in front of the Brooks Range Supply & Prudhoe Bay General Store, the only such store in town. There were some souvenirs available, as well as a decent selection of other goods, and considering the location were reasonably priced.

The Dalton Highway is a fantastic adventure. It does take quite a bit of preparation, as once you leave Fairbanks, you are mostly on your own. The next post will explain the various sights and myriad of environment the road passes through.

 

Alaska 2019 by the Numbers 

Alaska 2019 by the Numbers

Very first photo taken

After a very light travel year in 2018, I crossed the top destination off my travel bucket list in September 2019 with an 18 day trip to my 49th state, Alaska. This post is the my traditional summary post after a big trip. (See previous trip’s posts below)

Westernmost drive-able point in the US

Driving Stats-

Miles Driven: 3215

Cars: 2 (Toyota Camry for most of the trip, Ford Escape on the Dalton Highway)

Miles per car: Camry 2037mi, Escape 1088mi

Miles per gallon: 27.6 overall, Camry 29.9, Escape 23.8

Most miles driven in a day: 432 miles (Day 11- Fairbanks to Palmer via the Richardson & Glenn Highways)

Fewest miles driven in a day: 12 (Day 10- Fairbanks, day after the Dalton trip)

Average per day: 173 miles

Highest Gas Price: Coldfoot $5.49 (halfway between Fairbanks & Prudhoe Bay)

Cheapest Gas Price: Anchorage $2.64

Average gallon of gas (whole trip): $3.37

A fair amount of rough roads

Pilot Car escorts: 4

(Pilot cars are used in areas of extreme construction or road damge, such as avalanches & forest fire damage)

Bird Point, Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage

Photo Stats-

Total number of photos: 9979

By Camera: dSLR- 7588, iPhone- 2201, GoPro-18

Most in a day: 794, Day 2 (Turnagain Arm, Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center, Alyeska Tramway)

Fewest in a day: 83, Day 17 (Rainy drive from Homer to Anchorage)

Selfies: 109

GoPro Video: 9hrs,37min

Afternoon on the Cook Inlet on a day that had started rainy

Weather Stats-

Highest Temp- 76, Day 2 Anchorage

Coldest Temp- 29, Day 9 Wiseman

Days with some rain- 10/18

Days with rain predicted- 17/18

Days with some snow- 3

Average Sunrise- 6:53am

Average Sunset- 8:09pm

Our wonderful AirBnB apartment in Fairbanks

Lodging Stats-

AirBnBs- 6 different places for 14 days

Hostel- 1 (Denali National Park Area)

Cabins- 2 Wiseman (Halfway on the Dalton Highway)

Hotel- 1 Deadhorse Camp, Prudhoe Bay

Pat & I at Hoodoo Brewing in Fairbanks

Beer Stats-

Breweries: 22

Cideries: 1

Beer Bars: 4

Total Untappd Checkins: 201 (mostly 2-4oz flight pours)

Number of Lyft rides: 13

Only Outhouses on the Dalton Highway

Misc Stats-

Outhouses: 47 (yes I kept track for this post!)

Days without internet: 5 (mostly)

National Parks: 3 (Kenai Fjords, Wrangell-St. Elias, Denali)

State Parks: 8

Northern Lights in Wiseman

Minutes of the Northern Lights- 45

 

By the Numbers Posts from other trips-

 

West 2017- Part One

A wonderful celebration

The start of this trip was different from all of my previous trips in that the trip portion actually started in Northern Illinois, not my home in Michigan. The reason for this was the wedding ceremony of my friends Nikole & Kathi over Labor Day weekend in Freeport, Illinois. With all the solo driving I was going to do on the trip, and the fact that I miss her tremendously on these journeys, it was nice to have her with me. The wedding celebration was fun and set on Nikole’s gorgeous family farm. My wife flew home the next day, and I turned and headed west.

Effigy Mounds

 

Fire Point

My first stop was at Effigy Mounds National Monument, scenically located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in Northeast Iowa. I had visited the monument previously back in November of 2005, and the differences in visiting during the winter as opposed to summer are obvious. The views of the Mississippi and the unique history of the mounds themselves made the long uphill hike and battling the persistent mosquitoes worth the effort.

Southern Minnesota sunset

I made a quick stop in Decorah, Iowa to visit a bucket-list brewery, the made the long drive across Southern Minnesota, where I was treated to a glorious sunset, before stopping in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for the evening.

Corn Palace

Summer of 2017 Theme

I was up and at it early morning for the long drive across South Dakota. I made three stops along the way to my campsite in Badlands National Park. The first was The Corn Palace, located in the small town of Mitchell. Visitors to The Corn Palace are treated to it famous murals made from corn and other grains. It’s a bit silly and very touristy, but also the definition of Americana.

Dignity Statue

Replica of Lewis & Clark’s boat

The second stop was a rest area along I-90 right before it crosses the Missouri River. It’s not often that a highway rest area is considered a tourist site in it’s own right, but this one is and it is exceptional. It has a nice mini-museum dedicated to the Lewis & Clark expedition, sweeping views of the Missouri and it’s surroundings, as well as tourist information for the rest of the state. The scene stealer here is the 50 foot high statue Dignity of Earth and Sky, dedicated in 2014 to celebrate both South Dakota’s 150 years of statehood while paying respect to the native cultures who have played such an important role in the state’s history.

Wall Drug

The third stop was Wall Drug, the well-known tourist trap in the tiny hamlet of Wall, just north of the Badlands. I use the term ‘tourist-trap’ with as much love- it’s kitchy and excessive, but, much like the Corn Palace, it’s a piece of Great Plains lore and roadside Americana. We’d visited as kids on a couple of our long family road trips and loved the place, and that made this visit nostalgic for me. I was glad I’d visited off-season, because I can only imagine the throngs of tourists during the height of the summer.

Badlands

It was mid-afternoon when I made it to Badlands National Park. This park of eroded hills and spires , as well as a large grasslands ecosystem. The exposed layers of rock tell the story of the ancient sea that used to cover much of the central United States.

Sunrise in Badlands National Park

The name Badlands came from the first settlers who tried to cross the area heading west, and the difficult terrain proved to be quite the barrier to westward expansion. Today, scenic byways cross the park, and for those with more sense of adventure (and a vehicle that can handle it) more rugged unpaved roads venture into the park’s vast backcountry.

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The park is also known for it’s exceptional collection of wildlife. I was able to see mule deer, bighorn sheep & a couple coyotes. The star of the park, however, are the prairie dogs. I spent hours taking photos of these adorable little creatures. The are a large number of prairie dog towns spread all over the park, including some right next to the park’s main scenic byway.

Moon over the Badlands

Sunset at Bigfoot Pass

Sunrise from Big Badlands Viewpoint

I chose to photograph sunset from two well-loved spots, Bigfoot Pass Overlook & White River Overlook. I camped just south of the park’s southern boundary, and was treated to a gorgeous canvas of stars, as well as the eerie sound of coyotes howling in the distance. I’d asked a ranger at the visitor center the night before where the best place to photograph sunrise was, and he suggested Big Badlands Overlook near the park’s north entrance. It was a cold morning, but an amazing sunrise made getting out of my nice, comfy bed worthwhile.

Visitor Center

Stunning Visuals

The second stop of the day was Minuteman Missile National Historical Park. I first visited the park back on my 2006 trip, shortly after it had started conducting tours. The park preserves a Cold War era launch control facility, as well as a missile silo. The park had also built a fancy new visitor center in the 11 years since my last visit. As with most of these, it was excellent and offered an honest portrayal of the Cold War.

Gated, Just as in Cold War times

Underground Launch Control Room

The tour was much the same as my last visit, with the launch control facility looking exactly the same as it had back in 2006. The highlight of the tour is the underground capsule launch facility, which looks very similar to how movies and television from the era portrayed these rooms.

Presidents

Panorama

I made it to Mount Rushmore National Memorial around noon. I’d visited as a kid on our western travels, and three more times on my various National Park road trips, but this was the clearest day I’d had. The crowds were much thicker than I had expected after Labor Day.

Tunnels in Custer State Park

Mount Rushmore is cool, but after checking out the small museums dedicated to the site, and taking pictures of the carvings themselves, there isn’t a lot to do and I was back in my car headed for Custer State Park within an hour. Located in the central Black Hills, this park of small mountains, rock spires and picturesque reservoirs is a true gem. I can not believe it took me so long to explore it.

Fields of Buffalo

Protective Parent

I went looking for buffalo and was not disappointed on the park’s Wildlife loop road, where I was treated to a Buffalo Jam. I shot many pictures much closer than I expected, all from the comfort of my car. I was told by one of the park workers that there were more than 200 buffalo in that particular herd, but it certainly seemed like more as I passed beside them.

‘The Needles’

Needles Eye Tunnel

I’d booked a hotel in Rapid City that night, and on my way back I drove the Needles Highway through the western part of Custer State Park. It was a narrow, winding road, with lots of scenic viewpoints and one turn where it goes down to one lane as it passes through a massive cut in the rock. It was truly an incredible drive and one I was shocked that I hadn’t hear more about.

Clinton Statue in downtown Rapid City

I had a fun night visiting a few breweries and a beer bar in the walkable downtown area of Rapid City. After spending so many days in less populated areas, Rapid City at just over 75,000 seemed downright cosmopolitan. It was to be the last city of any size I visited for the next four days as I headed toward two of America’s most incredible National Parks…

West 2017 by the Numbers

It’s time for another one of my popular “By the Numbers” trip summary posts. I’ve always kept good track of my travel numbers and having this blog has helped me expand those. Here are posts for the previous trips-  New Zealand 2012, Europe 2013, East 2014, Upper Peninsula 2014West 2015, and 2016 Trips.

South Dakota skies

Driving Stats-

Days:23

I had a 3 rental cars. I started with a Toyota Yaris, which I was forced to exchange in Eugene, Oregon due to a maintenance light issue. Two days later, I switched the Hyundi Elantra I’d been given out in Bend, Oregon due to a flat tire. The final car was a Ford Fiesta.

Driving Miles: 6513 miles

Miles per car: Yaris 3910mi, Elantra 170mi, Fiesta 2433mi

Miles per gallon: 36.0 mpg (Between the 3)

Most driven in a day: 850- Day 22. Denver, CO to Moline, IL.

Fewest Driven in a day: 0. Days 13 & 21 (Denver & Portland)

Days under 100 miles driven- 6.

Days over 500 miles driven- 4.

Smokey Columbia River Gallery

Average miles driven per day- 283.4 miles

Average price per gallon- $2.67.

Highest price per gallon- $3.09, Walla Walla, WA

Lowest price per gallon- $2.38, Parma, MI (last fill up)

Sunrise Photography in the Badlands

Photography stats-

Total number of pictures taken: 5131

Breakdown by camera- dSLR- 3564, iPhone- 1567

Most in a day- 499, Day 6- Yellowstone

Fewest in a day- 34, Day 19- Drive from Northern Utah to Denver (No sights)

Selfies- 66.

GoPro video- 64:16 (Most of which in The Black Hills)

Sunset over Yellowstone Lake

Weather stats-

High Temperature: 93 F- Central Montana

Low Temperature: 29 F- Southern Wyoming

Days with rain- 11

Average sunrise- 6:49 AM

Average sunset- 6:51PM

A Flight in Eugene, Oregon

Beer/Brewery stats-

Breweries- 51

Cideries- 3

Beer Bars- 4

Beers tried- 383 (most in 2-4oz flights)

Portland area Breweries- 13

Lyft rides- 9

Public Transportation used: 5

Badlands Camping

Lodging stats (Nights)-

Campgrounds- 6

Hotels- 5

AirBnBs- 6

Friends/Family- 5

My Favorite National Park

Sights-

States- 14

National Park sites- 13

State Parks- 6

Rest Areas- 19 (Not really a sight, I know, but a few were!)

Close Encounter….

Misc Stats-

Highest Elevation- 9,636 ft, Yellowstone NP

Lowest Elevation- Sea Level, Newport, Oregon

Hiking Miles (calculated estimate): 77.1 miles

Bags of ice purchased: 29

Forest Fire Detours: 3

Time Zones: 4

Alien Selfies: 1 (Devil’s Tower)