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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.