The original purpose of the Dalton Highway was utilitarian: to haul equipment north from Fairbanks for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which runs from Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean, to Valdez, on the Pacific. But the experience of the Dalton Highway for a traveler is so far beyond the ordinary as to require a whole new frame of reference to take it all in. The road is so very long, so remote and free of traffic, and the scenery is so mind-boggling in its grandeur and repetition, that after a time it feels as if you're living in a dream. At some point, you have to swallow and say to yourself, "I guess I didn't know that much about the world after all."
Part of the wonder comes in the difficulty of the drive. This is an extreme road trip, one that dives into deep wilderness as far from help as most people ever get. In 500 miles there are only three service stations, two of which are within 4 miles of each other. The road averages only 250 vehicles a day over its entire length. Driving the Dalton is not to be taken lightly or done on a whim. You need to prepare and you need to know you want to do it, because you will be rumbling over dirt for many, many hours, breathing dust and beating the crud out of your car. If it was easy, they wouldn't have made a TV show about it (the History Channel's Ice Road Truckers).
The drive starts in Fairbanks (officially, you drive parts of the Steese and Elliott hwys. before the real Dalton Hwy. begins), traversing the rounded hills and low forest of that region before spanning the Yukon River on a high, wood-decked bridge. Over the miles that follow, trees grow sparser and the road crosses some spectacular alpine plateaus until, entering the Brooks Range, arctic vegetation and the mountains' rocky severity take over. Beyond towering Atigun Pass, the Arctic Slope extends 170 miles, first through sensuous tundra foothills, then over the broad, lake-dotted flatlands that extend to the Arctic Ocean. Arrival at the oil facilities can be a letdown, especially if you haven't made arrangements for the tour that is the only way to the shore. More on that below.
Wildlife shows up all along the road: moose, caribous, and grizzly bears, sportfish and songbirds. Animals far outnumber people. Two highway businesses are near the Yukon; in Coldfoot there is a truck stop; and Wiseman is 16 miles up the road from Coldfoot, where the 2000 census counted 21 people. And that's it for another 240 miles of dirt road to Prudhoe Bay. There are no ATMs, no grocery stores, no cellphone coverage, no medical facilities -- civilization just isn't there. Drive carefully.
Dalton Highway Essentials
Practical Tips -- You can drive the highway yourself, staying in the few motels along the way or in a tent or motor home. From Fairbanks, take the Steese Highway north to the Elliott Highway. The total road distance from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean is 497 miles. Road conditions are notoriously bad on the gravel-and-dirt Dalton, but now much of it is kept in good condition, with pavement working its way steadily north. Speeds of 60 mph are possible on some parts of the road, while doing 35 mph will keep you in one piece on rougher spots; even the good sections can have nasty surprises, however, with unmarked, bone-jarring potholes. The drive takes 13 hours each way, without stops. It's dusty, shoulders are soft, and flat tires are common. In the Fairbanks section, I listed two businesses that rent vehicles you can take on the Dalton. Generally, rental companies don't allow their vehicles on the road.
Preparing for the drive is essential. Pick up the road guide produced by the BLM and get firsthand, personal advice.
Visitor Information -- Getting up-to-date advice is critical before heading off on the Dalton Highway, and the best place to do that is the Fairbanks Alaska Public Lands Information Center, in the Morris Thompson center at 101 Dunkel St., Fairbanks, AK 99701 (tel. 907/459-3730; www.alaskacenters.gov). Staffers there drive the road annually to stay on top of current conditions.
Much of the road runs through land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, 1150 University Ave., Fairbanks, AK 99709 (tel. 800/437-7021 or 907/474-2200; www.blm.gov/ak/dalton). From the informative website, you can download an invaluable Dalton Highway Visitor Guide, a 24-page booklet; or get it free at the public lands information center or from any BLM information center, or by mail by calling the number above.
Two information stops are along the highway, both open summer only. A contact station at the Yukon River crossing is staffed by BLM volunteers and open daily in summer from 9am to 6pm. It has no phone. The Arctic Interagency Visitor Center is at mile 175 on the west side of the highway in Coldfoot (tel. 907/678-5209 or 678-2014), open late May to early September from 10am to 10pm daily, subject to change. The free center is far grander than one would expect in the middle of the wilderness. It has award-winning exhibits about the north, a theater for nightly educational programs, a planning room for backcountry trips, a bookstore, and knowledgeable staff. Even if you don't have any questions, you should definitely make this stop.
On the Road
The bridge over the Yukon River at mile 56 is the only crossing of the river in Alaska, and many people drive the Dalton just to get to the Arctic Circle at mile 115, where you'll find a sign for pictures as well as a crude camping area. Many, many places along the highway have incredible views; among the most famous are Finger Mountain, at mile 98, which has a short interpretive nature trail; Gobbler's Knob, at mile 132, which offers the first view of the Brooks Range; and 4,739-foot Atigun Pass, at mile 245, where the road crosses the Brooks Range, winding through impossibly rugged country. The pass is the highest point on the Alaska road system, and you may find summer snow. All along the highway are opportunities to see birds and animals, including rabbits, foxes, moose, Dall sheep, bears, and caribous. Sit still if you see the skittish caribous, as they are more likely to wander closer to an unmoving vehicle. Beware of wolves, which several times attacked Dalton travelers in 2006, although that's very rare. Keep pets under control, and if a wolf approaches, yell and throw rocks at it.
The road parallels the 4-foot-wide trans-Alaska pipeline. The line, completed in 1977, serves America's largest and second-largest oil fields, Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk, carrying the hot crude 900 miles from the Arctic Ocean to docks in Valdez, where tankers pick it up for shipment primarily to the West Coast. The public road ends before reaching the Prudhoe Bay complex and the Arctic Ocean. The only way through the gate is with a tour operator, and you must make arrangements at least 24 hours ahead to clear security. To do that, call the Arctic Caribou Inn (tel. 907/659-2368; www.arcticcaribouinn.com).
Highway Services: Food, Fuel & Lodgings
Among the few places offering services along the 414 miles of the Dalton, you won't find anything approaching the quality of even budget chains. The service is generally quite friendly, but except for two small B&Bs in the tiny town of Wiseman, all lodgings are in former construction camp dormitories.
Near the spectacular wooden-decked bridge over the Yukon River, at mile 56, is a decidedly unspectacular motel, restaurant, and gas station. Yukon River Camp (tel. 907/474-3557), open daily 9am to 9pm, has a gift shop, fuel (usually), and tire repair, as well as food and lodging, and is open mid-May to mid-September. Just 5 miles up the road from the river, the Hotspot Café (tel. 907/451-7543), open daily 10am to midnight, offers dining, lodging, a gift shop, gas (usually), tire repair, and Ice Road Trucker gifts. It also operates only mid-May to mid-September.
The Coldfoot Camp truck stop at mile 175 (www.coldfootcamp.com; tel. 866/474-3400 or 907/474-3500) is the one big stopping place along the road. After the endless wilderness miles on the road, no one could stand to pass it by. The year-round camp includes several buildings on a large gravel pad. Most important are the gas pumps and the 24-hour restaurant where you pay for the fuel -- a typical but friendly highway diner. Across the lot, the camp's inn is built of leftover construction camp modular units. The small rooms with low ceilings are perfectly comfortable, with private bathrooms, but far from grand. The camp also provides minor vehicle repairs, RV hookup, laundry, a post office, a gift shop, and a saloon. They offer guided rafting on the Middle Fork Koyukuk River, flight tours to the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, tours of Wiseman, and shuttles for hiking. In the winter, the camp offers dog-sled rides and aurora-viewing tours. An air taxi, Coyote Air (tel. 907/479-5995 winter or 907/678-5995 summer; www.flycoyote.com), offers flightseeing of this amazing country from the air. There are other activities farther afield offered by Northern Alaska Tour Company (tel. 800/474-1986 or 907/474-8600; www.northernalaska.com). Don't miss the remarkable new interagency visitor center, described above. The pleasant BLM Marion Creek Campground is 5 miles north of Coldfoot.
Wiseman, 13 miles north of Coldfoot and 3 miles off the road, is the only real town on the entire drive, and well worth a stop to see a tiny rural community about a century out of time's progress. There's not a thing commercial about it. The general store, Wiseman Trading Company, established 1910, was operating on the honor system when we stopped in. A sign read, IF YOU NEED CHANGE COME TO THE DOOR AND YELL FOR EIGHT BALL OR WALK TO THE CABIN ACROSS THE LAWN. Other residents sell furs or crafts from their homes. There's not much to do here but see how our great-grandparents lived, when food came from gardens, streams, and forests. Get advice at the interagency visitor center staff in Coldfoot. To spend the night in a homier place than the Coldfoot truck stop, stay here in Wiseman. Boreal Lodging (www.boreallodge.com; tel. 907/678-4566) has four lodge rooms and a cabin, as well as a summer-only shop selling handmade gifts, snacks, and a few essentials. Arctic Getaway Cabin and Breakfast (www.arcticgetaway.com; tel. 907/678-4456) is another good choice for lodgings in Wiseman.
After Coldfoot, the next service area is Deadhorse, at the end of the road another 240 miles north, with rooms, fuel, restaurants, a post office, vehicle maintenance, a general store, and an airport.
Fishing -- The streams and lakes of the Arctic are cold, poor in nutrients, and frozen much of the year; fishing is not a good reason to drive the Dalton. However, if you are taking the adventure anyway, there are fish in streams from July to mid-September and in lakes that don't freeze to the bottom. Many of the streams have Arctic grayling, but you'll want to hike farther than a quarter-mile from the road to increase your chances (off-road vehicles are not allowed). A good bet is the Jim River area between miles 140 and 144, where the river follows the road and fishing pressure is spread out. Most North Slope rivers have good Dolly Varden fishing in late August and early September. Many of the lakes along the road have grayling, and the deeper ones north of the Brooks Range have lake trout. Check current regulations. Contact the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 1300 College Rd., Fairbanks, AK 99701 (tel. 907/459-7207; www.alaska.gov/adfg); they produce a booklet called Sportfishing Along the Dalton Highway, which you can download from the website or get at the office, at some visitor centers, or by mail.
Hiking -- The road has no established hiking trails, but most of the area is open to self-reliant hikers who know how to pick their own route. Hiking brushy or marshy Interior country isn't fun, but the dry tundra of the ridge tops and mountains creates a wonderful sense of freedom. The country opens up north of the Chandalar Shelf at mile 237. The best hiking area is the zone of dry tundra in the foothills north of the Brooks Range. But even at upper elevations, you still run into tussocks, wet ground, and stream crossings. Topographical maps and advice on hiking the Brooks Range are available. The book Outside in the Interior describes a handful of hikes along the road. Remember, this is remote wilderness; do your research, be prepared, and tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back.
The Bureau of Land Management has a few campgrounds along the road, but there seems little reason to wait to reach them, as there are any number of places to pull off the road on a spot of gravel and spend the night, often in places of stunning beauty. Just take these important precautions for safety and the environment: Get far enough off the road to avoid the fast-moving truck spewing rocks as far as 30 feet; read up on bear avoidance; don't leave toilet paper or anything else behind; and stay no longer than 14 days in one spot. Managers prefer if you don't park on pipeline access roads, and if you do, be sure not to block the road or security gates. I have listed the BLM's developed areas along the Dalton, which include campgrounds and spots where you can park for a while and obtain water. Unless the description mentions a formal campground, these are just gravel pads where you can park or sleep in your car. Add 83 miles to the mileposts to get the distance from Fairbanks.
Mile 60 (Five Mile) -- Undeveloped campground with an outhouse, artesian well with potable water nearby, and free public dump station (this is the last dump station on the highway). Don't wash your vehicle here, as it will contaminate the groundwater. Camping costs $8.
Mile 98 (Finger Mountain) -- Nice views, outhouse, and wheelchair-accessible trail with interpretive signs.
Mile 115 (Arctic Circle) -- Outhouses, picnic tables, and an interpretive display; camp only in the undeveloped campground up the hill, which has an outhouse but no water.
Mile 150 (Grayling Lake) -- Wayside with outhouse.
Mile 175 (Coldfoot) -- A private campground with hookups is part of the truck stop described above.
Mile 180 (Marion Creek) -- A developed BLM campground with 27 campsites, 11 of them for large RVs (no hookups). The campground has a potable well and outhouses. Fee is $8 per night.
Mile 235 (Farthest north spruce tree) -- Outhouse; not an attractive camping site due to truck traffic on a steep grade.
Mile 275 (Galbraith Lake) -- Undeveloped campground with an outhouse and interpretive signs about 4 miles off the highway; follow the access road past the state-operated landing strip, then continue 2 1/2 miles on an unimproved road. Filter or boil water from the nearby creek before use. The camping fee is $8.
Mile 301 (Slope Mountain) -- Land north of this point is managed by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, not the BLM; however, you can use the same visitor information sources mentioned above.
Mile 355 (Last Chance) -- Wayside with an outhouse.
Mile 414 (Deadhorse) -- The end of the road. Deadhorse has a post office, general store, hotels, RV parking sites, and other services, but no campground, and tent camping isn't safe among the bears and heavy equipment (instead, stop short of Deadhorse to camp, perhaps along the Sagavanirktok River). An operator offers tours through to the Arctic Ocean, the only way to get there (arrange in advance).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.