Alaska Road Trip: Dalton Highway – Fairbanks to Deadhorse [Part 3]
Note: This travel post is part of a 12-day trip that departed from Seattle and included Canada, Fairbanks, and Deadhorse, before ending in Anchorage, Alaska. Our kids were ages 2 and 5.
Part 1: Complete Trip Itinerary
Part 2: Driving the Alcan (Seattle to Fairbanks)
This post –> Part 3: Driving the Dalton Highway (Deadhorse + Prudhoe Bay)
Part 4: Driving the Parks Highway (Fairbanks to Anchorage)
The Dalton Highway, Alaska
Ok, let’s talk about the highway for a minute. The James Dalton Highway, also called the Haul Road, starts 37 miles above Fairbanks and goes north for 414 miles, ending in Deadhorse. The adjacent industrial field of Prudhoe Bay is accessible only to oil field workers, or by official tour, which requires security pre-clearance. The highway was built in 1974 to directly support the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, the giant pipe that funnels crude oil from Prudhoe Bay 800 miles south to Valdez. There it is loaded aboard tankers for transport to refineries in the Lower 48. It was oil from the pipeline that was involved in the infamous Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of 1989.
The Dalton, as its core, is a glorified access road, providing maintenance and security workers access to the miles of pipeline as it crosses rivers, tundra, and the Brooks Mountain Range. As a result, you’re never far from the winding pipe, even when it dips underground. The nickname “The Haul Road” comes from the fact that truckers use the road to ferry supplies north to support oil field operations in Prudhoe Bay and Deadhorse. Ironically, much of what they transport is fuel, as there are no refineries in the very far north. So diesel that originated thousands of feet below the arctic tundra will be piped south to Valdez, shipped to California for refining, shipped back to Alaska, and then pumped into a truck for final transport back to Prudhoe Bay. Mind boggling.
The truckers are the undisputed kings of the road and everyone makes sure to give them wide berths. On average, about 250 trucks per day travel the highway in the winter; in the summer it’s around 150. We noted that the trucks often travel in pairs and you can see them coming from miles away as their long rooster tails of dust and gravel are clearly visible across the tundra. They crawl painfully up the 12% grades and fly down the other sides; on more than one occasion we had to step on the gas to avoid a careening big rig. When approaching a truck from the opposite direction, we’d slow down and hug the far side; miraculously we avoided a cracked windshield, the most common ailment to afflict vehicles traveling the Haul Road.
The road is paved for about a quarter of its length; the remaining portions are packed gravel in varying conditions: smooth, washboarded, or pocked with tire-eating holes. We found that slower was better when it came to preserving our tires and windshield. At times the truck was coated in dust; other times we were carrying 100+ pounds of fine, somewhat toxic mud, a result of the chemicals applied to the road surface for maintenance purposes. Prepare for your rig to take a beating. There is a reason the car rental companies don’t let you take their vehicles up here.
We carried with us a full spare tire, tow straps, shovel, tire pump & gauge, emergency gear, extra fuel, extra water, and heavy jackets (in addition to our regular camping gear). Thankfully, we needed none of it. Some guides recommend two full tires and a CB radio to listen (and communicate) with the truckers. The road has enough traffic that you could flag down someone pretty quickly, likely within 10-15 minutes. Getting your car unstuck or towed, however, could be a very long and expensive process. You don’t need a vehicle with four wheel drive; however there were a few spots that we popped it up into 4×4, at one point to deal with incredibly thick gravel stretches that were under active road maintenance and another point when we traveled down an access road to find a camp spot.
Also critical? An up-to-date Milepost. It was helpful when driving up from Seattle to Fairbanks; it was essential when heading up the Dalton. Don’t leave home without it.
The point is, be prepared. There are very few tourists that venture this far north and the conditions, even in summer, can be changeable and rough.
A few additional notes: In 2015 the Sagavanirktok (Sag) River washed out the last 35 miles of road right before Deadhorse. It closed the road for an unprecedented 18 days, causing fuel and supply shortages. In the summer of 2016 they were working to raise the road surface by 8-10 feet, which mostly meant that they were actively dumping vast amounts of gravel on the existing road surface. At one point we were plowing through un-compacted gravel that was 6-8″ deep. It was hard for us to drive through in a truck; a motorcyclist we spoke to said it was extremely difficult on a bike and at one point he even laid his bike over as it was nearly impossible to keep upright at slow speeds. If you’re going to do this on a bike, getting some early info on the road conditions is a must.
The vast caribou herds that inhabit the arctic tundra are subject to a late summer/fall hunting season. Consequently, the herds move 20 miles away from the road, making it unlikely that you’ll see them on your drive to Deadhorse. The tundra, especially north of Atigun Pass, was crawling with hunters. As a wildlife biologist, I’d have loved to have seen the herds, and wished I’d have planned our trip for a non-hunting time of year. By some miracle, we saw a few stragglers…but I can’t imagine they lasted very long against the hordes of gun-toting camo dudes.
Day 1: Dalton Highway, Alaska – Coldfoot
After stocking up on groceries and gas in Fairbanks, we turned our sights north to the Arctic Circle. The Dalton Highway begins where the Elliot Highway ends: 80 miles north of Fairbanks. You’ll know you’ve hit the Dalton when the pavement abruptly disappears. It’s worth taking the time to snap a photo of the Dalton Highway sign (There is also an even nicer one at 65.496719, -148.686768) and then hop back in the car for your wild ride north. Here the hills are rolling and the spruce forests form a thick layer of green as the miles tick by. One hundred and fifteen miles north, is the Arctic Circle sign, also worth a stop. From here forward, there are days when the sun never sets in the summer, and deep winter days when the sun never rises above the horizon. It’s a strange world up here. A few hours in you’ll pass over the mighty Yukon River, a sight to behold.
Coldfoot is the only place to get gas so fill up and grab a few of their delicious cookies. Then head directly across the road to the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center. This place, despite being located in the middle of nowhere, is a gem. Its opening hours (11am – 10pm, summer only) reflect the times at which most tourists make it to Coldfoot from either Fairbanks or Prudhoe Bay. Both Gates of the Arctic National Park (GOTA) and Arctic National Wilderness Refuge (ANWR) are located north of you, on opposing sides of the Highway, and the visitor center has nice exhibits on arctic climates and the animals that inhabit this frozen world. Ben completed his first junior ranger badge, which I thought was pretty cool, given that GOTA is the least visited National Park in the country.
Not that we actually visited it, ironically. GOTA is designated a roadless/trail-less wilderness, which means that there aren’t any roads that go to the park. Most visitors charter a flight in and hike out. The eastern edge of the park comes within five miles of the Dalton Highway but it is separated by a major river and several miles of prime grizzly habitat. We passed this time around.
We spent the night at a nice riverfront boondocking site facing Gates of the Arctic. There is also a proper campground (Marion Creek) just north of Coldfoot.
Drive:Fairbanks to Coldfoot. 255 miles. 6 hours 30 minutes.
Activities: Arctic Interagency Visitor Center, Dalton Highway Sign (65.496719, -148.686768), Arctic Circle Sign (66.556001, -150.810714)
Stay: Boondocking site north of Coldfoot (in the vicinity of 67.859503, -149.828630). Free. There are lots of sites along the river (and small tributary streams). Just make sure you’re not blocking the pipeline access roads. They WILL find you (via airplane or truck patrols) and make you move. Don’t be that tourist.
Day 2: Dalton Highway, Alaska – Deadhorse
After a leisurely breakfast the next morning (Chris’ speciality is pancakes cooked in sizzling bacon grease…sounds horrible but is, in fact, delicious), we packed up and turned our sights towards Atigun Pass and Deadhorse. The scenery was changing: the trees were getting shorter, the air crisper, and the rivers wide beds of braided channels. The valleys leading up to Atigun Pass are stunning. When we went through in late August the trees and groundcovers were already turning colors; autumn on the tundra is a sight to behold. Gates of the Arctic and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge encompass large swaths of the Brooks Mountain Range; to get to Prudhoe Bay you have to cross over the mountains at Atigun Pass, the highest maintained mountain crossing in Alaska at 4,739 feet. It’s also the continental divide; everything north of the Brooks Range drains into the Beaufort Sea near Deadhorse. The pass is a barren rockscape; streams cascade down cliff faces and patches of snow were present even in summer. Coming down into the long valley is your first real taste of the arctic tundra; it’s a rainbow of colors and textures. Don’t let anyone tell you that the arctic is a flat, boring place!
It was in these hours between Atigun and Deadhorse that we looked (unsuccessfully) for brown bears and musk ox, but did manage to spot a few caribou. We’d also hoped to camp along the Sag River but extensive road work in the last 35 miles prevented us from going off the highway. Instead we set up shop in the parking lot of Deadhorse Camp, the outfitter that runs the Arctic Ocean shuttle (which we took the next day). In the meantime, we drove around Deadhorse and filled up on gas ($5.13/gallon). Don’t expect much out of Deadhorse; it’s an industrial operation meant to support oil field operations that has to survive in the harshest of climates. It’s drab, utilitarian, and covered in dust. We spent about 30 minutes poking around and then hightailed it back to Deadhorse Camp and the relative comfort of our camper and a hot meal.
Drive: Coldfoot to Deadhorse. 241 miles. 7 hours 30 minutes.
Activities: Wildlife/vista viewing around Atigun Pass & arctic tundra. Sightsee around Prudhoe. Visit the general store.
Stay: Ugh. We ended up in parking lot of Deadhorse Camp, next to road construction that was going all night long. If you don’t have a vehicle with sleeping accommodations, we heard decent reviews of the Aurora Hotel, although reservations are essential and it’ll run about $170/night for a single. We spoke to one guy staying at Deadhorse Camp and he was transferring to the Aurora for the second night.
Tip: We were told the Tesoro tends to be the less expensive of the two public stations in Deadhorse.
Day 3: Dalton Highway, Alaska – Coldfoot
After 9/11 they clamped down of people visiting the oil operations in Prudhoe Bay. Unfortunately, that also means that you can’t visit the Arctic Ocean without gaining security clearance for Prudhoe. And if you’re going to take the trouble to get yourself to the top of the world, you damn well better stick your toe in the ocean that inhabits the majority of the polar region. That’d be like going to Athens and skipping the Acropolis.
There is exactly one tour operator that runs the shuttle (which includes the security pre-clearance) and it leaves from Deadhorse Camp twice a day: 8:30am and 3:30pm. It is not, they are clear to stress, a tour of the oil operations. You drive through Deadhorse, then Prudhoe Bay, and then you are deposited oceanside. Everyone wanders around for 45 minutes, gets their feet a little wet (or more, if you’re really adventurous but damn that water was COLD!), and then jumps back in the warm van. Our guy was extra accommodating: we did a zippy detour to drive by the first oil well and then let us visit the general store for a few minutes so we could buy ourselves a “We survived the Dalton Highway” sticker. Which is now proudly affixed to our camper.
And then it was time to turn around and head south again. So we did.
Drive:Deadhorse to Coldfoot. 241 miles. 7 hours 30 minutes.
Activities: Arctic Ocean Shuttle. May-September. $69/person (no discount for children). At least 24 hour advance reservation required (for security clearance. They’ll need your passport information)
Stay: Boondocking spot a few miles south of Coldfoot. There are lots of access roads and quarries to camp if you’re in a self-sufficient vehicle.
The first oil well in the Arctic (now abandoned)
Day 4: Dalton Highway, Alaska – Fairbanks
One thing that I was disappointed about our trip was the lack of wildlife we saw along the Dalton. We saw ravens, feisty little ground squirrels, three caribou, and a few geese. That was it. No bears, moose, or musk ox. The visitor center in Coldfoot had a little explanation that went along the lines of: the big animals need vast territories to support themselves this far north, and consequently they’re really spread out. The highway only touches a very small portion of the arctic, and those animals tend to avoid humans (and human infrastructure). Also, it was the start of hunting season so many animals were making themselves particularly scarce. Not a big deal, but I had to realign my expectations a bit as we progressed through the trip. Also, the more time you spend up there, the more you’ll (likely) see. We spent four days, which frankly isn’t much time.
Drive:Coldfoot to Fairbanks. 255 miles. 6 hours 30 minutes.
Stay: Fairbanks (We stayed at a relative’s house, so sorry no advice here).
Road work in Deadhorse; they’re insulating the road so the permafrost underneath stays frozen
Next –> Part 4: Driving the Parks Highway (Fairbanks to Anchorage)