Driving on most American roads today is anything but a challenge. They are mostly smooth, well lit, and generally safe. Alaska’s Dalton Highway, which takes you from Fairbanks, Alaska to the town of Deadhorse, is 414 miles of the exact opposite! While portions are now paved, it began as a gravel road designed to bring oil field equipment to the edge of the Arctic Ocean. The road is bumpy, icy, has many steep grades (over 10%), no guardrails, and takes you through Alaska’s Arctic Tundra! If you ask me that’s a perfect recipe for an exciting and challenging road trip!
PREPARING TO ROAD TRIP ALASKA’S DALTON HIGHWAY
Before you make the road trip it’s important to mentally prepare yourself and get you car (or ideally truck) ready for the drive. There are only two stops to get fuel and no cell phone reception until the end of the road. We took the drive in our 2011 VW GTI and made it there safely and without any blowouts or major damage. Here’s a list of items you should have if you are planning to take the road trip.
- Good set of relatively new tires (a worn tire will more than likely blow-out)
- A shovel (I always carry a camping shovel in my car)
- Snow tires if you are traveling October through April ( I use the Continental DWS for my car)
- Several Gallons of water
- A CB radio (it helps to communicate with truckers and snow plows)
- At least one FULL SIZED spare tire mounted on a rim
- An air pump for your tires
- A map of the road with key mile markers noted (you will not have cell phone signal until the end)
- Food and Water for more than a day (in case you get stranded)
- Check out out Essential Road Trip Packing List for other items.
Once you have your car ready, take some time to plan out how long you want to be on the road. Alaska’s Dalton Highway is not a road you want to drive at night, so we planned the trip in two legs to make sure we had daylight at all times. You can make the trip in the Summer in one shot, but the road is much rougher without the snow pack, and you’ll be driving for about 12 hours straight each way.
MAKING THE DRIVE
Our trip along Alaska’s Dalton Highway was the final leg of our Key West to Deadhorse Alaska Road Trip and began by heading North on the Elliot Highway. The road is smooth and clear along the way. Make sure you stop at Hilltop Gas Station and fill up your gas tank. It’s the last gas station for about 180 Miles so its wise to top off.
Once you gas up you have a bit more distance to cover before you get on the actual Dalton Highway. At this point the anticipation was absolutely killing both of us. We were ready to get our adventure started!
We finally arrived at the beginning of the highway and were greeted with a huge warning sign advising us that the pavement would suddenly end. We planned to make the drive this time of year hoping the snow pack would smooth the ride. Sadly we were mistaken…
The road alternated from recently laid blacktop to sections of road that looked like they were a freshly dug strip mine. There were several occasions where we didn’t feel comfortable going more that about 20MPH, but it was absolutely worth it!
One of the coolest features of the road is that it runs parallel to the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. In fact that is why it was originally built in the first place. The pipeline is a beautiful juxtaposition of man made engineering against Mother Natures beauty.
We continued along the highway and crossed the mighty Yukon River at mile marker 60. That meant that we were 60 miles away from our first big goal: The Arctic Circle! The drive takes you through quite a few elevation changes and many mountains. Here’s Lauren at one of my favorites:
We continued the jarring and bumpy drive and finally came across the turn out to the camp area where you officially cross into the Arctic Circle.
After we paused and reveled in the fact that we were so close to our goal, we got back in the car and carried on. The road got a bit more hairy until we came to one of our favorite features of the road: Oh Shit Corner!
After this corner, the drive continued through fantastic countryside until we finally reached our first stop for the night. Coldfoot Camp at mile marker 180.
Coldfoot was first built in the 70’s as a base camp for road-building operations and then for the later pipeline building crews.
It’s a bit rustic but it was a welcome sight after 9 hours of jaw jarring bumps and turns along the highway.
We checked into the “Inn” and made our way to our lavish accommodations.
Coldfoot is also used during the winter as a base camp for many tours into Alaska’s north. The most popular tour is the Northern Lights tour. Now you can pay $70 to have someone wake you up in the middle fo the night and drive you to a heated cabin in nearby Wiseman to watch them, or you can just set your alarm. We chose the latter option and woke up at about 2:00 AM. We went outside and were greeted with one of the most beautiful sights we’ve ever seen. The sky was glowing various shades of green while bands of light stretched across the sky. It was something that both Lauren and I had always wanted to see, and was absolutely worth it! Due to some technical difficulties we weren’t able to get any decent shots of the Aurora, but that also allowed me to put the camera down and just enjoy nature’s wonder for about an hour.
The following morning we woke up again, :-) and got started on our drive right before what we thought would be sunrise.
Turns out when you are this far North in the winter it takes the sun about 1.5 hours to actually rise.
The road out of Coldfoot and to Deadhorse is definitely the more treacherous of the two halves of the drive. The road is paved right outside of the town and stays that way for about 20-30 miles. Don’t let it fool you though, it’s more like the calm before the storm. We came across these rather ominous abandoned wrecks along the way to remind us what could happen if we took our eyes off the road.
Our drive was once again filled with absolute beauty and an immense feeling of solitude. Even though you are occasionally passed by a semi or a pickup from the pipeline crew, the majority of your time on the road makes you feel like you are the only person out there. It’s an extremely serene feeling and really allows you to enjoy nature. As the road continues farther into the arctic the forest thins out and slowly begins to turn to tundra. The last evidence of any tree growth is clearly marked, right before you enter the Brooks Mountain range.
Once you get into the mountains you are quickly forced to drive through one of the toughest mountain passes I’ve ever been through. Atigun Pass is infamous for it’s combination of steep grades and tight turns. It’s a difficult drive in the Summer and significantly tougher in the Winter once it becomes covered in snow and ice.
Once you clear the pass the road terrain is dramatically different as you run along a river bed and the foothills of the Brooks Range. On our trip we were treated with quite a surprise when we stumbled across a large (possibly more than 500) herd of Caribou migrating to the South.
Once all the mountains are cleared you are greeted by more icy roads (this was the only sign warning us of ice after 200 + miles of travel :-)
and many miles gently rolling hills through the frozen tundra.
The road conditions continued to vary from completely paved to snow packed gravel about every 20 miles or so. There were times that it felt like all the wheels were going to just fall off the car, or that it would be better to just get out and walk. It seemed as if every time we felt like quitting something else would happen that would make the drive worth it. With about 80 miles left on our drive we came across this herd of Musk Oxen grazing in the distance. They were tough to photograph and we were glad to have packed our binoculars.
As we neared our goal, we were greeted by the signs of the industry that build the road to begin with.
We finally arrived at Deadhorse and had one final responsibility before checkng into our hotel. Fill up the car with gas :-)
We then checked into our “crew” acomodations at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel and enjoyed a solid meal (included in the price I must add) at their cafeteria. We then went to bed early knowing that getting to the end was only half the trip.
The next morning we woke up before dawn and made preparations to head South. It was probably the most frustrating part of the whole trip. We had just spent two exhausting days driving to just turn around and do it all over again. They say it’s a feat to drive all 415 miles of Alaska’s Dalton Highway, but considering it’s the only way out, it’s really 830 miles of teeth clenching, butt jarring roadway.
It was really neat to see all the oil operations in full swing as we pulled out that next morning and started our two day treck back to civilization.
The drive back down was surprisingly different than the drive up. It was the combination of the constantly changing weather in Alaska and the confidence brought upon by knowing that us, and the car, would be able to make the trip. With some of the fear of the road out of the way, and the fact that we had met our goal under our belts, we were able to relax and really enjoy the drive down. Of course it helps when you have scenery like this to keep you company.
We also were fortunate enough to spot some more wildlife. We ran across this little fox as he was hunting out in a field.
While driving up the Dalton we passed a small “town” called Wiseman about 12 miles north of Coldfoot camp. Since we made it back to the Coldfoot area much faster on the return trip we decided to stop in and take a look. It’s a neat little pitstop and it gives you some insight into the lives of the area’s earliest settlers.
After checking out Wiseman we went back to the Coldfoot Camp and spent another evening there before finishing our drive the next day. It was a great opportunity to reflect on the past few days and really start to let the whole trip soak in. The last leg of our return trip brought some snow and made for some pretty hairy and icy road conditions. The hills started to become much more treacherous with the car starting to slide down some of the steeper hills. At one point the traction became so poor the car actually started sliding backwards down one of the hills after being forced to stop for an oversized tractor trailer!
Finally about 80 hours after our drive came to an end at the same place it began. The road is definitely not for the faint of heart or the ill equipped. Our journey was tough and exhausting but it gave us the opportunity to see some of the most unique scenery we’ve ever seen and enjoy a vast tract of nature that was virtually untouched by man. The drive was not an easy one, but it was absolutely worth it. I mean, come on, how many people do you know that have driven to the end of the earth and back :-)
Where We Stayed Along the Route
Pikes Waterfront Lodge
1850 Hoselton Road
Mile 175, Dalton Hwy
Prudhoe Bay Hotel
100 main street
Prudhoe Bay, AK