Dalton Highway

The Dalton Highway passes through hundreds of miles of scenic forests, mountains, & tundra.
This article is an itinerary.

The James W. Dalton Highway (Visitor's Guide), Alaska Route 11, or simply the "Dalton Highway", "the Dalton", or the "Haul Road") is a 414 mi (666 km) road traversing central and northern Alaska. It is one of only two roads in North America (the other being the Dempster Highway in Yukon, Canada) which cross the Arctic Circle and connect to the rest of the North American road network. It begins at Mile 73 of the Elliott Highway (Alaska Route 2) 84 mi (134 km) north of Fairbanks and ends at Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean amid the Prudhoe Bay oilfield.

The scenic Dalton Highway passes courses through boreal forests, across the Yukon river and the Arctic Circle, through the Brooks Range mountains, the Continental Divide at Atigun pass, and finally traverses the treeless North Slope tundra to the Deadhorse and the Prudhoe Bay oilfields near the Arctic Ocean. While travel up the entirety of this road is quite an undertaking, the journey rewards drivers with breathtaking visas and the experience of America's Arctic, its wildlife, and landscape.

Understand

History

When oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1969, the state of Alaska operated as a "boom-and-bust economy" without any stable industries and, more importantly, America was critically short of oil and mostly at the mercy of volatile Arab nations (just two years after the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War). Plans for drilling the oil and for an 800 mi pipeline were thrown together at a dizzying speed, as the U.S. government and oil companies worked to settle land claims with Native Americans, attain proper permits, ensure environmental safeguards, and build ways of accessing this extremely remote area. The Dalton Highway was hastily constructed in just 5 months, in 1974, to provide access for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline under construction. It was built at a similar, dizzying pace, price, and fashion as the nearby Alaska Highway, constructed during World War Two.

Originally called the North Slope Haul Road (or simply the "Haul Road", as some locals still call it), it was built as a supply road and intended for large tractor-trailers rather than private vehicles. After completion of the pipeline, the road remained as a supply route for oil operations at Prudhoe Bay. In 1981 the haul road was opened to the public (with a permit) until Disaster Creek at Mile 211, given the designation Alaska Route 11, and named in honor of James W. Dalton, a man who aided in the development of the Cold War's Distant Early Warning System and whose knowledge of northern Alaska greatly aided the oil exploration of the region. In 1994, the public was allowed access to the entire highway to Mile 414 in Deadhorse, without permits. The road was formerly gravel for its entire length, but in recent years a long-term paving project has been undertaken. The Dalton Highway is paved from Mile 37 to Mile 49; Mile 90 to Mile 197 (Gold Creek); and from Mile 335 (Happy Valley airstrip) to Mile 362. Due to the extreme temperature variations and frost heave, paved sections are prone to potholes and large cracks and some paved sections are worse than unpaved sections.

Climate

Now That's Cold!

The coldest temperature ever recorded in the United States was measured in Prospect Creek, Alaska. Prospect Creek was a temporary camp for construction workers for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and, currently uninhabited, is located just a few miles east of the Dalton Highway at Mile 134. On 23 Jan 1971 a low of -82°F (-62°C) was recorded. The only temperature ever recorded in North America lower than this was by just one degree...-83°F (-63°C) in Snag, Yukon, Canada on 3 Feb 1947.

The climate of the regions this highway traverses range from subarctic to polar. During the summer months (Jun-Aug), the average maximum temperatures range from 70°F (21°C) to 50°F (10°C) with average minimum temperatures ranging from 50°F (10°C) to 35°F (2°C). Travel on the highway during the months of May and September is a bit colder, although travel along the highway is not considerably more dangerous during these months. Average maximums during these two months are approximately 35-60°F (2-16°C) and average minimums 40-15°F (4 to -9°C). The temperatures given are average, be prepared for temperatures as much as 20°F (11°C) outside of said ranges. While the highway is open all year (more trucks traverse it in winter than summer!), travel from late September through early May is frigid and lethally cold through the heart of winter. Temperatures below -40°F (-40°C) are very common and temperatures as low as -60°F (-57°C) are certainly possible—before factoring in windchill. The record low windchill in Deadhorse was -102°F (-74°C) on 28 Feb 1989! A chart record of windchill at ARCO's facility in Prudhoe Bay on 13 Jan 1975 shows -128°F (-89°C). Such temperatures are lethal in less than one minute if not prepared for such temperature. Unless experienced with polar temperatures—including its effects on vehicles—and gear, DO NOT attempt to traverse the highway between November and March!

North of the Arctic Circle (Mile 115), there are 24 hours of daylight in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter. In Deadhorse for instance, the longest "day" is 63 days, 23 hours, 40 minutes (12:09AM on 20 May to 11:18PM 22 Jul); likewise, the longest "night" in Deadhorse is 54 days, 22 hours, 51 min (12:27PM 24 Nov to 11:18AM 18 Jan).

Talk

English is spoken by all persons living and working along the highway, including residents of the Native Alaskan villages accessible from the Dalton via the Yukon River. As the road is primarily a trucking highway, and there is virtually no cell phone coverage along the highway, the "official" method of communication along the highway is over CB radio, Channel 19. Channel 19 is listened to by truckers, fellow travelers, pipeline security, Alaska State Troopers (police), and others. Not only can you talk in the event of an emergency, but you can also listen to others' conversation which may alert you to hazards and current conditions on the road ahead. CB radios can be rented or purchased from numerous equipment outfitters around Fairbanks. There are just a few places along the highway which offer a place to rest and encounter other persons, namely the handful of towns along the road.

Deadhorse is the only location on the highway with cell phone reception. Satellite phones, while extremely expensive are handy and commonly used by workers in the area for ranges longer than other radios. However, not all satellite phone networks have coverage in this region. The entire Dalton is covered by Iridium and Globalstar (including SPOT messenger service). Fairbanks appears to be the edge of Inmarsat coverage, with the Dalton lying outside of Inmarsat coverage. Thuraya does not provide service in the Americas.

Get in

The Dalton Highway parallels the Alaska Pipeline for its entire route. Seen here between the Yukon River & Brooks Range, near Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge.

By plane

The nearest major airport to the highway is in Fairbanks. Aside from numerous Alaska Airlines and turboprop flights to destinations within Alaska, Fairbanks International Airport has commercial service available to: Seattle/Tacoma (Alaska Airlines; seasonal, Delta Air Lines), Portland (seasonal, Alaska Airlines), Minneapolis/St. Paul (seasonal, Delta Air Lines), Denver (seasonal, Frontier Airlines & United Airlines), Chicago-O'Hare (seasonal, United Airlines), and Frankfurt, Germany (seasonal, Condor Airlines). Deadhorse does have an airport handling limited commercial flights (Alaskan Airlines to Barrow, Fairbanks, & Anchorage), but all organized tours originate from Fairbanks, and there are no car rentals available here. As flying into Deadhorse is more expensive and has limited options for getting onto the highway (you could try to hitch a ride with a truck driver, but don't expect ANY stops), the only practical means of arrival by air is Fairbanks or Anchorage if you want to rent a car there to explore southern Alaska as well (see Anchorage article for flights there).

By car

Sunrise along the Dalton.

From Fairbanks, you can unofficially rent a vehicle (4x4 truck recommended) and drive to the Dalton Highway. However, all major car rental companies explicitly prohibit the travel of their vehicles on a long list of Alaskan roads, including the Dalton Highway. Additionally, it is highly recommended that you travel with a full-sized spare tire; the road is rough enough that a small spare will be of little use and towing costs can be as high as $5/mile. The following companies, in alphabetical order, rent vehicles for use on the Dalton and other rugged Alaskan highways:

If you are driving your personal vehicle it is important to remember that the purpose of this highway is for trucks and that the road is designed for them rather than for personal vehicles (see "get around"). Roundtrip, you will be traveling 828 mi (1333 km) on a mostly gravel road while being passed on numerous occasions by speeding semi-trucks hurling gravel at your vehicle. Many company and semi-drivers are courteous and will slow from the oncoming direction; however, some do not and gravel will hit your windshield. If being passed from behind, it is often best to find a safe place to pull off and let the other driver by. This will let them pass at a safe speed and reduce the risk of road debris being kicked up onto your vehicle (it's also just good manners). Additionally, there are many potholes on the road (more so on paved parts), some big enough to swallow basketballs. Such dangers can wreak havoc on a small car's suspension and you might be left with a few scratches and dents on your car (i.e., don't take your new Mercedes down this road). A vehicle such as an SUV or pickup truck is preferred due to their ruggedness and ability to cope with road conditions. One Fairbanks car rental agency claims that large sedans are better due to their lower center of gravity, but since sedans are what they rent (for a rental cost similar to larger, newer, & more expensive trucks & SUVs), that may not be entirely truthful. Due to considerable damage caused by the low clearance and inexperienced driving, this company no longer rents sedans.

Refer to the Fairbanks article regarding reaching Fairbanks by car. The southern terminus of the Dalton Highway can be reached by car from Fairbanks via the Steese Highway then, at Fox (11 mi [18 km] north of Fairbanks), the Elliot Highway; both road segments are numbered as Alaska Route 2. The Dalton Highway begins at Livengood (no services), Mile 73 of the Elliot Highway. Follow the signs to the Dalton Highway. It is about an hour and a half drive from Fairbanks to Livengood. There are no gas stations between Fairbanks and the start of the Dalton. Once on the Dalton Highway, there is gas available at the Yukon River and at Coldfoot ($5.39 per gallon in summer 2011). After that, there are no services of any kind for 240 miles (386 km) at Deadhorse. Do not take this information lightly.

By tour bus

There are several companies in the Fairbanks area which take tourists on the Dalton Highway in vans or buses. While the price for such a tour could be more expensive for a family than renting your own car to take on the highway, for individuals and couples the cost of a tour may outweigh the costs and hassles of renting a vehicle. The biggest advantage of taking a tour bus is the lack of concern for breaking down, battling trucks speeding by, and concern for things like gas and food. However, the tour bus limits one's flexibility while on the trip and most tour buses take two days going to Deadhorse and one back. Tour buses stop at the hotels at night and you won't be able to save money by camping.

Prepare

Services are scarce along the 494 mi (795 km) between Fairbanks and Deadhorse on the Steese, Elliot, & Dalton Highways

See also: Winter driving.

The Dalton Highway has the distinction of (among other things) having the longest stretch of serviceless road in North America. North of Coldfoot, there is a 240 mi (386 km) stretch of road with no gas stations, restaurants, hotels, or any other basic services until the Prudhoe Bay oilfield at Deadhorse. Therefore, travelers are advised to have basic survival supplies, car repair equipment, and equipment for camping and other activities, stocking up no further north than Fairbanks, as all four communities further north offering services are extremely expensive, and since Fairbanks is a small city (pop. apx 32,000), there will be bargains to be found. Drivers should check and replace worn belts & hoses on their vehicles and ensure all tires (including spare[s]) are properly inflated.

If you plan on adventuring, there are several equipment rental stores in/around Fairbanks, including:

Gas stations

Gas, food, and lodging are available at Coldfoot year-round.

For the person traveling the Dalton, gas is infrequent and expensive. While you may be following a pipeline that transports over 700,000 barrels of oil per day (a large percentage of America's oil supply), that oil has to travel south to California to be refined, then sent back up to Alaska and transported hundreds of miles by not-so-fuel-efficient trucks to these gas stations... so as oil-rich as the area may be, expect to pay the highest prices in the United States ($1–2 more per gallon than the national average). Combine this with the long distances, and one thing is clear: you'll need gas and it's not cheap. The last gas station leaving the Fairbanks area is Hilltop Truck Stop in Fox, where the Elliot Highway splits from the Steese Highway. Afterward, there are just three locations to fuel along the Dalton.

That's all...three locations with gas stations along the entire highway!

Driving

See also: Tips for road trips and Winter driving.

This road was built for trucks.

The speed limit on the Dalton Highway is 50 MPH (80 km/h) its entire length and keep your headlights on at all times! Use parking lights if parked near the road (although you should park far off the road) and emergency blinkers if disabled. Raising the hood of your vehicle can signal to passing drivers that you are disabled and may elicit help from passing drivers. If making repairs on a vehicle, park at least 10 ft (3.5 m) off the road to avoid being hit or pelted with gravel.

The road was built for trucks carrying supplies to the oilfield...Trucks have the right of way! Understand that what may be a simple task in a car can be much more different in a large truck. Trucks cannot brake as quickly, nor can they "get out of the way" as easily. Many trucks have overturned as a result of hitting the berm or ditch at high speed, whereas a car can (much more) easily and safely get out of the way.

Always slow down when passing an oncoming vehicle; it is common courtesy as a stone flung at your windshield at 50 mph will do a lot more damage than one flung at 10 mph. Check your rearview mirror frequently and pull over to allow vehicles to pass you. If you want to pass a vehicle ahead of you, flash your bright lights, turn your lights on/off, or tap the horn lightly; tap the horn as you're passing in appreciation. Finally, if you're stranded, don't expect trucks to stop for you. It wastes a considerable amount of fuel to come to a stop, idle while helping you, and then get back up to cruising speed.

There are many steep grades on the Dalton, especially in the Brooks Range (many at the maximum 12%). In wintery weather, chains may be required to gain traction ascending these slopes. Be sure to carry chains with you, even in months like June or September.

Check current conditions

It is very important to check the road conditions and weather warnings and forecasts before leaving, especially outside of July and August. While driving expect that at any given time a section of the road may be shut down due to storm or other damage, causing anywhere from a few hours to several days delay. There is one DOT webcam along the route, on the north side of the Brooks Range .

Road conditions

Weather

Itinerary

The Dalton and Alaska Pipeline near Finger Mountain (Mile 98).

The Dalton Highway begins at Mile 73 of the Elliot Highway, 84 miles (134 km) north of Fairbanks, in the area known as "Livengood". The following points of interest along the highway are listed by mile from the start.

Boreal Forests (Miles 0-175)

Miles 0-175 are dominated by boreal forests. Much of this stretch of the highway was ravaged by wildfires in 2004 & 2005 (Alaska's 1st & 3rd largest fire seasons of record), leaving behind many swaths of charred trees. Most, but not all, of the wildlife in this region has left. With only skinny trees obscuring your view, the fireweed flowers (so named for their tendency to colonize fire ravaged regions) give the forest floors a carpet of bright pink, wildflowers peak in early July.

The Arctic Circle at Mile 115

Brooks Range (Miles 175-275)

The town of Coldfoot (pop. 10+) is a major stop on the highway

Miles 175-275 run through the Brooks Range mountains. The landscape is composed of tall, jagged mountains, valleys, and gorges. This is prime location on the Dalton for hiking. Compared to the North Slope and Coastal Plain, which receive less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, the Brooks Range is frequented by blizzards, windy, and prone to snow even in July!

Passing through the Brooks Range in early March.

North Slope (Miles 275-355)

Miles 275-355 pass through the North Slope, which is entirely permafrost and home to many herds of caribou, groups of muskox, as well as predatory birds, such as falcons. The only plants in this region are tough, ground-hugging shrubs. As the name implies, this is a slope leading from the Brooks Range down to the low-lying Coastal Plain.

Arctic Coastal Plain (Miles 355-414)

The Dalton parallels the Sagavanirktok River across much of the North Slope and Arctic Coastal Plain.

Miles 355-414 pass through the Coastal Plain. This low-lying region, in summer, is largely marsh and wet-lands during the summer. Don't be fooled though as permafrost lies just inches below the bottom of these shallow marshes. The plain is home to significant numbers of caribou and migratory birds feasting on the billions of insects which breed in these marshes. In winter, the plain is a flat, solid, windswept wasteland with only the distant Brooks Range as something discernible.

Travel Times

The Arctic coastal plain, traveling south from Deadhorse.

At a minimum, plan three days to make the trip between Fairbanks to Deadhorse and back. Assuming good road and weather conditions, expect the following travel times from Fairbanks:

The above times do not factor in rests, wildlife viewing, or delays due to construction or bad weather.

Distances

Miles (km) Fairbanks Livengood Yukon River Arctic Circle Coldfoot Atigun Pass Galbraith Lake Deadhorse
Fairbanks - 84 (134) 140 (225) 199 (320) 259 (417) 328 (528) 359 (578) 498 (802)
Livengood 84 (134) - 56 (90) 115 (185) 175 (282) 244 (390) 275 (443) 414 (666)
Yukon River 140 (225) 56 (90) - 59 (94) 119 (190) 188 (303) 219 (353) 358 (576)
Arctic Circle 199 (320) 115 (185) 59 (94) - 60 (97) 129 (208) 160 (258) 299 (481)
Coldfoot 259 (417) 175 (282) 119 (190) 60 (97) - 69 (111) 100 (161) 239 (385)
Atigun Pass 328 (528) 244 (390) 188 (303) 129 (208) 69 (111) - 31 (50) 170 (274)
Galbraith Lake 359 (578) 275 (443) 219 (353) 160 (258) 100 (161) 31 (50) - 139 (224)
Deadhorse 498 (802) 414 (666) 358 (576) 299 (481) 239 (385) 170 (274) 139 (224) -

Do

How can you resist the urge to photograph the scenic Dalton Highway? It looks amazing in this HDR shot!
The Brooks Range is a great place for hiking or backpacking. However, even in mid-June, a lake remains frozen

There be gold in them there hills!

In 2008, exploratory drilling for gold at Livengood, at the beginning of the highway, produced promising results. A deposit approximately 300 ft thick and 1 sq mi in size is believed to contain 5-10 million ounces of gold, worth around $4-10 billion at 2008/2009 prices! Mining won't begin for a couple of years, as the equipment will need to be connected to the nearest power lines...60 miles away.

Stay safe

There are no services in the 240 miles (386 km) between Coldfoot and Deadhorse

Remoteness

Due to the scarcity of services, the traveler on this road will need a certain degree of self-sufficiency while traveling along the highway on your own. Therefore, you are advised to bring what is listed in the Prepare section.

Road safety

A wide variety of different road surfaces will be encountered by travelers on the Dalton. The beginning 100 miles are said to be the worst (pothole wise), but that may just be the time it takes to get acclimated to road conditions. This surface is gravel/dirt and is littered with a landscape of craters and potholes that will often slow your pace down to the 10 mph mark, or destroy your suspension. Later on, a few patches of paved road will be encountered, but in a rough arctic environment like this, it is apparent they don't hold up too well. Be constantly on the lookout for massive potholes on any part of the road. These will sneak up on you suddenly after a comfortable few miles. Further north, the gravel roads seem to be in better condition and they permit higher speeds.

Health

There are no medical facilities on the highway. The nearest hospital is in Fairbanks. Oil companies likely have limited clinical facilities in Deadhorse should you find yourself in desperate circumstances, but are otherwise only for employees. Should you find yourself gravely ill, a medical evacuation is very expensive, takes much longer than is standard in the rest of the US, and can be limited or impossible during severe winter weather.

Should you decide to collect water from streams, it is advisable to boil such water as giardia is common in Alaskan streams and very contagious.

Weather hazards

Weather is an important factor to add into Dalton Highway Trip calculations. Remember, this is the Arctic! During the summer it is very possible to encounter heavy snow while driving through the Brooks Range via Atigun Pass. Drive with extreme caution on the windy mountain roads. The gravel can be very slippery, especially in rain or snow. During the winter, the area may sustain temperatures below -60°F (-51°C) (which is cold enough to freeze your brake fluid!). As mentioned earlier such temperatures are fatal and thus winter travel is highly discouraged.

Animal life

The Dalton Highway passes through territory of the fearsome Grizzly bear. Understand that grizzly bear attacks are almost always defensive, whereas black bear, of which most Americans are familiar, attacks are predatory (often unexpected). Bear repellent spray (a very strong pepper spray/mace) is considerably safer than carrying a rifle. See this article for comprehensive information on bear safety. In the winter, Polar bears can roam the North Slope. Polar bears are massive, as ferocious as the grizzly bear, and very stealthy (and in darkness, not very discernible from the snow). Fortunately, you probably won't be outdoors during the season polar bears migrate into the region. You cannot learn enough about bear safety in this region. Consult one of the visitor's centers along the highway for more information and brochures.

You may encounter wolves and foxes in this region. Moose can be dangerous if threatened. They weigh, on average, 1,400 lb (640 kg) and have 6 ft wide antlers. Being mauled or stepped on by a moose can be lethal or leave you seriously injured in a region where medical services are distant and take hours for you to be treated. Animal life along the Dalton is great, but enjoy them at a distance.

Also visible are Dall sheep, muskox, caribou, wolverine (rare), and other smaller mammals.

Emergency services

Go next

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Wednesday, January 20, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.