Canada & Alaska

Michele & Stephen's trip in 2013

The Dalton Highway

There is no really good reason to drive the 668km (415 mile) Dalton Highway to Deadhorse other than "because it's there". OK the scenery is impressive but so is a lot of Alaska and the Yukon.

What the Dalton does have is the longest stretch of road in the USA without any services! Three hundred and eighty six kilometers without fuel, food or indeed anything except road and pipeline. The Dalton Highway is also one of only two roads in North America to cross the Arctic Circle.

The Dalton Highway was built, very quickly, in 1974 to provide access for the Trans-Alaska pipeline that was being built to take crude oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. Originally all gravel, a significant proportion is now (2013) paved. The highway was opened to the public (without a permit) in 1994 but only as far as Deadhorse. Access to Prudhoe Bay (and the Arctic Ocean) is only by organized tour. See next post.

Although the highway is open all year round only those with specially prepared vehicles should attempt it in winter when temperatures are routinely -40°C and can fall to as low as -60°C. However in the summer the highway can be a pleasant drive in a suitable vehicle with temperatures generally above +10°C.

Contrary to what lots of people say, the road surface, whilst occasionally rough, and slightly corrugated in sections is not going to "rip your tyres to shreds" neither are the 18 wheel trucks going to force you off the road, nor are you "certain to have your windscreen smashed by flying stones".

Our experience has been that the truck drivers are polite, slow down whilst passing and often wave.

A CB radio tuned to USA Channel 19 is useful (but not essential).

There are a couple of blind corners where the road signs suggest you announce your presence on Channel 19 to warn trucks coming in the opposite direction.

So, for example, here you might announce "Northbound four-wheeler at Oh Shit Corner".

The first section of the Dalton Highway to the Yukon River Crossing is a mixture of reasonable gravel and...

...good tarmac, often with the pipeline visible (and above ground).

The bridge across the Yukon is unusual in that it has a 6% grade and a wooden deck.

There is expensive fuel and reasonable food at Yukon River and a very helpful tourist information center where you can get a certificate to say you have crossed the Arctic Circle, in spite of the fact that you haven't.

More interestingly, if you are in a campervan/motorhome, a few miles beyond Yukon River is the Hot Spot Cafe with nearby free camping, water (not potable) and the last dump point before Deadhorse.

The cafe serves excellent Boo Boo Burgers for USA$16.00 and caters for tourists, truck drivers and (whilst we were there) geologists who dropped in by helicopter. The burgers are recommended. The sign under the service window reads "Sarcasm - One of the free services I offer".

The Hot Spot Cafe is adorned with stickers that display a particular sense on humour that is apparent all along the Dalton Highway.

The phrase "Haul Road Touch" found on several stickers seems to be a misprint for "Haul Road Tough".

Eventually the Dalton Highway does cross the Arctic Circle, with the inevitable sign and a mosquito tent housing two elderly volunteers offering certificates to show that you have (now) crossed the magic line.

Many tourists, and some tour busses stop at the Arctic Circle and non-truck traffic was much less north of here. In fact when we were here in early June 2013 we saw only one tourist motorhome north of the Arctic Circle and that turned back at the Atigun pass. What we have seen is an unreasonable number of cyclists going both ways, some going to or coming from Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America.

Between the Hot Spot Cafe and Coldfoot the Dalton remains a mixture of tarmac and gravel. Some sections may be slippery when wet particularly those which have been treated with Calcium Chloride to suppress dust.

If you really want to know what every mile of the Dalton Highway is like, before you get there (and nearly every other major road in Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta and Northwest Territories) then you can read The Milepost, published every year since 1949. It lists every long drop toilet and litter bin in Alaska!

Depressingly useful.

The sample to the right covers the Dalton Highway from 179.6 to 179.2 miles south of Deadhorse (i.e. about 700 metres of road).

Coldfoot is the last "place" on the Dalton Highway before Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay. It consists of a Post Office, bar, restaurant, fuel station and hotel. Most of Coldfoot is in the picture below.

One of the things that you need to do in Coldfoot is phone ahead to book your tour of Prudhoe Bay, you can do this toll free from the cafe. You will need your passport and credit card and they need 24 hours notice for your "security" clearance!

Between Coldfoot and the Atigun Pass the forest ends and the Tundra begins.

The Atigun pass proved too much for at least one rented motorhome we saw that gave up here. However a couple of Irish cyclists we met were made of sterner stuff, in spite of it snowing when they crossed the pass.

We met Kevin and Brendan north of the Atigun Pass and we were able to offer them some light refreshment (that they were just too polite to refuse).

We met up with them again several times and they said that the last 100km of the Dalton Highway into Deadhorse was the most difficult part of their trips so far.

We can confirm they both made it to the Arctic Ocean and would have paddled in it, if it had not been frozen!

According to our guide books we should have seen at least brown bears, black bears, lynx, caribou, Dall sheep, musk-oxen and arctic ground squirrels on the Dalton Highway.

Finally after three days driving and 668km (415 mile) of the Dalton Highway, Deadhorse comes into sight!