Are you interested in driving the Dalton Highway? Then read this post to be prepared for what to expect and avoid mishaps caused by incorrect assumptions on supply, road conditions and access to equipment. If not, just let me take you on a ride on the Dalton HWY to get a glimpse on the harshness and the land of the Last Frontier. It gives you an idea why Alaska is the last frontier and called a men’s state.
- So, You Are Interested in Driving the Dalton Highway?
- Where to Buy Your Souvenir Tees When Crossing the Arctic Circle
- Fill Your Tank in Cold Foot
- Dirt Roads Feel Like Old-fashioned Laundry Boards
- Imagining What the Atigun Pass Will Be in the Snow Season
- North Beyond the Treeline
- Fashion Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere
- A Men’s Container Town
- Wrapping Up Driving the Dalton Highway
So, You Are Interested in Driving the Dalton Highway?
First, kiss off your idea of a highway with at least two lanes in each direction like in the Lower 48 or Europe. Second, forget about concrete or asphalt as pavement. The Dalton namely is a dirt road with one lane in each direction (see photo below). Third your cell phone won’t work most of the time.
When you drive out of Fairbanks towards north there is just that one road – the Dalton Highway. It turns into an unpaved road after Livengood and after 30 miles or so you will not have any cell phone contact and need a satellite phone. The Dalton HWY is the haul way to Dead Horse and the oil fields built in the 1970s for the pipeline. When you drive that road you will have the pipeline sometimes to your left sometimes to your right. Sometimes it is even under ground, but you just drive up to the source. From a mountain the Trans-Alaska pipeline looks like a long snake winding its way thru the vast land.
When crossing the Yukon, the pipeline runs aside the haulway bridge. As you see in the above photo, the bridge has a strong slope. This is due to the fact that there a mountain range in the south of the Yukon, while there is a valley on the northern side of the river.
The Yukon River bridge is made of wood. Its width is so small you wonder how two big trucks can even use the bridge at the same time, but driving in the opposite direction. Of course, on a rainy day the bridge is slippery like hell because of the mud that the wheels brought onto it when emptying their profiles.
Driving Conditions on Dry and Wet days
When you drive the Dalton when it has been dry for a couple of days, you don’t see the car driving in front of you – if there is one at all – which is rare. You just see a huge dust cloud. When a car approaches from the other site, the first you see is dust. It takes quite a while until you see the front lights.
When you drive the Dalton on a rainy day, it is very slippery. Your car throws mud on the side and behind you. If there is a car in front of you, you better stay at a distance, as the windshield wipers can’t wipe the mud off as fast as the car in front of you throws new mud onto the wind shield. Sometimes the mud contains a big stone and breaks it. In that moment, you will understand the weird ads about windshield that you might have heard on the radio when in Fairbanks.
Where to Buy Your Souvenir Tees When Crossing the Arctic Circle
You cross the Yukon on a wooden slippy bridge that slopes downward with the pipeline to the side. There are some containers on the left of the road on the other side of the Yukon with a huge parking lot with a couple of trucks. A restaurant in a container somewhere in the middle of nowhere with furniture that looks like a random collection. In the container souvenir store, one can buy a keepsake T-shirt of having crossed the Arctic Circle despite at that place one is still south of the Arctic Circle. The ad says that this is the last place where to get it. And it is the only place to buy some sort of clothes since Fairbanks.
After a burger and a coffee, it goes back on the bumpy muddy road again. When passing the Arctic Circle I was even more disappointed than when I (still as a European) saw the Niagara Falls for the first time. It is not a European type tourist attraction – read shops and cafes – at all. There is nothing, but a sign to take a photo. No clothes to watch and foreigners’ fashion to adore.
Fill Your Tank in Cold Foot
After hours of being further shaken by the rented 4-wheel-drive car, we got to Coldfoot – what an inviting name – and there you have to fuel as there is nothing to fill your tank for the next 240 miles (400 km). The fuel price rips a big hole in the credit card. One buys a coffee as for the coffee the same applies with respect to availability (and price). While sipping the coffee I read that old fashioned pin board – just because of being bored as there is nothing else to look at – with the suggestion to visit the northern most white community behind the Arctic Circle – Wiseman.
There was also a note with a telephone number to call to make a reservation for a ride to Arctic Ocean. It said that you have to call 24 h ahead of time. So I did. Note that doing so is the only way to get to the beach.
Dirt Roads Feel Like Old-fashioned Laundry Boards
Later when the drive on the Dalton Highway goes further north through taiga to the left and right with a creek here and there and the pipeline as a guide, I wondered why people still use pin boards instead of Pinterest. With a sudden, my husband punches the break because in front of the car a partridge mom decided to cross the dirt road walking with her kids.
Imagining What the Atigun Pass Will Be in the Snow Season
We continue driving being shuttled by the ripples in the road. No car since more than half an hour came from north. The motor roars louder now that we climb the Atigun Pass. The Atigun Pass brings the Dalton Highway over the Brooks Range onto the North Slope with its tundra. The pass is squeezed to the wall of the mountain on one side and on the other it goes straight down about 200 yard (182 m) or so. There are no guard railings because steel would break in the extreme temperatures of the Arctic when a car or truck would hit them. In northern Alaska, all guard railings are wooden.
At 4739 feet (1444 m), I look down and wonder what this might be when I would have to drive this pass across the Brooks Range in winter with a truck and trailer full of natural gas. As if it wasn’t enough that on the ascend, we hardly could see 20 yards (~20 m) when we passed the clouds.
North Beyond the Treeline
We pass the last tree. Gently rolling plains turn into plain flats. No counter traffic since an hour. A caribou. The pipeline to the right. I start counting caribous, we pass a musk ox herd of 14. Pipeline to the left. 30 caribous. We can see miles in the dry cold air only a pingo blocks the view to the left. The haulway and pipeline turn around the pingo and so do we. My husband punches the break and I stop counting caribous. In front of us is a huge herd of caribous using the haul way to migrate south!
A Men’s Container Town
Upon our arrival in Dead Horse – a container town – I was looked at like a ghost. Everyone was in some sort of overalls with warm sweaters. They were all men except for one woman. But she blended well in in the fashionless sea of old overalls – or was that the fashion? I realized that container store at Yukon Crossing was the last place to buy a T-shirt and Fairbanks was the last place to buy some fashion.
I also was very happy that I had called to get the tour to the Arctic Ocean. We even saw a polar bear thru the binocular!
Remember You Are Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere
What a great reward for three days of driving with fear. Note that there is no road support. When your engine or tire say “good bye” or you slit into the ditch on an icy highway in winter or on a slippery wet road in summer, you depend on someone to stop and help you. At 40 below, you are even at risk to die from hypothermia once you run out of fuel.
Just to give you an idea about the heat and energy loss you get from the cold climate. When living in Barrow you have to take in 4000 kcal a day just to compensate for the energy loss you have being outside in winter. Desserts, here I come. LOL. No, and I don’t recommend a vacation in Barrow in winter to loose weight. There are easier ways to avoid gaining weight.
Wrapping Up Driving the Dalton Highway
The things I find the most scary about Alaska highways in general and driving the Dalton Highway in particular are as follows. First, you can drive for hours without someone coming from the other side. This means you are there alone, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, in a harsh climate in your car. In addition, in the moment, you leave your car, you are part of the food chain. Third, your cell phone is worthless. Once you are about 30 miles (~48 km) outside of a village or town, it is dead, dead, no matter who is your provider. Your phone is dead, it can’t be deader than dead. You would need a satellite phone. Fourth, driving the speed of the pilot car when there is a construction. Read what you need to know when traveling thru road constrcutions on Alaska HWYs.
Photos: G. Kramm
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