Road Trip: Dalton Highway, Alaska
A mostly gravel road does not do justice to the vastly dramatic scenery that lies along its winding path.
The 414-mile (666-kilometer) road from Livengood to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, carves a path through forest and tundra, crosses the Yukon River, traverses the towering Brooks Range, and passes over the North Slope to end at the Arctic Ocean.
The Dalton Highway slices through northern Alaska from Livengood to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. Built in 1974 as the service road for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the highway is not to be taken lightly. It's a mostly gravel thoroughfare often ruled by 18-wheelers. Services are few, and signs warn of everything from steep grades to avalanches. However, the signs say little of the road's chief attribute: some of North America's most dramatic scenery.
Start in Fairbanks
In Fairbanks, load up with gas, water, food, and spare tires and head north 84 miles (135 kilometers) to Livengood. This is Alaska's Interior—gently rolling hills of aspen, scrawny black spruce poking through mossy bogs, and meandering streams. Your constant companion is the 48-inch (122-centimeter) pipeline carrying oil from the North Slope to Valdez. Near the Yukon River, satisfy a big appetite with big burgers at the scruffy Hotspot Café.
Moving on, watch for dramatic changes. A favorite stretch of the highway for many falls between the Yukon River and the Arctic Circle, where you encounter tundra and taiga, with evocative granite outcrops around Finger Mountain. Stay alert for sightings of grizzly and black bears. Sometimes, large herds of caribou may cross the highway. Remain inside your vehicle whenever you spot wildlife, since the vehicle serves as a blind and is the safest place to observe animals.
At mile 175, fill up your tank at the truck stop in Coldfoot, offering the last services for the next 240 miles (386 kilometers). Then head into the Brooks Range, where sky-stabbing spires of bare rock tower over 7,000 feet (2,134 meters). As the road drops, it skirts the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (arctic.fws.gov), home to caribou and the nesting ground for millions of migratory birds. An impressive 158 species have been recorded in the region, and many birds can be seen along the highway, from songbirds to flocks of migrating waterfowl to shorebirds, raptors, and rare species from Asia and Africa such as yellow wagtails and wheatears.
For hikers, the Brooks Range is a great place to park your vehicle and stretch your legs. According to the Bureau of Land Management, ridges and stream drainages here "provide firm footing and the forest thins to low-growing tundra. Throughout the Arctic, wetlands and bogs hinder walking. Areas of tussocks—sedges that grow in basketball-sized clumps—are particularly aggravating. Tussock fields occur in mountain valleys and dominate the landscape of the North Slope. Waterproof boots with good ankle support are essential." East of the highway you'll come to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while to the west you'll find the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (www.nps.gov/gaar). The BLM advises hikers to "Choose your route with care and bring topographic maps and a compass with you. A GPS can also be useful, especially when visibility is poor." Backcountry hikers should register at the visitor center in Coldfoot, where they can borrow storage barrels to protect their food from bears. A BLM note about the area: "Magnetic declination varies from 27 to 30 degrees east of true north; be sure to adjust your compass."
Atigun Pass (elevation 4,739 feet/1,444 meters) is the only mountain pass in the Brooks Range crossed by a road, and it's also the highest pass in Alaska to be kept open year-round. South of Atigun Pass, you can search for gold on BLM-managed public lands, using a pan, pick, shovel, or rocker and sluice box. To find out the best places to go for the gold, ask for the brochure "Dalton Highway Recreation Mineral Collection" at the BLM office or Alaska Public Lands Information Office in Fairbanks, the Yukon Crossing Visitor Contact Station at milepost 56, or the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfoot at milepost 175.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The Dalton Highway ends at Prudhoe Bay, which is the largest oil field in the United States. The company town here is called Deadhorse. You can tour the oil fields and dip your feet in the Arctic Ocean. Anglers can fish for Arctic grayling, whitefish, Dolly Varden, Arctic char, lake trout, burbot, and northern pike, though catch-and-release fishing and the use of barbless hooks are encouraged. Fishermen require an Alaska sport fishing license and a regulations booklet for the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region. See the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website (www.adfg.state.ak.us) for a list of regulations or pick up the free brochure "Sport Fishing Along the Dalton Highway" at BLM visitor centers. After your stay in a former construction camp in Deadhorse, you can look forward to seeing the Dalton Highway all over again from the opposite direction on the long drive home.
June to mid-July is the ideal time for driving this route. For general information on the Dalton Highway, see www.blm.gov/ak/st/en/prog/recreation/dalton_hwy.html. See The Milepost travel guide (milepost.com) for general trip-planning information. You can camp for a fee at the Bureau of Land Management's Marion Creek Campground just north of Coldfoot; elsewhere, all other camping areas are free, though undeveloped. RVers note: Dumping stations are available only at Deadhorse and at the mile 60 campground just north of the Yukon River. Repair services are available only at Yukon Crossing (summer only), Coldfoot, and Deadhorse, and there are no medical facilities along the highway. In an emergency, contact state troopers by phone (911) or via CB radio (channel 19). Note: Cell phone coverage is spotty or nonexistent along most of the route. There are several enjoyable river trips just off the highway, including the Jim River, Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River, and the Sagavanirktok River. Contact the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfoot for details (tel. 1 907 678 5209; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.blm.gov/ak/st/en/prog/recreation/dalton_hwy/dalton_viscenters.html).
—Text by Carol Sturgulewski