Adventures Along the Dalton Highway

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Dalton Highway, Alaska
By Charles P. Beauzay

For this little side trip, we ditched the travel trailer and loaded up the truck (had two spare tires along as advised) and headed north out of Fairbanks on the Elliot Highway. Thirty miles north of Fairbanks, the road turns to gravel and remains gravel for the next 450 miles to Prudhoe Bay (at least it was that way in 2000).

Oil PipelineOil Pipeline
Oil Pipeline

This is the famous Dalton Highway, also known as the “haul road.” It was built as the main access road to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields during the construction of the Alaskan Pipeline. See Alyeska Pipeline for more info about the pipeline. The road was opened to the public in 1995 (before that was by permit only). The road is still the main supply route to Prudhoe Bay and the majority of the traffic is big semi trucks (sometimes going at high speeds). Spare tires are a must as the road is very rocky, although if your vehicle has good tires and you drive slow and pull over to allow the big trucks to go by you should be alright. I think we averaged about 20-30 mph (and had no flat tires). It took us 5 days (spent 4 nights on the road) to go up and back to Fairbanks. This is a little side trip that most people visiting Alaska don’t do. Most car rental places don’t allow their vehicles to be driven on this road, but it is very much worth the effort. Even people that have grown up in Alaska all their lives have not done this trip, so if you go and survive, you will be among an elite few in this world.

The first highlight along the way is crossing the Yukon River. The bridge that crosses the Yukon is the only one crossing that river within Alaska. It is an engineering feat and also carries the pipeline with it. Next stop is the Arctic Circle. There is a pull off with a little information center and trails there. This was our first encounter with arctic mosquitoes! The three of us got out of the truck and just as quickly jumped back in! After slapping, smashing, and squishing about 537 mosquitoes that found their way back in the truck with us, we donned our mesh bug suits (who ever had this idea was a genius!) and ventured back outside. I was literally scared at the sound, size, shear number, and ferocity of the mosquitoes (and I grew up in Minnesota where the mosquito is the state bird). A thin layer of mesh was all that separated us from sure death by loss of blood – but it seemed to work, so on we went. We stopped at rivers along the way and caught grayling both with spinning tackle and fly rods. The Jim River was a good spot and I caught a couple 16″ grayling there. This is extremely wild country, so always be on the lookout for bears.

The next stop (and about the midway point) is Coldfoot, Alaska. There is a restaurant and a gas station mainly frequented by the truck drivers (a unique bunch, if I do say). One of the cool things we had in the truck was a CB radio. This came in handy all over Alaska and Canada. We could listen in on truckers’ conversations, and sometimes they would even talk to us! “Hey big white truck (or sometimes just ‘Hoss’), got your ears on?” That’s CB lingo for “are you listening?” One guy told us about a big grizzly that was up ahead, but we missed it. Be sure to fill up here as it is the only place to get gas until you get to Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay). So much oil, so little gas. We camped at Marion Creek Campground just north of Coldfoot the first night. This is a very nice campground (and I was only attacked once by a Gray Jay).

The next day we drove all the way to Deadhorse. The scenery was spectacular. We saw 2 moose, a bunch of Dahl sheep, Ptarmigan, arctic loons, a wolf, arctic fox, a snowy owl, many unidentified ducks, and lots of caribou. Watch out for caribou on the road – they are like cattle. We crossed over the Brooks Range driving over Atigun pass at 4800′ and down on to the North Slope. The change in scenery is amazing, one minute you are in snow capped rugged mountains, and the next minute you are on a vast expanse of barren, flat tundra. Everything here slopes towards the Arctic Ocean. We arrived in Deadhorse at about 11:30 p.m. There are 2 hotels in town, but they charge some ridiculous price, so our only other option was to camp in the gravel parking lot of the Alaskan Airlines terminal. They tolerate this as there aren’t too many people who actually do that – we were the only ones there. Otherwise, the Deadhorse area is very industrial and secured – no just wandering around.

Luxury Room in Deadhorse
Luxury Room in Deadhorse

One of the unique things about the time of year we were there (June 21st – summer solstice) was that the sun never set. I just made a big loop around the sky and you had no idea what time of the day or night it was. We often found ourselves fishing until 3am and sleeping until noon. The next day we got signed up for a bus tour, which is the only way to see the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and the Arctic Ocean. The bus ride was fairly interesting, they tell you about the whole oil industry, but the real goal was to actually see and touch the Arctic Ocean. There was still lots of ice even on some of the rivers we fished. The tide here is only about 1 foot and upon tasting the water, it wasn’t even salty. We went back to Deadhorse, mailed some postcards and headed back south (not a whole lot to do there). We stopped at Dan Creek along the way and had some good grayling fishing. We also saw some Musk Ox near Happy Valley (I guess there is a resident herd there most of the time – quite the prehistoric animal!)

Artic Ocean
Artic Ocean

Oh yeah, don’t forget your fishing license! We fished salmon, halibut, and trout all over Alaska and only got checked once, and that was at Dan Creek, in the middle of nowhere! We had our licenses and the highway patrol was pretty impressed with our vehicle. We continued on and ended up back on the north side of the Brooks Range at Galbraith Lake Campground.

The next morning we packed up a lunch at set off hiking across the tundra with the goal being the top of the mountain on the other side of the road from Galbraith Lake. Walking on the tundra is like walking on a waterbed with little shrubs that grab your feet and untie your bootlaces. There was no trail, but we made it up (about a 1500′ climb) in 2 hours. The view was amazing! The Brooks Range to the south and the North Slope to the north, with the haul road and the pipeline winding it’s way through the valley towards Atigun Pass. We crept out to a rock outcropping and below us about 100 feet was a patch of snow with 5 big curly horned Dahl sheep butting heads and playing around. They had no idea we were there. A little ways off was a herd of females with young ones. It is absolutely amazing how they can climb up shear rock faces without a single slip I really felt we were seeing something that most humans have never seen. We spent a few hours just hanging out up there and then mozied on back down to the truck and headed south where we camped at the Marion Creek Campground again.

The next day we spent a lot of time fishing, so we didn’t make it too far back. We camped at Jim River #1 campground and ate some grayling for dinner. These are beautiful fish, but not the best eating. The next day we stopped at the little general store just south of the Arctic Circle (this stop is a must both on the way up and back). Here you have to answer a couple of questions and then you will receive your Certificate that says you’ve crossed the Arctic Circle. Soon after that, we were back in civilization.

Total time: 5 ½ days, 900 + miles.

Highlights and Advice:

  • Spare tires, gas, and water (cb radio if possible)
  • Drive slow and pull over for the trucks
  • Fishing poles and license
  • Camera and lots of film
  • Mesh insect suits (or at least the jacket with zip over hood). Forget the bug spray (the mosquitos here drink that up like beer)
  • Bring a sense of adventure and do some hiking (climb the mountain because it is there!)
  • Be very wary of bears! Make noise, watch for sign, even tie the little bear bells to your boots. Carry pepper spray (or even a gun if it makes you feel more comfortable). The main thing is to just be observant and make noise, and if you come across a dead moose carcass – get the hell out of the area, as a hungry bear is sure to be close by. If you are lucky enough to see a bear, don’t run. Back away slowly and talk to it in a calm voice.

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