Sunday, May 11, 2008

Alaska Sunday V - Dalton Highway

(The "Haul Road")

Part One of the Dalton Highway

The James Dalton Highway is a 414-mile gravel road.

It heads straight north from the Livengood turnoff of the Elliott Highway (which is 70 miles north of Fairbanks), through arctic tundra to the farthest north reaches of Alaska.

You will see a lot of fireweed along the highway. Fireweed is one of the first plants to grow back after a forest fire. I was talking to one of the Rangers, and he said that there were no forests older than about 200 years. The reason is that the odds of a lightning strike starting a fire are high before a forest is that old.

Fireweed growing in a burned Forest
This forest is less than 200 years old

Alyeska built the 360-mile haul road, now known as the Dalton Highway, from the Yukon River to Prudhoe Bay, for $150 million to supply the oil facilities on the North Slope. The bridge, with pipeline, crossing the 1,875 mile Yukon River is the only span across that river in Alaska.

The road's northern 360 miles, beginning at the Yukon River, were built in just five months in 1974 using 32 million cubic yards of gravel. The pipeline parallels the highway most of the trip north.

But this is not a road for the faint of heart, or those with a brand-new vehicle! It is still the main supply route for the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, and you will be sharing the road with large tractor-trailers. Windshields and headlights are easy targets of flying rocks. Most rental companies will not allow you to drive their cars on the Dalton. Trucks speeding along the slippery gravel track kick up thick clouds of dust or mud, reducing visibility to absolute zero; potholes take a heavy toll on cars and services, gas, and repairs are practically nonexistent.

Don't even consider driving the Dalton unless you have extra fuel, food, tires, and a trunk filled with supplies. This is grizzly country, so when camping, keep a clean campsite, storing food at least a quarter mile from where you sleep.

Driving Haul Road Yourself
(not recommended by anyone but me)

Permits to travel north were once required, but have not been since 1995.
If you do decide to travel the road yourself, be aware that semi-truck drivers can't stop their rigs quickly and often must accelerate downhill to gain momentum. Yield to these big rigs at all times, especially going over narrow bridges that often only accommodate one vehicle at a time. Also, you need to keep your lights on, avoid stopping or slowing suddenly if a semi-truck is nearby and keep the CB--if you have one--turned to Channel 19 (that's the frequency used by Dalton truckers and motorcoach drivers.)

Roadside Services

Roadside services are few and far between. Once you leave Fairbanks, there are only two spots to buy gas -- the Yukon River crossing and Coldfoot. You will need to bring extra gasoline, a couple of spare tires, basic tools, food and drink, warm clothing, first aid supplies and bug repellent.

After making arrangements at the RV Park, where we were staying in Fairbanks, we left our trusty camping trailer behind and headed north. Travel trailers are definitely not advised for 360 miles of dirt, gravel, pot holes (and I do mean POT HOLES), mud, and mixtures of all of these.
Not too long after starting we passed this daunting sign.

Deadhorse 360

Just take it one mile at a time and enjoy the view.
Remember, it’s the trip of a lifetime and a real adventure.

Our first view of the Yukon river

The Bureau of Land Management staffs a log cabin visitor center (mile 56) at the Yukon River (the fifth largest river in North America) , open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Yukon River
Shot through the window while moving

Its official name if the Yukon Crossing Visitor Contact Station. The staff can advise you on camping, wildlife and road condition information. Gas, bathrooms, restaurant and hotel are available at Yukon Ventures.

We had a surprisingly good meal at the truck stop here at the Yukon River.

The roads from here on don’t follow nice gentle grades, that’s why it’s “beware the trucks”. Click on the photo below to get a feel for the grade. We were flying. Boy, was it fun.

Photo of Orange road
Actual colors - Unretouched

Yukon River Tours, phone (907) 452-7162, on the north bank of the river, offers riverboat trips three times a day--morning, mid-day and late afternoon--for $20 per person. Reservations are not needed, but you may have to wait a few minutes. The excursions will take you to an operating Athabaskan fish camp, as well as provide opportunities to see wildlife.

Finger Rock - A landmark Through Time

Hunters knew of the rock, when shaggy mammoths and bison roamed the surrounding hills. It was a premier location to watch for game. There is evidence of visitations for countless generations.

The Athabaskan Indians hunted for hides for clothing and shelter, bone for tools, meat, and the fat and marrow for food and fuel.

Later looking down from windy cockpits, bush pilots used the rock to guide their way home, since the finger points directly to Fairbanks.

Today, Finger Rock marks a unique habitat, scenic vista, and wildlife viewing site for people like us traveling the Haul Road.

At mile 86, there is a scenic overlook with a view of the oil pipeline 500 feet below. The road crosses the Arctic Circle at mile 115. This marks the latitude at which the sun just fails to rise on the year's shortest day and just fails to set on the year's longest day. There are picnic tables, barbecue pits, outhouses and camping spots.

See a previous post to view the Arctic Circle area and a Photo of Martha there.

The northern-most truck stop in the world is at your half-way point, mile 175, Sourdough Fuel at Coldfoot.

Coldfoot reportedly got its name in 1900, when a few gold stampeders came north up the Koyukuk River, but got cold feet and turned back at Slate Creek, the settlement's original name.

There is a 24-hour cafe, a 50-room inn, a complete tire shop with limited mechanical and towing service, a post office, gift shop, groceries, and RV park with plug-ins and dump station.
Reservations are suggested at the hotel, called Slate Creek Inn.

Slate Creek Inn
Typical muddy road through town

In addition to the 50 rooms with private baths, there is a 28-room annex with shared bath facilities. Call (907) 678-5224. The cafe number is (907) 678-5201.
Don’t forget, it’s $150.00 per night for an 8x12, 2-bunk bedroom, with shower, lavatory, and toilet, and chipboard walls. It’s an old mining camp. Get out the Duct Tape to shut out the daylight and get a little sleep.


Coldfoot is a popular stopover for companies offering bus tours to Prudhoe Bay, and it is a jumping off point to the Gates of the Arctic National Park, which has no road access.

Alyeska has considered shutting down access to Prudhoe Bay and the ocean - they say for security concerns since Sept. 11. If they succeed, tours will have to stop here. Personally, this is unnecessary since this is only a small portion of the pipeline.

A surprisingly modern state-of-the-art visitor center in Coldfoot is run jointly by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. It is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and features information on recreation, natural history and visitor services along the Dalton. The center also features nightly slide presentations. Call (907) 678-5209 for more information.

The next morning we had a “Truckers breakfast” and headed out. No cereal and milk this morning. We had traveling to do.

The next mileage sign announced how much traveling we still had to do to reach our destination. We said, “Wow, we have a lot of great scenery ahead of us”.

Deadhorse 205

Beyond Coldfoot, the Dalton climbs into the Brooks Range, a northern spur of the Rocky Mountains. Marion Creek, mile 179, has a campground with outhouses, fire pits and water.

This is an HDR photo. I just bought HDR software and I will do a post on this at a later time (after I have learned a little more about it).

Trees are primarily Black Spruce. They may be 200 years old and only 10 to 20 feet tall.

Black Spruce

The trees become sparser until they disappear entirely at Mile 235. A photo of the last tree will be seen next week. A few miles later, the road crests Atigun Pass, Alaska's highest divide, elevation 4,800 feet. No services are available at Atigun Pass.

The road then drops steeply to the flat, marshy North Slope. Mile 414, Prudhoe Bay is the end of the road. All services are available here, but private vehicles are restricted from entering the Prudhoe Bay oilfield, which provides access to the Arctic Ocean. The only way you will be allowed to enter these areas would be as part of an organized tour.

We stayed at the Arctic Inn in Prudhoe Bay. There are actually 2 inns there (both owned by the same person).

More on the part 2 of the Dalton Highway from Coldfoot to Deadhorse next week and more photos.

Part 3 of the Dalton Highway the following week will feature lots of photos.

Touring the Dalton

If you value your car, or want to actually reach the Arctic Ocean, you may want to take a professional tour, as an alternative to driving the Dalton yourself. Besides being safer, their tour guides will provide welcome, informative commentary, lunch, and photo stops when the area's abundant wildlife (caribou, moose, bears, fox, musk ox, snowy owls, eagles, and wolves) are seen from the road or even crossing in front of you. If you do want to drive the highway yourself, see a car rental page for companies that allow their cars on the Dalton.

Ignore all of this.
Take your car.
Stop when you want.
Look at what you want.
Enjoy the trip of a lifetime.
We did.

If you don’t want to drive, you can call any of these companies - they offer a wide variety of itineraries, some turning back at the Arctic Circle, and others offering tours of Prudhoe bay, or a chance to "dip your toe in the Arctic Ocean".

See previous post for Martha doing just that (wading actually). Click here.

Phone numbers for tours

Gray Line of Alaska, (800) 544-2206
Nature Alaska Tours, (907) 488-3746
Northern Alaska Tour Company, (907) 474-8600
Princess Tours, (800) 426-0442
Prudhoe Bay Hotel Tours, oilfield tours from Deadhorse, (907) 659-2449
Tour Arctic, oilfield tours from Deadhorse, (907) 659-2368
Trans-Arctic Circle Tours, (907) 479-5451

Tune in next Sunday for Part 2 of the Dalton Highway from Coldfoot to Deadhorse.
Part 3 will be lots more photos along the Haul Road.

Alaska Sunday is a collection of photographic remembrances of our driving trip from Texas to Alaska.
18,000 miles, 16 weeks, 16 western states including Alaska and four Canadian Provinces.
No chronological order, just anything of interest that got in front of our cameras.

Troy and Martha
Photos by Troy and Martha



fishing guy said...

Troy and Martha: Thanks for sharing your trip with us. I loved the finger rock best.

Mental P Mama said...

That was fantastic. Love the fireweed. And the thought that bison and mammoth saw the finger rock, too. Wow.

david mcmahon said...

Aye, great work all round. Spent time in Alaska and the Yukon in 99 - and both places play a role in a forthcoming novel of mine!

zeladoniac said...

Wow, that's some remote country- thanks for taking us along. My favorite pic? The black spruce with those fantastic clouds. Great shot!

Duncan said...

Interesting post Troy and Martha, looking forward to the next.

Tom said...


Looks like an absolutely fantastic place. Reminds me somewhat of my travels in Outback Australia.

For whatever reason (probably a lack of disturbance and use of pesticides in disturbed areas) fireweed is no longer extant in Ohio, but what a wonderful species, and so well named!


TSannie said...

Alaska is one of my most appealing frontiers and I'm so glad you're sharing with me (us)!

Sharon said...

Wow! this sounds like the adventure of a lifetime! I'll be back for the next chapter!

I lived in Alaska as a child, my dad was in the Air Force and we were stationed at Elmendorf AFB at Anchorage. Never made it very far north!

Mary said...

Troy and Martha,

I know you realize how fortunate you are to travel and take it all in without worry about time...

Thank you. Your photos are fantastic. I'd love to visit the Yukon and Deadhorse.



John said...

Dalton Highway looks like an amazing place. I love the fireweed shot - and the road grade. That doesn't look like a section I would want to ride down.

Judi-gmj said...

Wow, Good to see and read your experiences, not for the faint of heart, I have trouble going over an ordinary bridge so I think no go for me on the Dalton trek. Beautiful pictures.

Chuck Pefley said...

Quite an adventure, for sure. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment on my blog today, and pointing me to yours. I can definitely see the appeal of this road, but I need a bit more civilization personally. ~Chuck

Shellmo said...

Great information (I'm taking notes) and the photos are a great compliment. I feel like I'm living vicariously through your trip.

Mary C said...

Saw your comment on Julie Zickefoose's blog, and I had to stop by to read what you had to say about your trip. My son lived in Alaska for about 5 years (Fairbanks for 4, and Barrow for 1). He went to school there at UAF, and then taught school in Barrow. My son and husband make a yearly trek to Alaska, and they have had many adventures. They have driven the Dalton Hwy, too. I enjoyed your post and will have to come back to read part 2. Thanks for sharing.

Lilli & Nevada said...

Oh gosh i loved that tour looks like a great place to visit, can't say that those buses look all that great however. LOL

Gallicissa said...

Looks like a great place to visit. Thanks for this informative and interesting post.

Anonymous said...

excellent post, great captures and infos

me and my camera said...

This is a wonderful read of what must have been an absolute treasure of a trip. I love the photos, the details relating to driving conditions, and your mention of the accommodations along the way. What memories you must have!

AphotoAday said...

Yeah, I'd be up for a trip like that if I were a LOT younger... I think I could have just about made it in my VW...

The only problem is deciding which colorful destination -- Coldfoot or Deadhorse.

Swamp Thing said...

Amazing write-up & photos! Great to hear some tales of real wilderness!

VP said...

Wow that's quite a trip! Loved it!

Thanks for stopping by at mine and especially the feedback on what you liked about the site.

You bet I'll be back here for more and not just on ABC Wednesday..

Sandpiper said...

Wow! What a great post! I would love to see all of these things. Your lead picture of the flowers and sky has incredible light. What a fantastic thing to see.

Daryl said...

I just spent my lunch time munching a veggie burger traveling with you both .. what a glorious trip .. and those pix .. whew! The fireweed is just so beautiful its heartbreaking to know that destruction is what brings it about ..


Anonymous said...

That was fantastic.
Love the fireweed.
Looks like an absolutely fantastic place.
We have nothing like that here in Portugal.

Stacey Huston said...

Troy and Martha. What a fantastic trip... We went to Alaska last summer fishing,etc and it was great. we were going to drive, but ended up flying. Not complaining but now I wish we had driven.. I love your warnings(or ignoring of) I grew up around logging so know how to interact with logging trucks and mountain roads. I would agree with taking our own vehicle and going and stopping when we want.. Heading toward the park today, is rainy and snowy and to yuck to work so maybe i will get some good pics.. Have abeautiful day! I am now planning our next driving trip toward alaska.. may only make it to Canada on the next trip but that's alright! Beautiful story..

imac said...

Hey, this trip is exciting, Sounds a thilling trip to make.

FogBay said...

Holy cow what an adventure. With the long distances and lack of services it sounds like the setup for a horror movie. I'm glad that you made it through safe and uneaten.

I'm even more glad you shared the photos and descriptions with us.


Island Rambles Blog said...

Hi Troy and Martha, I need to refer to these posts of yours when we go on our trip to Alaska in the future...well done and keep those photos coming ...cheers!!!!

Chris said...

Your pictures are amazing! Fireweed growing in a burned Forest is my favorite and would make for a wonderful pastel painting!
It sounds like your having a wonderful adventure!

Rurality said...

Those are beautiful photos! Almost feel like I was along for the trip. :)

Kathiesbirds said...

Troy, I love the photo of the black spruce with the mountains behind it! How beautiful in a photo, it must be breath-taking in real life!

Suzi-k said...

so glad i found your blog through skywatch, your posts are great, good pix and fascinating info. We have always wanted to go to Alaska, so this post is really scratching some itchy feet!