The Dalton Highway

I’ve been looking forward to this section of the trip for awhile. Prudhoe Bay is the farthest north you can drive in North America and the start of the PanAm highway. I’m actually a little nervous setting out, even though I’ve spent a lot of work on the Land Cruiser getting all of the maintenance up to date and adding a new heavy duty suspension there are dire warnings about attempting the Dalton Highway in summer or winter.  There is no cell phone service between Fairbanks and Prudhoe bay, and only a couple of gas stations, with the longest stretch between gas stations at 240 miles. I have good tires with 10/32 tread, but they are only all season M+S and my spare is a non-matching summer tire. All my winter gear plus mountaineering gear if it comes to that along with several days worth of food and water.

The highway was built in 1974 to support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline running from Produhoe Bay to Valdez. Until 1994 it was closed to the public, restricted to oil company trucks only. It’s one of the main roads featured on Ice Road Truckers... I have seen a couple of episodes but don’t really remember much except a lot of cursing. The speed limit for the entire highway is 50 mph but you are lucky if you hit that. 30-40 is more like it. About 25% of it is paved (some nice and smooth, some huge potholes though) the rest is dirt, mud, washboard and potholes. Trucks have the absolute right of way, if you see a truck either oncoming or overtaking you are supposed to pull over to the side of the road and slow to 10 mph.The shoulders are very soft and also have a steep dropoff so you can’t pull over too far. The trucks are also supposed to slow down when passing but not many do. The rest fly past showering you in dirt and rocks.

The start of the highway is 80 miles north of Fairbanks over a highway that is pretty challenging in itself. It is 414 miles from mile 0 to Prudhoe Bay.

I turn off onto the Dalton highway and it’s mud and potholes from the very start (I look back on this picture and laugh at how clean it is)

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Mile 115 is the Arctic Circle. Above here, on the summer solstice the sun never sets, just dips near the horizon then comes back up. On the winter solstice there is a day with no sun at all. Sunset tonight at Prudhoe Bay is at 12:20 AM. I forget when it comes up but it’s probably around 3:00 AM. It never really gets dark just a kind of twilight then back to full sun. The road hasn’t been bad so far, this is one of the few paved sections.

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Sourdough Fuel in Coldfoot, mile 175. This is the line for the last gas pump for 240 miles. Surprisingly there is no sign anywhere mentioning this, I guess they figure if you are up here you know what you are doing. Gas is only $4.59/gallon.My gas tank is over 25 gallons so even with bad mileage I get around 350 miles per tank. Surprisingly the Land Cruiser seems to like this slow bumpy travel and I am getting 17-18mpg, way better than on the open highway.

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Stopped at the visitor center in Coldfoot. The ranger there tells mes that there is huge construction in the last 35 miles of the highway and they are warning off anybody without a high clearance vehicle due to mud and ruts from the trucks. He says it could take 1.5-2 hours to get through the last 35 miles. I have the Arctic Ocean shuttle booked for 3:30 so that should allow plenty of time tomorrow. He also mentions that every month through the summer it gets cold enough to snow over Atigun Pass 4-5″ and shuts everything down until it melts or is cleared out.

I drove through Atigun Pass at mile 245, the highest highway pass in Alaska at 4800′. There was construction on the north/down side but I lucked out and the flagger just waved me through. Most of the construction sites you have to wait up to 30 minutes for a pilot truck to come and lead you through.

North of the Atigun Pass there are no more trees, just mountains and tundra.

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Some video of the highway, from Mile 0 up through Mile 275

Dalton Highway 1

I camp at Galbraith Lake, mile 275.It’s a few miles off the highway, just a basic campsite. There are only 2 other people at this spot. It’s amazingly quiet and great to just sit there and look out on the mountains at the front of the Brooks Range.This day has been great, sunny and 65-67.

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Next morning the clouds are right on top of the road, not much visibility and after awhile it starts to snow. The temp is around 34-36.

Dalton Highway 2

I stop at the first construction zone south of Prudhoe Bay and the flagger tells me it will be 30 minutes or so until the pilot truck comes. There’s nobody else around for miles, just me and the flagger. I ask him about his work, he’s a young guy about 25 or so. He says he lives in the man camp a few miles back on the highway, he works anywhere from 12-18 hours per day, 7 days a week (nothing else to do here except work). Overtime but no double time, apparerently he’s in the wrong union. At the camp they have cooks, cleaners, satellite TV, internet, almost everything you could want. They are all men, and alcohol is strictly forbidden. He came up here in May, had a 6 day vacation around 4th of July, and will be here until it freezes over sometime in October. He says when he’s done here he’s going for a month in Hawaii, then on to Tora Bora in one of those straw huts over the ocean. Then maybe Italy, he’s never been to Italy.

It is the roughest part yet into Prudhoe Bay. but I never have to lock the transfer case into L or lock the center diff. A lot of really deep muddy ruts and loose rocks almost like driving through a river bed, finally I drive into downtown Prudhoe Bay and find the gas station, it is not at all obvious. The actual pumps are up inside the steel box, I guess to keep them from freezing.  You go inside the box, enter your pump # and swipe your card. Unleaded is $4.95/gal.  You can see the Land Cruiser has picked up some mud from when I started out.

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After filling up on gas I go back to Deadhorse Camp, where the Arctic Shuttle leaves from. All of the Arctic Ocean is restricted oil company property so the only way you can get there is via the Arctic Shuttle. You have to book the trip 24 hours in advance and provide your passport # so they can check your background before allowing you on.

I’m a few hours early so I go inside the camp. It’s like most structures up here, a bunch of prefab units stacked up together. Down this hall are rooms

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and the cafeteria. Across the hall is a dining room where you can sit and eat and watch TV. It’s also the first cellphone and internet access since Fairbanks.

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The exterior of Deadhorse Camp

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At 3:15 the tour guide checks our credentials and we are off on the tour. Our first stop is Drill Site #1, the very first wells in Prudhoe Bay dating back to the 1970’s. These wells are still active. Each of the green sheds in the picture below is an oil well.

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Every oil well is topped with a Christmas Tree, a series of valves

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This well is not active but still has the full Christmas Tree

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We have to take a detour through Drill Site 4  because a mobile oil rig is broken down on the main road. This rig is in 3 pieces plus another rig behind it. They move along the roads at 1-1.5mph. Our guide is not sure what the reason is, maybe a blown tire or transmission. It’s been sitting there since yesterday.

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Finally we arrive at the Arctic Ocean

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Some of the people on the tour are well prepared, with suits on under their clothes and coats. They strip right down and jump in, followed by a lot of screaming and cursing.  I go in knee deep or so. The water is about 36F, not too bad as the air temp is also 36F.

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The last stop on the tour is the general store, the end of the Dalton Highway. It’s also the start of the PanAm highway going south so a pretty exciting moment.

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A new camp just built for one of the oil service companies. There are about 3,000-4,000 people working here, they usually work 12 hours on then 12 hours off. They stay here for 4 weeks then fly home for 4 weeks while their relief takes over, then back for another 4 weeks.

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Due to all the detours and construction in Prudhoe Bay, I leave around 7 pm. On the drive back south to Galbraith Lake it had apparently been snowing throughout the afternoon. I really feel like I’m in the Arctic now, all of the mountains are now covered in snow. Temp is down to 32 with snow flurries along the way.

Dalton Highway 3

 

Arriving back at the campsite about 10:30pm, it’s very picturesque with snow everywhere.

 

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Since it’s only 10:30 I have a couple of hours still to make dinner and enjoy the scenery before sunset. Big difference in just one day. I throw my sleeping bag and an extra blanket up into the tent.

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A group of guys invite me to join them at their campfire. Two are on their way to Deadhorse tomorrow, the other 2 have been up here a couple of days hunting caribou. They’ve seen a lot but haven’t managed to sneak up close enough yet. The sneaking is hard out on the tundra as there is no real cover just some small scrubby bushes here and there.

Close to midnight the sun dropped below the clouds and lit up all of the surrounding mountains. Everyone pulled out their cameras at the same time.

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Just at midnight. I was too tired to wait up another half hour for the actual sunset. I did wake up just before 4am and stuck my head out of the tent. Sun was back out and shining.

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Next morning around 8:30 am it was still 32 with snow flurries. I chisel the mud off my back window with an ice scraper and I am off.

I was hoping the Atigun Pass would be passable, it was still snowing as I approached the north side. Once again the flagger at the construction zone waved me right through, so I had the whole uphill route to myself. A lot of snow around but the road is clear, then at the top and coming down the south side the road got snowy. Not too slippery just a little mushy. I engine braked all the way down and kept it under 30. Once again I had the whole downhill section to myself, just passed an oncoming truck at the very end.

Dalton Highway – Atigun Pass

Pulled into Coldfoot with 1/4 tank left, gas is still $4.59/gal.  I decided to stop in the cafe for the trucker special breakfast.

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Crossing the Yukon River at mile  56. Before this bridge was built the trucks crossed the river on ice in the winter and were shuttled across on a giant hovercraft in summer. In fall and spring nothing got through.

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Made it to Mile 0 and turned back onto the regular highway with a big smile. Just 80 miles back to Fairbanks.

Back in Fairbanks at the Chena River View RV Park. They are not kidding about the river view part, when I was checking in the first woman said “Take tent spot T8” and the woman next to her said “Oh, T8 is under water right now you’ll be better off with T4.”

I pulled into T4 then realized I needed to wash everything off first. Every time I brush up against the Land Cruiser I am covered in mud. Luckily they have a self service car wash at this RV park, $8 later I am fairly clean.

The before picture, I am glad I got new wipers at the start of the trip. RainX, well worth the extra couple of dollars.

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5 thoughts on “The Dalton Highway”

  1. Your trip has been amazing so far. The pictures are incredible and your descriptions make me feel like I could be there. I look forward to every update!

    Like

  2. I can’t wait for more!!!! This trip has me sucked in with you!!! Don’t stop chasing every sunrise and sunset, I am looking forward to watching them all too!!!

    Like

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