By the Light of the Midnight Sun
Of the various roads described in this guide, the Dalton Highway is far and away the most remote and potentially the most rugged trek available. It is also the one road where having a second spare tire makes sense. On the entire 211 miles of this road available for public travel (summer only), there are but two facilities offering limited repairs or services.
Also, travelers should carry extra food and a complete first aid kit. Help can be a long time coming along this road. Being prepared is the key phrase. Breakdowns will cost you money. Towing services along the Dalton Highway commonly cost in the range of $5 per mile.
From its junction with the Elliott Highway, the Dalton Highway is open year-round to general travel as far as the Yukon River bridge, about 56 miles. From the Yukon River north to Disaster Creek, the road is open to the public from June 1 to September 1. North of Disaster Creek to Prudhoe Bay, the road is closed to all but industrial traffic. All these closures, however, may change in the years ahead. The Dalton Highway is partially maintained by federal funds, and there is pressure to open the entire road to the public on a year-round basis.
Along the Dalton, the speed limit is 45 mph. The road is patrolled by the Alaska State Troopers. If you need police assistance, there is a trooper permanently stationed at Coldfoot, 175 miles from the Elliott Highway junction.
At intervals along the road, you will see one-lane trails leading up to the trans-Alaska pipeline. These trails are generally barricaded and are not open to public travel. The trans-Alaska pipeline and its access roads are private property.
Grades along this road are steep, at times exceeding 10 percent. Again, this road was built for industry by industry, and general vehicle travel was not a factor in its construction.
The Brooks Range
All the cautions aside, this is a spectacular trip, a trip that offers the only road access to the Brooks Range, Alaska's northernmost mountain range (see map of the region of the range encompassed by Gates of the Arctic National Park). Many Alaskans consider the mountains of the Brooks Range to be the most beautiful in the world, and with good reason. Jagged peaks, stunning valleys, and endlessly varying terrain leave no time for boredom. Unfortunately, travelers cannot cross the range; private vehicles are stopped just prior to climbing over Atigun Pass. Fortunately, the south side of the Brooks Range offers the best scenery and the most breathtaking vistas for travelers.
Northbound from the Elliott Highway junction, the terrain is mostly rolling hills with small creeks. The largest of the creeks, Hess Creek, 24 miles from the junction, offers good fishing for whitefish and grayling. You can camp here, if you wish; there is a gravel bar alongside the creek on the north side of the bridge. There are no facilities in terms of tables or outhouses.
From Hess Creek, it's about 32 miles to the Yukon River. The bridge here offers the only vehicle crossing of the Yukon in Alaska. One of North America's mightiest rivers, the Yukon's drainage includes nearly half of Alaska and much of Yukon Territory, Canada. It is here that the Dalton skirts the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.
In July and August it may be possible to obtain fresh-caught salmon from commercial fishermen on the Yukon. Much of the catch is carried upriver to the bridge and shipped by vehicle to Fairbanks. These salmon are the most protein-rich fish in the world, many of them heading all the way to Canada to spawn. No other salmon in North America make such a tremendous journey (1,500 or more miles) after leaving salt water, so these fish must be stronger than most others. Even at the Dalton Highway bridge, hundreds and hundreds of miles from salt water in the Bering Sea, these are bright, shiny fish showing little evidence of the decay that usually begins when salmon enter fresh water.
The north side of the Yukon River bridge also offers one of only two places to purchase gas or get your car repaired along the Dalton Highway. Here you'll find a restaurant and other travelers' facilities. Best to fill up here. It's 120 miles to the next gas station at Coldfoot.
North of the Yukon, fishermen should start thinking of limbering up their rods. An assortment of streams offer possibilities for burbot, pike, grayling, and Dolly Varden. Of all the streams at roadside in Alaska, these are the least visited. Good spots to try (and distances from the Yukon River) include: Ray River (15 miles), No Name Creek (24 miles), Kanuti River (50 miles), Fish Creek (59 miles), South Fork Bonanza Creek (69 miles), North Fork Bonanza Creek (70 miles), Prospect Creek (80 miles), Jim River (bridges at 85, 86, and 89 miles) and the South Fork of the Koyukuk River (101 miles).
Campgrounds along the Dalton Highway are sparsely furnished, if furnished at all. Most good camping spots are simply level areas near the fishing streams that have been used by others. As such, no litter barrels or maintenance are provided. An exception is a campground right on the Arctic Circle, 60 miles north of the Yukon River bridge. This campground is about half a mile to the right of the road if you are northbound, and the turnoff is marked. A large, colorful sign denotes the Arctic Circle for travelers. There is a litter barrel in this campground. When you camp in other areas, burn all combustible trash in a safe campfire and carry your noncombustible garbage with you until you reach a suitable disposal site.
Sixty miles north of the Arctic Circle is Coldfoot, a small community more or less at the base of the Brooks Range, near Gates of the Arctic National Park. Travelers' services here are owned by Dick and Cathy Mackey. Dick, one of the North's more colorful characters, won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome in 1977 and still runs the race occasionally. He also organized the Coldfoot Classic sled-dog race, which takes place in April in and around the western edge of the park. The Coldfoot Classic has become one of Alaska's better-known middle-distance races for mushers and their dogs. It's also the last big race of the season for distance mushers.
From Coldfoot north to Disaster Creek, where nonindustry travelers must turn around, the cliffs surrounding the road offer opportunities for viewing Dall sheep. Look among the rocks and open alpine areas for flashes of pure white. Binoculars are usually required for best viewing.
Bears, both black and grizzly, are frequently seen along the Dalton Highway. Highest concentrations of black bears are found at lower elevations and in wooded regions. Grizzlies generally inhabit the more open tundra in alpine areas.
At Disaster Creek, a manned check station ensures compliance with regulations prohibiting general travel farther north on the Dalton Highway.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication