The Dalton Highway - Alaska Scenic Drives

Gorp.com

The Dalton Highway traverses lands once traveled only by a hardy few on foot, snowshoe or dogsled. Follow their tracks across the northland as you follow their trail backward through time.

For a more detailed description of the Dalton and other scenic Alaskan highways, see By the Light of the Midnight Sun: Driving the Highways of Alaska's Fairbanks Region.

Carved from the last great wilderness in the United States, the Dalton Highway was completed in 1974 to service the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. During pipeline construction the work camps hummed with big equipment and tough operators. The camps—Happy Valley, Old Man, Prospect, Deadhorse—became new names in the north.

The cry of "Gold!" lured fortune seekers up the Koyukuk River at the turn of the century, and they left their names on places like Nolan, Coldfoot and Wiseman. Writers and scientists, such as Robert Marshall and Olaus Murie, ventured into the region and brought its outstanding wilderness values to the attention of the nation.

The land holds even older names: Kanuti, Yukon, Atigun and Sukakpak. They echo the heritage of the Athabaskan Indians and Inupiat Eskimos, who were the first people to live here. Today these people still depend on the land, its animals and its rivers.

As you travel the Dalton Highway you cross four major natural zones that provide a kaleidoscope of images. Each zone is influenced by different geologic and weather patterns, and is home to its own family of plants and animals.

The Boreal Forest-Fairbanks to Coldfoot
A cold, dry climate and permanently frozen soils dictate what can grow here. Those tiny, ragged spruce trees may be more than 100 years old! Lightning-caused wildfires benefit wildlife by recycling nutrients into the soil and creating new sources of food and shelter within the old forest. Scan the edge of the forest for moose, fox, wolves and bears.

The Arctic Mountains-The Brooks Range
The foothills of the Brooks Range begin at Coldfoot and ascend to the crest of the continental divide at Atigun Pass. Golden Eagles soar above this mountainous expanse in search of arctic hare, lemmings or ground squirrels. Examine specks of white on the mountainsides—they may be Dall sheep basking in the sun on the rocky slopes.

The North Slope-Transition to the Plains
As you descend from Atigun Pass the arctic opens before you and stretches to an indefinable horizon. You are beyond the tree line, where plants grow close to the ground to survive the brutal arctic winds. Here the caribou, muskoxen and wolverine wander, and it is possible to see a Snowy Owl or Gyrfalcon streak across the tundra in search of prey.

The Arctic Coastal Plain-North to the Ocean
Ice shapes the subtle features of this extreme northern landscape, pushing up pingos and frost boils that become perches for arctic foxes seeking prey. Intense cold cracks the surface, creating polygon-shaped ponds where waterfowl and shorebirds feast on a banquet of bugs (mostly mosquitoes!) each summer.

The Dalton Highway is a 414-mile gravel road that begins at mile 73 of the Elliott Highway. It traverses some of Alaska's most remote wilderness and lacks many services that you may be accustomed to.

The road has narrow, soft shoulders and steep grades. Depending on the weather, you may encounter blinding dust or slippery road surface. Heavy rains may wash out bridges or the roadway. Along the way, you will encounter fast moving tractor-trailer rigs and large tour buses. Drive carefully!

Preparing yourself with information and the proper equipment is essential to having a safe and enjoyable trip.

We recommend that you carry:

  • two spare tires, jack, tool kit
  • emergency flares
  • extra gasoline, oil, wiper fluid
  • CB radio (monitor channel 19)
  • drinking water, ready-to-eat food
  • camping gear, sleeping bag
  • first-aid kit

Road etiquette:

  • Always drive with headlights on.
  • Slow down and move to the right as other vehicles approach.
  • Make sure the operator sees you when passing heavy equipment.
  • Park only at waysides or on access roads (don't block the gates). If you can't get off the road, pull far to the right and turn on hazard lights.

There are no public dump stations. Groceries and gifts are available at Wiseman, mile 188. Gasoline, food, telephone, lodging and tire repair are available only at:

  • Yukon River Crossing - mile 56
  • Coldfoot - mile 175
  • Deadhorse - mile 414
There are no services at Alaska Department of Transportation maintenance stations or Alyeska pump stations.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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