Doing the Dalton

Driving Alaska's Haul Road
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It is nearly midnight at Hess Creek, a tea-colored stream that flows through wooded lowlands north of Fairbanks, Alaska. In the past three hours, Dulcy Boehle and I have set up camp, survived an attack of mosquitoes, and listened to birdsong and the periodic passing of trucks, cars, and RVs. Now traffic has slowed and we're looking forward to a quiet, restful sleep. We've already come 470 miles from Anchorage and our trip up the Dalton Highway has barely begun: From Hess Creek (Mile 25), it's another 389 miles to road's end and the Arctic Ocean.

Then the rowdy boys arrive. We hear them pull off the road and shut down their engine. Moments later the fireworks begin, mixed with hooting and hollering. Or are they gunshots? Either way, they're obnoxiously noisy. And a little unnerving. We may be on the edge of wilderness here, but we're still close enough to town — Fairbanks is 100 miles away — for drunken carousers to be on the loose. More dangerous than grizzlies, by far. A half-hour passes, then truck doors slam. The engine revs, wheels spin, and our party-time neighbors head down the road. Good riddance, we say, welcoming the return of quiet solitude.

In for the Long Haul

Like a growing number of Alaskans and tourists, we've come to"do the Dalton," a 414-mile gravel highway that connects Interior Alaska to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. The Dalton was built in 1974, during the state's oil-boom days, so that trucks could haul supplies to Prudhoe and pipeline-construction camps in Alaska's northern reaches. Hence its other name: the Haul Road.

Thousands of 18-wheeler rigs still drive the Dalton each year, but they now share it with hunters, anglers, sightseers, and other recreational travelers. Parts of the road have been open to the public since 1981 and the entire route officially opened to Joe Tourist in 1995. That summer (and again in 1996), nearly 6,000 people signed the Bureau of Land Management's guest register, a large jump from previous years.

That doesn't mean the Dalton has suddenly become an easy drive. It's narrow as highways go, often winding, and has several steep grades where it passes through mountains. Sections may be heavily potholed or washboarded and its coarse gravel is easily kicked up into headlights and windshields by trucks that travel 65 or 70 mph along some straightaways.

Besides being tough on vehicles, the road has few visitor facilities. And with tow-truck charges of up to $5 per mile (both coming and going), a vehicle breakdown can cost hundreds of dollars even before repairs. Given such forewarnings, Dulcy and I have filled the car with extra provisions for our seven-day trip: five gallons of reserve gas, two spare tires, several engine belts, eight gallons of drinking water, enough clothing to survive an alpine snowstorm (which may occur at any time of year), and food and fuel for two weeks of camping.

Bill Sherwonit is the author of Alaska's Accessible Wilderness: A Traveler's Guide to Alaska's State Parks (Alaska Northwest Books, Seattle); he lives in Anchorage, Alaska. Check out Bill's GORP features on Chugach State Park , Denali , and the McNeil River Grizzlies .

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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