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Traveling the Dalton Highway

A trek through 414 miles of Alaska wilderness


In early September, my cousin, my father and I set off out of Fairbanks, Alaska, in pursuit of an epic road trip, some adventure and hopefully a caribou. Our plan: Head north into the wild along the James W. Dalton Highway. We had 10 days, a rented truck and gas money.

The Dalton Highway, often called the "Haul Road," runs north of Fairbanks and stretches 414 miles across the Brooks Range into the barren tundra, eventually ending just shy of the Arctic Ocean at Prudhoe Bay. For comparison, it is about 379 miles from Boise to Coeur d'Alene.

Named for the congressman who spearheaded the project, the Dalton Highway bisects the tundra and offers anyone with chutzpah the opportunity to view, hike, explore, hunt and fish an often overlooked and vast section of the United States. The road's very existence is tied to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline that comes out of Prudhoe Bay. Large oil companies struck black gold in the area in the late 1960s and completed the pipeline, a road to service the pipe and the town of Deadhorse by 1974.

In the 414 miles of highway, there are only three locations to buy fuel and food, and the first sign of human life--other than the road--is the Yukon River crossing. The river is one of the largest in the United States and starts in Canada, running almost 2,000 miles. The crossing is little more than a gas pump and a boat launch, stretching the term "town" a bit. We stopped, ate homemade pie and fueled up. As a general rule of thumb on the Dalton--if gas is available, fill your tank.

Past the Yukon River is an unimaginably large section of spruce forest. The miles roll by and the forest stretches on. You can't help but think of flat tires and engine trouble--and just how the hell you would get out of any situation on a dark, snowy night.

The second location along the road, Coldfoot, offers the bare essentials--gas, food and beer. The most interesting feature of Coldfoot is the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center. It's a little campy, but the rangers do a great job explaining the fragility of the tundra, the complexity of the Arctic and how man fits in.

Between Coldfoot and Deadhorse is the famous Atigun Pass, the stretch of highway separating the Brooks Range from the tundra. The pass is often cursed for being steep, slick and dangerous, but I found it to be none of those things. I have been on worse roads traveling Highway 55 to McCall. I think the "bad" road reputation comes from people who don't drive in the mountains much.

Once over the pass, a new world emerges. Gone are the spruce trees and the shrubs. Now the land looks similar to a high desert. Small grass clumps and rolling hills. We had come after the first freeze so the color was a bit monochromatic, leaning to the brown side. Apparently, before the freeze, the colors are vivid greens, yellows, reds and purples. The freeze is a blessing and a curse--no color to the country, but no mosquitos either. Mosquitos can be just flat nasty in Alaska. Take bug spray, a head net and rubber gloves.

For more than 150 miles, the Haul Road tracks across the tundra. The only constant is the Trans-Alaska pipe.

The barren ground of the tundra seems to be one giant sponge--each step is squishy and water soaks even the most resistant boot. Water pools everywhere in the permafrost, streams forming out of what seems like thin air. Hiking on the tundra is exhausting and wet. Getting away from the road is an option, but one that would be very difficult.

The next town is Deadhorse, 241 miles north of Coldfoot. Deadhorse, the end of the road, is tragically disappointing from a visitor's standpoint. Consisting of mostly jacked-up trailer houses and oil equipment, the area is definitely not a tourist destination. It has a buffet restaurant, a general store and an Alaska Airlines terminal. The rest of the town is oil field-related; definitely a working town.

Unfortunately, you can't access the Arctic Ocean from Deadhorse. That requires a guide service. Our mission was to hunt, so we did not take the Prudhoe Bay tour, with its polar bear and baby seal sightings.

Between the towns we had remarkable wildlife viewing opportunities. Alaska often conjures images of grizzly bear, wolves and caribou running across the tundra in droves; moose in every lake and black bears wandering down the road. This wasn't the case. We saw a fleeting glimpse of a wolf, two moose, two grizzly bears and only a handful of caribou. While we expected more wildlife, having never seen these species before, we all felt blessed. Locals often call Alaska the "great empty" when it comes to wildlife. I now see why.

Conversely, I unexpectedly saw a vast number of muskox. These Shetland pony-sized and long fur-covered beasts ranged all over the landscape--often near the roads and seemingly oblivious to human interaction. I didn't expect to see one on my trip; I saw about 40.

Fishing was another added bonus that I was unaware of. Each September an ocean run species of Arctic Char, similar to our Bull Trout or Dolly Vardens, runs up the Sagavanirktok River alongside the Dalton Highway. They average 8 pounds and 25 inches long--about the size of a steelhead in Idaho. I was lucky enough to land one hooked-jawed behemoth.

For those wishing to travel the Dalton, a little preparation is in order. Remember that big trucks always have the right-of-way and they will often assert themselves on smaller vehicles. When in doubt, just pull over. Pass them only when it is safe and conditions permit. Buy gas everywhere you can. Bring some gas canisters with you, just in case. Whole online forums are dedicated to traveling the Haul Road; read them.

Be aware, most rental companies do not allow their cars on the Dalton Highway for fear of damage and window chips. This is a legitimate fear; we did suffer a chipped windshield on our journey.

The Dalton Highway shows the vastness of the wild world around us. For hundreds of miles, only one road exists through the mountains and into the tundra. The Dalton cuts a line that allows those with limited means and a little ambition to see otherwise unknowable places. All it takes is a little planning, some good tires and the dream of an ultimate road trip.