This is part two of our recent drive up the Dalton Highway in partnership with Go North Car and RV Rentals.
Built for purpose, not comfort, the Dalton Highway is a 414-mile twisting, turning route between Interior and Arctic Alaska. Partially-paved but mostly dirt (or mud or ice, depending upon the conditions and/or season), it connects Alaska’s oil industry to commerce hubs, and was built to support the Trans-Alaska Pipeline project in the 1970’s. Constructed in a mere five months (and the 800-mile pipeline in just three years), the Dalton is a sign of both prosperity and the rush to take advantage of a 1968 discovery of oil on Alaska’s North Slope.
The Dalton Highway was initially called the “Haul Road” because just about everything, from heavy equipment to coffee, was “hauled” on tractor-trailer rigs from Fairbanks to Deadhorse (the Dalton Highway actually begins 84 miles north of Fairbanks, by the way). It got its current moniker in 1981 for James B. Dalton, an engineer who figured prominently in early oil exploration of the North Slope. A commercial-traffic-only road at first, the State of Alaska began allowing public access to the highway in 1981 as far as Disaster Creek at Milepost 211 (far enough for most folks). But in 1984, with Alaska a popular tourist destination for the adventurous traveler, access was granted all the way to Deadhorse.
On my list of road trips since we moved here in 2005, the Dalton Highway remained elusive for years thanks to all the other “things” that took precedence. A pandemic is what finally moved my restless spirit into action once it became clear that 1) most other tourism was trashed for 2020, and 2) there could not be a more perfect way to distance ourselves from COVID-19 in this least-populated state in the Union.
So with planets aligning (albeit in the weirdest way possible), my teen son and I, in our rented Go North camper, proceeded over the course of four days to haul ourselves between Fairbanks and Coldfoot, into the beginnings of Alaska’s Arctic region.
As I mentioned in the last post, Go North offered something most RV rental companies cannot; a vehicle suited for the rough-and-tumble surfaces of the Dalton. Nary an issue marred our drive, a comfort for sure, since repair shops are few and far between along the highway, as is cell service.
And grocery stores or restaurants, save for the excellent Yukon River and Coldfoot Camps, where travelers can experience some of the best burgers and fries in the state (I AM NOT KIDDING) along with sundry items. Everything else, though, should be purchased in Fairbanks before pointing the vehicle North. We filled up the gas tank, purchased food, drinks, and snacks to carry us up and back from Coldfoot, and made sure we had enough bug repellant.
Driving was fairly easy, save for frost heaves and potholes, the bane of existence for Alaskans, but also a familiar sight around here. That said, speed limits are decidedly slower to allow for safe passage, and while automobiles mostly follow this rule, industrial trucks do not, because they have places to go. Why do I mention this? Because drivers traveling the Dalton Highway for fun should remember tractor-trailers have the right of way, always, and everywhere, and they won’t care about your desire to capture an Instagram-worthy shot of the pipeline at 20 MPH. Watch your rear-view and the roadway ahead (you can see the dust trail for miles) and move over.
It is quite possible to drive to Coldfoot in a day, thanks to lingering light, but if you want to stop, plan on the Arctic Circle BLM-operated campground at Mile 199. You should stop here anyway, if only to take a photo record of the moment your feet hit the Circle’s longitude/latitude mark. The campground is hidden beyond the wayside area, and is small, quiet, and offers nothing beyond fire pits, picnic tables, and an outhouse. It used to be a free campground, but soon will charge $10/night towards its upkeep.
From Arctic Circle, it’s about 90 minutes to Coldfoot Camp and the last option for dining, overnight accommodations, and information until Deadhorse. Coldfoot offers tent sites, RV hookups, a cafe (the chicken burger — OMG), a post office, gas, and tire repair. It’s also the place truckers stop for a rest, and at any time of the day or night one can see and hear the huge rigs lined up while drivers eat and catch up on news.
Another must-stop is at the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center, a treasure of information and exhibits that not only explain the road’s history, but the geographical, cultural, and recreational importance of the area. Find information about nearby Gates of the Arctic National Park, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and options for activities. There are also presentations most evenings that cover a wide range of topics. Open daily, the center is key for enjoying a trip up the Dalton.
At Coldfoot Camp, Northern Alaska Tour Company provides access to fun, too, with rafting, fat biking, and a visit to Wiseman and over Atigun Pass in their passenger vans. This perhaps was the greatest benefit, since we didn’t need to drive our vehicle and tour guide Dan provided some important context to the stunning scenery we witnessed along the way.
Travel along the Dalton doesn’t end when snow flies, but for most travelers intent on driving, June through early September is most likely to offer the scenery and recreation this area affords. A copy of The Milepost, Alaska’s bible of road tripping, will be a valuable guide for roadside stops, conditions, and a list of options for services.
For RV or auto rental, Go North has stations in Anchorage, Fairbanks (the closure of Canadian borders makes it difficult to rent and drive from Seattle or Whitehorse, Yukon Territory right now). Go North is also offering a special discount for Alaska residents, so if time permits before the snow flies, I’d make tracks to their website and book a vehicle.