One-Man Towns, Eight Paved Highways, 129 Million Acres of Forest. Alaska? Naturally.

Driving the Dalton Highway

May 21, 2001
Outside Magazine

The end of the road. It's a phrase that, in Alaska at any rate, means just that. You can find it at the intersection of Dalton Highway and Airport Road in the town of Deadhorse, where an unobtrusive plaque announces that you've arrived at the northernmost point in the U.S. highway system. This inauspicious spot, flanked by a sign warning visitors away from the local oil fields, has become a kind of lodestone for the adventurous, the curious, or perhaps just the morose. You can go no farther, in Alaska, in the United States, in North America.
Built 20 years ago as a supply route for the Trans-Alaska pipeline, the 414-mile "haul road" (as it's known to everyone but the Alaska Department of Transportation) was closed to the public until 1994. But even in years since, the world's highway cognoscenti haven't exactly rushed in. The Dalton Highway, unpaved, deeply rutted, and virtually devoid of any roadside services, remains an acquired taste. It's a pass-or-fail test of driving skill, axle resilience, and above all self-sufficiency. But it's also one of the most unforgettable journeys any visitor to Alaska can undertake.
The Dalton starts at the end of Highway 2, about 85 miles northwest of Fairbanks, at Livengood. Don't let its emptiness beguile you into rushing along at the speed limit (55 miles per hour). Not only is this dangerous, it misses the point. The haul road is for ambling, for admiring, for pulling out your fishing gear at Hess Creek (mile 25) and catching some grayling for lunch. Another 30 miles brings you to the Yukon River. Hike into the tundra here for wild blueberries, roll out a blanket in the shade of the wooden bridge, and watch bush planes land, in your lane, just a few miles ahead. (The Dalton Highway sometimes doubles as an airstrip; planes have the right of way.)
Linger at the Yukon if you like. But allow yourself plenty of time to savor the next major intersection, 50 miles ahead: the Arctic Circle. Arrive on June 21, the high holy day of the North, and you'll likely share the site with druids, Wiccans, and a few bemused Bureau of Land Management agents. Otherwise the place, marked by a BLM interpretive display ("What Is the Arctic Circle?"), is typically deserted. You can camp at a primitive site a half-mile east. Better, though, to drive about 17 miles to Gobblers Knob, a grassy rise that affords a mesmerizing view of the 3 A.M. sunrise.
From here the land becomes increasingly denuded and Miesian. White spruces give way to stunted black. Tundra the color of flax unfurls to the horizon. At mile 203, the chiseled gray rock of Sukakpak Mountain marks the traditional delineation between Athabascan Indian and Nunamiut Eskimo territories and also serves as timberline; trees don't grow on the sudden, 10 percent grade of the upcoming Chandalar Shelf.
This grinding, downshifting two-mile climb begs for some kind of climax. And one is in fact provided: Near mile 244, at the shelf's 4,800-foot summit, Atigun Pass, you straddle the Continental Divide. Hundred-mile views stretch out past the Endicott Mountains to the west and the North Slope straight ahead. It's all downhill from here, past polygonal ponds and "pingos," giant frost heaves beneath the tundra carpet.
Unfortunately, you can't reach the Arctic Ocean's shore on the haul road. That land is controlled by the Alyeska Pipeline Service, which allows visits by tour groups only. (Call the Prudhoe Bay Hotel in Deadhorse, 907-659-2449, to join one.) You can, however, head to the Arctic Caribou Inn on Deadhorse Airport Road, belly up to the beef buffet ($15), and listen to the locals swap tales of the frostbite season of '97. That'll make your drive back to Fairbanks seem like a summer stroll.
For more information, contact the BLM office in Fairbanks (907-474-2251), which administers much of the land along the Dalton's route. It doesn't, however, provide road service. If you need assistance, you have one resource: yourself. Failing that, the state police will drive by eventually; they sweep the road about every three weeks.

Filed To: Alaska

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