Doing The Dalton: The Road to Prudhoe Bay
For some the Dalton highway is considered the most remote, dangerous and challenging road in Alaska. For others this is the ultimate wilderness road trip deep into the Arctic north hundreds of miles from the nearest town.
The “haul road” was built in 1974 to service the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The Pipeline was built to transport the newly exploited oil from the North Slope of Alaska to the ice-free port of Valdez for distribution to lower 48 refinerys. The road was exclusive to the oil companies until 1995 when it was opened to the public all the way to Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay.
The Dalton has recently been made famous by the Tv series Ice Road Truckers which is about the truck drivers who travel it in winter. In summer the road is a rough road which is about 25% potholed tar and 75% gravel of varying quality. Parts of the road are pretty rough and others are surprisingly good quality although the going can change mile by mile. In the summer you can make this road with a normal car – if it doesn’t rain too much – however almost everything up here is four wheel drive and I wouldn’t risk it without. You are a long way from any help so two spare tires are essential – we picked up a nail and another chunk of metal in our tire treads so the chance of getting a flat Is high.
The Dalton itself is 414 miles long although the total distance from Fairbanks is 510 miles.
Some people sprint up the Haul Road in a hard long day – we have chosen to take it slower and taken 2.5 days to drive up and another 2 days back down. There are a couple of campgrounds on the Road but the good thing is that it is fine to camp wherever you want as long as you can pull of the road (and not block access to the pipeline roads).
The Dalton kicks off with a pretty rough first twenty miles. I reckon this is to make people turn back thinking there’s another 400 miles of the same. But after that things improve for a while. It really is up and down with some awful stuff and some race track. The 20 miles after Coldfoot is brand new tar and lovely – but then you hit some heavy going after.
Soon after starting we bumped into a dutch guy named Art who was resting next to his bike after having spent a week cycling from Deadhorse. He is on his way down to Argentina so we may cross paths again. His website is www.todayyoucan.nl He looked pretty knackered already. We helped him on his way with some toilet paper and wish him the best of luck.
The first major landmark on the Dalton is crossing the Yukon River. The bridge is the only one downstream of Whitehorse and is 700m long. This is followed by travelling through an undulating landscape with mostly stunted trees growing in the Permafrost. The road mostly closely follws the Trans-Alaska pipeline.
The road climbs to an upland Plateau at around 90 miles which is punctuated with Tors and resembles Dartmoor. Shortly after this you enter the Arctic Circle and there is an obligatory picture stop.
The next major stop on the road is Coldfoot where there is a truck stop with fuel and a truckers café. At the café here there is a truckers only table and on the wall a set of tokens from truckers to each other for free meals (including ones for Lisa Kelly and Jack Jesse of Ice Road Truckers fame). The diesel here is expensive at $5.299 but no more fuel for over 200 miles till Prudhoe so you’d better top off. Ironically the fuel at Prudhoe itself is a little cheaper at $5.2 dead.
After Coldfoot the road moves into the Brooks ranges and the scenery gets more spectacular. The road climbs until reaching the peak at Atigun Pass which is 1448m and the highest point on the Alaska road system.
After Atigun the temperature drops immediately as you move onto the Arctic shelf.known as the North Slope. The worst section of the road comes on the first section of the North Slope with a mud surface peppered with stones which have been forced upwards by freezing and lead to a really rough ride. The tundra itself consists of spongy wet tundra (there’s not too much rainfall but it can’t drain away because of the permafrost) with clouds and I do mean clouds of mosquitos.
After the full 414 miles you reach Deadhorse which isn’t really a town but more an industrial camp. Each company has its own area with prefab workers accommodation however there are a couple of hotels (mainly for oil workers), a petrol station and a general store. A word of warning – if you want to stay up here it works out at almost $200 for a twin room in very average accommodation. The Prudhoe shop had some interesting hats – I am not sure if you could wear this in London without being lynched though !
The petrol station consisted of a row of labelled boxes. You go through a door to swipe your credit card and then back out to the pumps which you switch on and then pump away. Don’t forget to put down a Spill Suppression mat though – I did and got shouted at by a local worker.
For security reasons the actual oil fields are closed to the public so in order to reach the Arctic Ocean you have to take a $45 tour with the Arctic Caribou Inn. To be honest the tour isn’t very good – consisting of a 20 minute propaganda video about how wonderful the oil companies here, followed by a quick bus tour around the oil fields and culminating in a visit to the Arctic Ocean. You have to book the tour at least 24 hours in advance with your passport details in order for them to security check you.
Any new drilling and exploration activity only happens in the winter when the tundra is covered in snow and ice. This means that it is easier to move around and the tundra is not damaged by the activities. They do have these very cool machines called Rollagons that disperse their weight so well that they can roll over a person with no ill effect.
When we got to the Arctic Ocean I was determined to get wet so stripped off to a pair of shorts and ran in. The tour guide had told us earlier that full immersion had been banned because of Health and Safety Reasons. However another guy there ignored the rules and plunged in – so not to be outdone I stripped off (to my shorts) and jumped in (no pictures of this because I wasn’t hanging around and Sarah was too slow on the draw). The water wasn’t that cold (well it was cold) but the biting wind on getting out was hard to take.
The wildlife doesn’t seem bothered by all the drilling and oil field activity.
I think that they have a sense of humor up this way in naming things.
After driving the Haul Road I can honestly say it was an experience and the scenery North of Coldfoot was amazing. It is 1000 mile round trip though and can be very tiring driving at times – but you won’t regret doing it.
Now we’ve conquered the Dalton we’re heading South and we can truly say that our trip to South America has started. First things first though we have to find a car wash and clean off the Beast. Its dirty work driving the Haul Road.