Dalton Highway, haul road to the Arctic Ocean

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August 9th 2015
Published: March 19th 2016
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At the strong recommendation of resident Alaskans, we took a spontaneous trip up the Dalton Highway from Livengood (real name!) above Fairbanks north towards the Arctic Ocean. This road was built as the “haul” route to support the construction and maintenance of the infamous Trans-Alaska oil pipeline that travels 414 miles from Prudhoe Bay to the terminus at Valdez on the southern Prince William Sound.

In addition to following the path of the pipeline, the Dalton Highway provides the only drivable access to the unique Brooks Range and the vast plateau beyond. The main landmarks are: the Dalton Highway sign at the beginning, the Yukon River, Arctic Circle, the Atigun Pass, and finally, the Arctic Ocean.

In addition to the visitor milestones and photo ops, we were careful to note places to get gas (only at the Yukon River crossing and Coldfoot) and to camp overnight (Galbraith Lake).

We had a previous introduction to the Dalton Highway on the reality show Ice Road Truckers, which was filmed in wintertime and as named, in icy conditions. Here, in early August, we found the mixed paved and hard-packed gravel surface slippery and muddy in parts but overall much less harrowing than expected.

Coldfoot, population 10, a town marketed as the world’s northernmost truck stop, stood out along the way. I assumed the origin of the name related to the temperature and frostbite but it’s actually the point where 1900 miners gave up, got “cold feet” and turned around. Despite its remote location, it has the very well-designed Arctic Interagency Visitor Center that is definitely worth a stop.

After fueling up in Coldfoot, we were ready to tackle the Atigun Pass, a vertical 4,739 feet over the Brooks Range. It was drizzling and foggy, so it was not a comfortable descent down the slick steep slope.

Once we had made it safely to the flat terrain beyond the pass, we were delighted to observe the early rich colors of Autumn in the arctic tundra. However, the driver’s visibility was not great as we tried to find the entrance to the Lake Galbraith campground in the white soupy atmosphere. Bouncing over the rocky curving dirt road with no sign of life after passing the tiny closed ANWR trailer, we weren’t even sure we were on the right track or if the facility was actually open.

The lake wasn’t discernible but we finally started to see other vehicles and well established tents. The sites didn’t seem to be officially marked so we just drove until we found a private unpopulated clearing. It was the beginning of hunting season and it would become a trend in Alaska this time of year to come across hunters in normally deserted places. We had also been warned to be very careful. With so little wildlife, bears, though sparse, could much more aggressive than their counterparts in food-rich areas further south. Due to the cold, fog, discomfort, and weariness, we just slept in the car.

We had also learned that it was not possible to drive independently past Deadhorse which was only about 100 miles north to Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean without a guide and hefty fee. For this reason and the extremely limited visibility, we decided to return to Fairbanks the next day rather than continue further. The 275 mile trip beyond the Atigun Pass and into the Fall splendor of the far North had been intriguing but not worth an extended stay with so much more to explore in the rest of Alaska.

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