Guest Author - Deb Frost
The James Dalton Highway, known to Alaskan locals as “the haul road”, connects Fairbanks, Alaska with Deadhorse, AK and the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Although open to the public, this 415 mile mostly gravel road is not considered a tourist destination or scenic byway – although it certainly is spectacularly beautiful.
Tourists do regularly brave the first 120 miles of the Dalton Highway in order to boast having crossed the “Arctic Circle”. This is the only highway in the United States that actually does cross the Arctic Circle. It is not generally recommended that tourists travel much beyond this point.
The Dalton is a dangerous, twisting, often steep-sided road with very little in the way of amenities. It claims lives nearly every year, most of them during the busy winter heavy-load hauling season. Even during the summer, visitors on the highway are well advised to carefully follow the rules of this road – ALWAYS yield right-of-way to semi-truck drivers, even if they happen to be on the wrong side of the road. Their maneuvering is often dictated by the safety needs of their loads – loads that are often extremely heavy, over-sized or of extended length. It is up to travelers to stay out of their way, not the other way around.
The Dalton was built in 1974 for the express purpose of bringing supplies to the busy oil fields of the North Slope and still primarily serves that same purpose today. This vital haul road is a “no frills” road to drive - if you choose to attempt it, having spare tires, tools, plenty of extra gas and emergency supplies are recommended even for summer travelers. It can be hard on tires and even harder on windshields. The road winds its way through the scenic but inhospitable Brooks Range. The beauty of the Dalton is matched only by its challenging driving conditions. Drivers beware.
Anyone who has watched the cable TV Show “Ice Road Truckers” is familiar with the special winter challenges this highway presents to truckers and anyone else who might choose to drive it. Blinding snow storms, avalanches and ice are ever present dangers during the winter. The rest of the year; mud, rough gravel, dust, dirt and grit make travel conditions difficult as well.
Then again, on a good day, they say the unique vistas of this seldom seen arctic region are worth the risks. If you decide to navigate this challenging route, you will find the start of the Dalton Highway near Livengood, AK along Hwy. 2 about 70 miles north of Fairbanks.
The first section of the highway from Livengood to the Yukon River is 56 miles and brings you to the Yukon River Crossing. This is the only bridge to span the mighty Yukon River along the entire length of it within the state of Alaska. It is an impressive sight. Oddly, this bridge remains nameless, being referred to only as the “Yukon River Crossing”.
The crossing serves the dual purpose of allowing access for truckers and possibly more important, carries the famous Alaska Pipeline itself across this large expanse of river.
Drivers pass the Arctic Circle boundary marker at mile 126 of the Dalton. This is the point where the majority of tourists stop to take photos, congratulate each other and turn back.
For those who continue on; mostly semi-truck drivers who drive the haul road for a living, the next gas, food and lodging of any sort is at mile 175, where you’ll find the tiny town of Coldfoot. Truckers often use this, the “northernmost truck stop in the world”, to fill up on gas and food and sometimes spend time sleeping before making the final 239-mile leg of the trip to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay.
About halfway between Coldfoot and Deadhorse, the Dalton crosses the towering Brooks Range and the Continental Divide by way of the highest year-round pass in Alaska; Atigun Pass. The section of road along this rugged, treacherous pass has claimed many victims either due to accident or avalanche over the years.
The Dalton Highway has a well deserved reputation as one of the most beautiful and certainly one of the most dangerous highways, if not THE most dangerous, in the United States of America. Road conditions change with Mother Nature’s moods and can never be taken for granted. The men and women who drive the Dalton highway year-round for a living are a special breed. It has got to take courage to face that road – and conquer it – over and over again.