I was so scared that I could hardly talk. That is me after driving 5 hours on World’s loneliest road – James Dalton Highway. Not knowing where we are or if I should even believe half-loaded GPS, hundreds of questions popping into my mind causing confusion. Although Sruthi, my wife telling some jokes patiently even after 5 hours, my only source of entertainment now, I am laughing nervously while scared inside. With all that said it is one of my favorite road trips that pumped the adrenaline, at the same time, enjoyed the wilderness that only 2% of visitors to Alaska go to.
You might recognize the road if you have seen Ice Road Truckers, otherwise, you should definitely watch it, every episode is nerve-cracking. The only road to Arctic Circle and beyond, this road is primarily used to service trans-Alaska pipeline and carry equipment to the northernmost part of the United States to extract oil.
Along with trucks, we can also see few camper vans, bicyclists, or even hikers on this highway who like to enjoy the absolute solitude in the real wild Alaska. And it cannot get any wilder than this. Clouds that seem like they are passing across roads, rain with heavy drops that we thought will break the windshield, extreme heat and cold on the same day, countless rainbows, animals that are finally out after 8 months of winter hibernation and are hungry for food, small but deadly trees, minute tornadoes, gravel when trucks pass by, thrown onto the windshield, some might break it or at least cause rock chip.
Do you believe if I say we saw all the above in a single day? Because of the risk involved, not many tourists go here. In fact, the road is not built for tourism and regular rental companies won’t even allow their cars to drive here. But thanks to local rental company Alaska 4×4 rentals, we got a brand new Ford Bronco that made our drive smooth without any flat tires but a small rock chip. That is Dalton Highway, a nail-biting road trip and I would do it all again.
There are several tour companies that offer road and flightseeing tours which are great as a day trip to Arctic Circle. But traveling on our own on Dalton Highway is of course gonna be epic. And not everyone should do it. If you are not aware of changing tires, you might be stranded for days. And not all insurances offer to tow on this road, so it can be quite expensive to bring a car back to Fairbanks if something unforeseen happens.
Enough said, are you ready to drive on Dalton Highway?
Walmart. True. Walmart in Fairbanks is the perfect basecamp for the Dalton Highway drive.
Dalton Highway starts from Livenridge which is about 30 miles from Fairbanks and travels to the northern end of Alaska to the town called ‘Deadhorse’. And there is only one gas station in the middle of this 446-mile road at the town – Coldfoot. There are a couple of other small towns along the highway which may provide accommodation but food cannot be expected. So Walmart at Fairbanks is the ideal place to stock up food, water, and other supplies that are needed for this long and boring road trip.
Our ultimate plan is to drive to Deadhorse but since it may take at least 4 days to enjoy the trip, we are driving today to Coldfoot stepping in Arctic Circle to get the taste of the highway. And serving us as an appetizer for our real trip sometime in the future.
We stocked up and slept the night at the Walmart parking lot in our Ford Bronco. We couldn’t open our windows as there are hundreds of Alaskan mosquitoes out there. And they are huge, like never seen before. These mosquitoes can be deadly and are present along the highway. We suffered a couple of bites which left bumps for hours. We should have carried a better repellent.
It is an experience to see midnight Sun here in Fairbanks. Although the prediction for sunset is at 1 AM and sunrise at 3 AM, we never saw light went out. With all the light and excitement, we hardly slept straight. Woke up at 4 AM totally, we took breakfast and freshen up at the nearby gas station. Filled gas to the very last inch, we are ready for the trip we have been dreaming of for the last 4 months.
It is always recommended to drive with more than half of the tank of gas in Alaska. We never know which gas station is open and how long we can go for the next one.
Drove almost 80 miles and when we are wondering if we are on the right path, a small sign saying ‘Arctic Circle’ pointed towards a muddy road. We started driving on it and felt it’s not a that bad road. It’s almost a single lane but the road is flat. For now.
Within a mile, we were at the entrance of the highway – ‘James Dalton Highway, the road to the Deadhorse’ sign. We got down in excitement to take a couple of pics and mosquitoes swarmed on us. There are hundreds of them here and we are lucky we got inside quickly without any major bites. We are not getting out for the rest of the trip, we thought.
We started our drive full of excitement. It’s a flat mud road with potholes often and could hardly go beyond 35 MPH. Whenever there is a real road, I felt happy for my tires and tried to speed up which wouldn’t last long. But from all my planning, I learned that we shouldn’t be deceived from even the paved road on Dalton. There could be sudden dips on roads due to permafrost which is a result of multiple layers of snow underground. These dips are hard to see from a distance and can cause severe damage to the cars. We drove patiently and carefully for miles trying to understand this road and enjoying this boring landscape, hoping something interesting would happen.
After an hour, we stopped at a wayside for some views. Sun is hitting hard already at 8 AM and the landscape looks flat. There is a creek at a distance where we tried to spot bears. It is silent but we wondered how much activity would be deep in the woods. Bears would be fishing, Moose would be running, Muskox would be grazing, and several other animals running after months of hibernation. But we are not seeing anything from here. It is like a thriller movie where silence prevails before a horrifying scene.
Trees wouldn’t grow long here due to the same permafrost as they have little access to the mud. Even the ones grown are burnt due to wildfires in some areas. It is pretty much a boring landscape that we have ever seen. Except for the oil pipe that comes along. It is exciting to spot the pipeline going along the road, up and down, or thru the mountains. How they have built 800 miles of pipeline to bring oil from an untouched wild nature is not an ordinary feat considering how remote this area is.
Drove another 30 miles in more than an hour. It is one of the hardest roads to drive due to the condition of roads along with the trucks. Trucks have right of way here on this highway. And it is a must to give way for trucks. If not, severe damage to the cars can be expected from all the rocks flown from their tires due to the speed they travel with. I only thought once it’s ok not to go completely out of my way and caused a small rock chip on the windshield. Luckily it is not huge.
Due to all of this, the drive was really slow and boring truly.
And then something not boring
After about 2.5 hours and 55 miles on Dalton Highway, we are finally at our first real stop – Yukon Bridge. Yukon River is one of the largest rivers in the USA and this is the only bridge crossing in Alaska. We were quite excited to be here. And we thought we can spend some time enjoying views from under the bridge. We got out of the car and tada!! Alaskan mosquitoes swarmed to say hi again. We couldn’t even use vault toilets peacefully. We quickly ran to the bridge and enjoyed the view for a minute. There is no one else here except for an Alaskan Family setting up a camp for fishing. We expected to see some food here but no luck. It is deserted with no one except some piled-up old cars.
We continued our drive for 40 more miles, about 1.5 hours, the landscape changed a bit to rocks and we knew we were at the “Finger Mountain” where rock is in the shape of a finger. We can actually see it clearly even from a distance. There is a small board pointing to the location. There are restrooms also here.
The landscape is changing further ahead. It is turning beautiful and at the same time, there is pressure building in the air (or in my mind). I am trying to go up a hill slowly and then Sruthi shouted “Moose!”. I backed up a little and stopped slowly on the side of the road. There we see, a large moose almost camouflaging. It is at a distance and watched us for few minutes. When it felt safe, it continued grazing slowly. We are so delighted to see such a muscular giant moving slowly. It was our first sighting and obviously, Sruthi is quite excited.
Further down the road, clouds are getting dark. Wind howling and rain pouring at a distance. The landscape is green though. The road is winding creating confusion at every turn. Also, it has been a while we saw someone else on the road. I am not sure if the GPS is even moving or when our next stop would be. After 5 hours on road, we should be at ‘Arctic Circle’ long ago. There are no frequent road signs, so we wouldn’t know if we crossed it already. Sruthi is trying to entertain with jokes which I am enjoying nervously. After 30 more min, I finally took a breath by seeing ‘Arctic Circle Sign 10 miles’. For some reason, that 30 min drive felt the longest of all.
We did it!!!
After 200 miles and 5 hours of drive, we are here at ‘Arctic Circle’. We felt like an achievement. It took us several minutes to believe that we are inside Arctic Circle. Until then, we have only read in books that it is on top of the earth while the Equator being the center and the Antarctic Circle is at the bottom of the earth. We were proud at that moment that we are among the few who crossed the line 🙂
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There is nothing here except the sign and some information boards on how life would be in Arctic Circle around the year. Life here in the Arctic Circle is beyond imagination. Do you know that the Arctic Ground Squirrel lives 8-10 years and 8 months every year, it stays underground to cope up with the Arctic winter? Arctic spiders build ‘anti-freeze ‘ and ‘comes back to life ‘ after winter. Isn’t it otherworldly? There are hundreds of species here that wait for few months of summer and there is so much we don’t know yet how some of them sustain this hard and rough winter where humans would sustain only a few minutes.
Being in such a wonderful place is beyond words. There is so much ambiguity, anticipation, and excitement here that makes this road trip more special.
Just not ready to turn back
It is 200 miles back to Fairbanks but only 60 miles to the next town on Dalton Highway – Coldfoot. Gas is half empty, so I can drive back now and save some time. But then we wouldn’t know if gas is really sufficient, also we would be without real food for another 5 hours. “What if Coldfoot got no gas? Or no food? I doubt if I will even see people. Is it worth the drive? The storm seems like building up and thick clouds are upon us. Act now!!!” – These are just a few questions popping into my mind. And what did I decide?
We continued our drive north. Because it is hard to turn our back at Arctic Circle 🙂 Moreover, the landscape is getting interesting. So we thought. Just after 5 minutes on road, we were hit with some of the hardest raindrops we have ever seen. It may be due to low clouds. And I am not even exaggerating when I say these raindrops might break our windshield where there is already a rock chip. Rain is very hard but we couldn’t take shade anywhere. And the wonderful part is we would drive right under small clouds. So there is heavy rain for 2 min and then it is dry. Since it is a vast landscape, we can see the sun shining on the nearby mountain while we are under the heavy rain. It is such a surreal experience that we can experience in only places like Arctic Circle.
Along with the excitement, there is scariness too. I am just praying hard all the way that there shouldn’t be any flat tires. That would be the worst thing to happen on this road. I am driving carefully at less than 10 MPH when there is gravel. I made sure to go all the way to the edge of the road to avoid flying rocks from passing truck tires.
It is only a 60-mile drive but it took us more than 2 hours. That too because part of this road is paved. And when I finally saw the Coldfoot sign, I felt happier the first time in 6 hours. When we stopped at Coldfoot visitor Center, my heart stopped for a minute seeing the ‘Closed’ Sign. But when I pulled the handle, it opened. And I was able to go inside.
I finally smiled wholeheartedly when there is a ranger, a real person in Coldfoot Visitor Center, and felt good after she smiled back. She is a nice lady who explained about the place, amenities, things to do around here patiently. She also gave us a certificate that we crossed the Arctic Circle on which we can stamp the desired sign. We printed the Moose sign.
We used restrooms, relaxed a bit, and spent some time in the visitor center looking at all exhibits. They have skeletons of bears, moose, bones of mammoths, and all types of skins. We had a sense of achievement by looking at the huge map of the Arctic Circle that we are here in the middle of all the beautiful but intense mountain range.
We went to Coldfoot base camp which is on the other side of the road. Here we filled up gas and yes it is pricey (~5$ per gallon). We had food – sandwiches and chips which tasted good. This place started as a small food truck when the oil pipeline construction started. And later built into a real restaurant with the help of all passing truck drivers. It is interesting to learn how it all turned out from the pictures on the billboard.
There are also showers and limited rooms to sleep in here. It definitely surpassed our expectations. We took our time to enjoy food and relaxed on the porch. It is cold though where it was hot in the morning and rainy along the way. What a place this is.
Goodbye? Not yet!
As the ranger suggested, we drove another 30 miles North to Sukakpak Mountain for its amazing views. Further North, Atigun Pass would be one of the best views on this road but we had enough adrenaline rush for this trip. Saving the rest of the road for next, we took U-turn.
We were able to drive back in 7 hours with only the required stops. Luckily, there are no storms but we saw a minute tornado. Other than that, the drive was not bad. We reached Dalton Highway Sign by 8 PM and it took couple more hours to reach our base camp again at Walmart.
We slept there that night talking about how adventurous the road trip is. And when Sruthi asked if I do it again, I almost immediately said ‘Yes ‘. Camping along this highway and enjoying the views leisurely is my next goal driving until Deadhorse and taking a plunge in the Arctic Ocean.
It is one of the most adventurous road trips that I have ever done where I was excited and at the same time stressed to the core.
What do you think about this trip? Would you road trip here?
If you are planning, here are some tips:
- It took me a while to realize but we cannot rely on the internet or GPS. Even road signs are rare. So mileposts became my friends. Milepost (MP) 56 – Yukon Bridge, MP 98 – Finger Mountain, MP 115 – Arctic Circle, MP 175 – Coldfoot, MP 204 – Sukakpak Mountain.
- The road between Yukon Bridge and Arctic Circle Sign is the most damaged road, so it takes a lot of patience to drive this stretch.
- It is about 80 miles from Fairbanks to Dalton Highway Sign. So it takes a lot of time to even start the drive on Dalton.
- We can camp along Dalton following best practices.
- Although it seems boring, it is always recommended to give way to trucks to avoid breaking windshield. Every time.
There are several other rules for Dalton Highway. Comment for any questions and I will be happy to answer.
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