Every time I looked to my right it was there. It looked like a giant snake winding through the beautiful landscape, as if I were in a sci-fi film. It was strange to have the it constantly in your sight – like a monkey on your back. Always there, always reminding you that it is the reason why people are here in this part of the world. Oil.
I was traveling up the Dalton Highway following the Alaskan pipeline from Fairbanks to Coldfoot Alaska and slightly beyond. The highway was built as a supply road to support the construction of the pipeline in 1974. It’s a 414 mile road (the majority of it dirt) beginning at the Elliott Highway north of Fairbanks and ending at Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean. And it’s still used primarily in conjunction with the pipeline today for maintenance crews, shipping…and little bit of…tourism.
Known as one of the most isolated and dangerous roads in the world, of course I had to experience it.
Touring the Dalton Highway
There are a few ways you can drive the Dalton Highway as a tourist. You can rent a car – but this is not your typical car or road, so it is quite expensive and most rental companies will allow you to drive it. You can also take a shuttle in a no frills type of ride.
However, I decided upon the Northern Alaska Tour Company who offers various tours up the highway. The tour is simply a long day’s drive with a guide and narration about the geography of the area, life above the arctic, and the history of the pipeline.
She was an all-American blonde with blue eyes, studying nursing; our young guide and Fairbanks native, Hannah, drove our van filled with 6 people up the highway while telling us non-stop stories. The stories weren’t simply about the highway, but she also shared touching Norman Rockwell-ish stories of her childhood growing up in Alaska hunting and fishing so we could get a real feel for the area. We stopped numerous places along the highway for photos, food, closer views of the pipeline, to walk on the tundra, and more stories.
When we arrived at the Arctic Circle where there was a sign and little picnic area to mark the crossing. Hannah carried out a big rug and suddenly unrolls a red carpet in front of the ‘Welcome to the Arctic Circle’ sign. The red carpet even had a stitched dotted line running through it. She carefully placed it on the ground with the dotted line in alignment with the middle of the sign. We all did our personalized walk across the Arctic circle; some did cartwheels, some somersaults, and some just walked. And then we all celebrated with chocolate cake! I can guarantee you that the simple shuttle ride doesn’t do this!
Even though Hannah seemed rather innocent and young, she handled the CB radio like a pro, talking to the truckers, calling out corners and hills as you are supposed to do to warn other trucks on the highway as part of typical Dalton Highway etiquette. Truckers on the Dalton Highway have given their own names to it’s various features such as: The Taps, The Shelf, The Bluffs, Oil Spill hill, Beaver Slide, Two and a Half Mile, Roller Coaster, and Oh Shit Corner. The Dalton Highway has recently been made famous by the TV show Ice Road Truckers, which I had never seen before, but had heard plenty about. Luckily I was on the road in August, and there was no ice yet…but it was on the way soon.
There are only 3 towns along the route; Coldfoot, Wiseman, and Deadhorse. Our original tour went as far as Coldfoot camp where I stayed the night at the truck stop and then the next day I went a little further. We went past Wiseman with a different guide to the highest point on the highway in the Brooks Range at Atigun Pass (4700 ft). The day we drove up the pass it actually snowed on us in August. And this section of the Dalton Highway was by far the most scenic as we drove through the Brooks Range.
Of course, the whole time I was taking photos. My Brooks Range guide, Cammie, explained that Autumn moves fast in this part of the world, it only lasts about 2 weeks. And luckily we were there during it!
Dalton Highway Photos
If you want to see a part of Alaska that few tourists see (outside of their TV sets), then drive up the Dalton Highway and experience Coldfoot Alaska and the Arctic Circle for yourself.
How can you drive the Dalton Highway?
Northern Alaska Tour Company – drive up/fly back variations. Prices start at $216.
Rent your Own Car from Arctic Outfitters – gravel road-allowed automobile rentals for the Dalton Highway traveler starting at approximately $179 to $229.00 / day – must be 30 yrs old to rent. Come ready with CB radios, 2 spare tires, first aid kit.
Dalton Highway Shuttle – $168 round trip to Coldfoot.
I was a guest of Alaska Tourism during this trip, however all opinions are my own.