The James Dalton highway was originally a private road to the Prudhoe Bay and the North Slope oilfields. In 1981 the state start allowing access to mile post 211 and in 1994 opened the entire length for those who felt like making the drive over a partially paved, mostly gravel road to the Arctic Ocean.
Between the 500 miles between Fairbanks and Deadhorse (including 84 miles on the Elliot highway), there are now multiple stops for tourists on the road that run between various wildlife refuges and the Gates of the Arctic national park.
The first night, I made it to the 21 mile marker around dusk and camped out for the night at the scenic view area there. I woke around 2am to the most vivid viewings of the Northern lights I had at this point on this trip.
Hess Creek Overlook, Mile 21
As the Dalton was originally intended as a industrial road to service and supply those working on the Alaskan pipeline and oil fields of the North Slope, the pipeline runs alongside for the entire length of the road.
At the Yukon Crossing, there is a Bureau of Land Management office for people to check in and learn the road conditions. The cutest older couple ran this joint. While I was talking to Linda, the husband (whose name escapes me) asked if she had told me about the bad neighborhood they lived in. Armed private security patrol the length of the pipeline and one tends to drop of the newspapers to them in the morning. This prompted him to say "This place is so bad, our paperboy carries a semi-automatic."
Yukon River crossing, Mile 56
Hotspot Cafe, Mile 60
At one point, just before reaching Coldfoot, I pulled onto a dirt road off of the highway to take a fews shot of a mountain in the distance. I walked fairly far away from my car to grab the shot. After getting back into my car, I spotted a grizzly less than a tenth of a mile from where I was standing. I didn’t wander too far from my car after that.
COLDFOOT, MILE 170 (POP 10)
There are three gas stations along the route. Yukon River Crossing (mile 56), Coldfoot (mile 175), and Deadhorse (mile 414). The price reflects the effort it takes to bring the gas out here, ironically on a road which exists to bring oil to refineries. I topped of my tank at $5.49 a gallon at Yukon Crossing on the way up and bought an entire tank at $4.99 a gallon in Coldfoot for the trip back.
The town of Wiseman has had permanent residents since 1908 but its population has dropped from 44 at its peak to 14 in the most recent census. The town pulls a lot of overnight guests taking bus tours up to Deadhorse but its residents are largely self-sufficient the majority of the year.
Wiseman, Mile 189 (pop 14)
Sukakpak Mountian, Mile 203
While approaching Atigun Pass at mile marker 244, the temperature became much cooler and I noticed very heavy snow in the distance. As I was in a Hyundai Elantra with Wal-Mart tires, I knew I couldn't pass and decided to turn around. This marked the furthest north I would drive.
Atigun Pass, Mile 244
Chandalar Shelf, Mile 237
I parked my car on a pull out north of Coldfoot and had to sleep in two shirts, two hoodies, a denim jacket, and my gortek boots in order to keep somewhat warm. Given that I was in the Arctic Circle, I feel like I was getting off easy. The aim was to wake up to catch the northern lights again but the cloud cover was to much by the time I woke up.
I came at the right time for the changing of colors. Apparently mid-late August is this region's transition into fall. According to Lori in Wiseman, this part of the year is "peak color."
The next day I drove through light snow until I was just south of the Yukon Crossing. This is when the snow really started to come down. I had been lucky up until this point to be able to keep my speed high enough to hang with the trucks on the road. But now I slowed to a crawl for a solid thirty miles.
I feel fortunate that nothing happened to either my car or I. With all of the warnings I received and dangers I was told about the road, I had a very non-eventful drive. The road was incredibly rough in places but it was nothing after driving the road out to McCarthy. That was sixty miles of hell. This was two hundred and forty four miles of beauty.
I felt even more appreciative after seeing a truck fishtail into a ditch five miles from the highway entrance