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Roadtrippin’: Dalton Highway drives 1,500-mile road trip adventure

For two staffers, the RoadTrippin’ series takes on a whole new meaning
Published: Dec. 27, 2020 at 4:14 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The 2020 edition of our annual RoadTrippin’ series was full of adventure, but for Beth Verge and Sean Maguire, the assignment of traveling Alaska by road turned into a full-fledged mission: spend five days, or fewer, on a $400 budget, getting from Alaska’s largest city to the Arctic Ocean and back.

Check out the itinerary below and let us know if you hit the road and try the trip for yourself!

Pre-trip planning

Along with packing the car with necessary gear, the preparations for this trip primarily focused on budgeting. How much money, of the $400 budget, was available to spend on food, gas and other miscellaneous items and experiences? There was no money allotted for accommodations since that would’ve blown the budget by a longshot, but here’s how spending was broken down — and in part, spent — before hitting the road:

Groceries, $58: Feeding two active reporters for a week seemed like a daunting task, but with a little planning, we grabbed what we could without breaking the bank. Most of the food we packed was nonperishable, could be eaten as a snack or part of a bigger meal and was either ready-to-eat or cooked with a simple camping stove and water. With a little less than $60, we purchased the following as our food for the week: a large box of white rice, a dozen cans of tuna, three cans each of black beans and sweet corn, six fresh-baked rolls, two large avocados, several cans of sliced peaches, two tomatoes, one head of lettuce, a container of oats, some instant coffee and an 8-ounce jar of chili garlic sauce. We also bought a small can of propane for our stove and swiped a bit of salt, pepper and mayonnaise from our own kitchen.

Gasoline, $175: We budgeted for gas based on a price slightly higher than the one in Anchorage. The drive from Alaska’s largest city to Fairbanks is roughly 350 miles each way, and the Dalton Highway — the start of which is located about 80 miles outside of Fairbanks — is 414 miles long. Using this formula and considering the mileage of our station car, we’d planned on being able to purchase enough gas to get to Deadhorse and back with about $175 (This would prove to be wholly incorrect, but that’s a story for later!).

Arctic Ocean Shuttle, $140: Tickets for two people to take a shuttle from Deadhorse to the Arctic Ocean, which is about eight miles from the town, would cost about $140, depending on which shuttle company is selected. You cannot drive from Deadhorse to the water’s edge without a special permit or other connection with the oil companies, as the land is not open to the public, so we had no choice but to find a tour company for this. You can also fly over the area to see the ocean and coastline from above, but for a higher fee.

Miscellaneous incidentals, $0: Other gear packed for the trip was either borrowed or already owned. Aside from personal items such as toiletries, bug spray, bear spray, extra clothes, tents, sleeping bags and camping pads, various emergency items were also packed in the car in the event of a disaster. In this particular case, we decided to bring along two extra tires, road flares, a first aid kit, a tow rope, a shovel, a second set of windshield wipers and two fluorescent-colored vests. We also packed a cooking kit with a small stove, a pot and pan, utensils, some Tupperware and coffee mugs for each of us.

Trip timeline: Aside from food, gear and gas put into the car, we did very little planning, though we did consult several sources for a bit of guidance ahead of our trip. The best resources we found were in speaking with a couple of people who’d done the trip before, and a downloadable guide from the Bureau of Land Management, which includes notes on road conditions and main mile marker posts.

Day 1

Before hitting the highway, we picked up several gallons of water — after forgetting we needed that to survive — for about $8 and filled up our gas tank in Anchorage for around $30. We filled it again in Denali for another $30 and couldn’t resist a coffee and bag of sour Skittles, an early splurge that cost about $4.50.

Facing little traffic, we made it from Anchorage to Fairbanks in a bit more than six hours. Another 60 miles or so up the main road got us to a good resting spot at the highway split, where you can choose to hop on for the remainder of the Elliott Highway or continue north to make your way up the Dalton Highway. We took our opportunity to stop at a safe pullout for a quick lunch of tuna sandwiches, salad and some other snacks, before our official start along the Dalton.

After that, aside from stopping for a few shots along our way, our next main break was taken right after the Yukon River bridge crossing, near what’s known as the Yukon River Camp and a small shop in its parking lot called Mainly Birch Gift Shop. This shop is owned and operated by a woman named Dorothy Towson, who has been selling her artwork at that spot for decades. She says she started with a setup of pallets over tire rims, which then became a screen tent, later evolving into what it is now.

Sunshine and blue skies above the Yukon River. June 2020 photo by Beth Verge.
Sunshine and blue skies above the Yukon River. June 2020 photo by Beth Verge.(KTUU)

After dipping our toes in the Yukon River and meandering through Towson’s shop, we passed by an incident response camp for a wildfire that was burning, deciding then and there that we would make it to the Arctic Circle on our first day.

A couple of hours later, Day 1 ended at the Arctic Circle campground, about 115 miles up the Dalton Highway. The campground is free and has several highly-wooded campsites toward the back area and a couple of wider, more open spaces closer to the front. We drove a loop around the campground and decided to stay a bit more toward the entry, near where the camp host was, just in case.

After a dinner of rice with canned beans, corn and tuna, topped with chili sauce, tents were set up and we turned in for the evening, with the sun still shining bright well after midnight.

Total spent: $100.50

Day 2

The second day of our adventure up the Dalton Highway started with cups of instant coffee ahead of a departure from the Arctic Circle Campground, where a team was working on replacing the viewing deck near the Arctic Circle sign. From here, we took our time checking out pretty much anything that piqued our interest, including the Koyukuk River and Gobbler’s Knob, all on the way to a well-known stop at mile 175 of the highway: Coldfoot Camp.

Inside of the main building here is an Arctic oasis for truck drivers, including bathrooms, complete with options for showering, a shop with different knickknacks you might need on the road and a full-fledged restaurant serving food and drinks all day. There’s also a small corner dedicated to tourist items for sale with hoodies, postcards and other trinkets on display. Outside the main post, you’ll find a gas station, a post office, a motel-style inn and more.

Being on a tight budget, we decide to forego any of the amenities and hit the road again in search of a camping spot for the evening. This was a journey in itself, as we didn’t want to set up camp anywhere that might be remotely unsafe and most pullouts along the highway are only just off the roadway. In the end, we found an open, graveled space near Franklin Bluffs, and set up camp on the tundra, about 500 feet away from where we had another dinner of rice with beans, corn, tuna and chili sauce.

In hindsight, we would’ve done well to check the weather with any of our three meteorologists at the station, as temperatures dipped into the 20s overnight and neither of us thought to bring an all-season tent. Needless to say, we put on almost every layer of clothing we had and bundled up in our sleeping bags. A soft layer over the tundra proved to be one of the few comforts discovered at our camping spot.

Total spent: $147.50

Day 3

We woke up bright and early on our third day, with grand plans to make it to Deadhorse and possibly a shuttle from there to the Arctic Ocean. On our way there, we saw a team of oxen and several herds of caribou, with a few that even crossed the road right next to our car!

Having traveled most of the highway already, we quickly arrived safe and sound to the town at the end of the road, a place originally designed as support for the nearby Prudhoe Bay oil fields and still very much focused on that purpose. The only thing anyone in Deadhorse suggested we do — outside of the Arctic Ocean shuttles — was visit Colleen Lake, which marks the northern end of the Dalton Highway.

Deadhorse, Alaska, was our main destination for this year's road trip. June 2020 photo by Beth...
Deadhorse, Alaska, was our main destination for this year's road trip. June 2020 photo by Beth Verge.(Beth Verge, KTUU)

As it was for most of our trip, there are few amenities available for the public in Deadhorse, with the added limitation of no access to area buildings unless you have a COVID-19 card. Even with this safety precaution, we were still thankfully able to get coffees, a bag of chips and an apple to share from a hotel in town by calling in and picking our order up before heading out. We then filled up our gas tank at a gas station in the town — which cost much more than we’d budgeted — and decided early on to try and reach Galbraith Lake for the night. This body of water and accompanying campground are located at mile 275 of the highway, known for their stellar views and a peaceful space to set up camp.

Heading out, and just outside of Deadhorse, we got a closer view of Franklin Bluffs before swinging by the private camp at Happy Valley. We visited with the host, Kyle Benson, for a short time and then returned to following the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, our constant companion, eventually stopping at a pullout to chat with several truck drivers who had pulled over there.

Around 8 p.m., with the sun still out, we made it to Galbraith and had our usual dinner of rice with canned veggies and tuna, which somehow hadn’t yet gotten too repetitive for us. We celebrated making it to the end of the highway with a can of peaches and then took a short hike up toward Gates of the Arctic National Park, which flanks the west side of the campground, before setting up camp for another night under the midnight sun.

Our third night would prove to be the most restful, even with the sun glowing brightly throughout the night.

Total spent: $217.50

View near Galbraith Lake off the Dalton Highway. June 2020 photo by Beth Verge.
View near Galbraith Lake off the Dalton Highway. June 2020 photo by Beth Verge.(Beth Verge)

Day 4

We made it a mission to at least attempt to catch some of our own food on the trip and started Day 4 by casting our lines into Galbraith Lake, which is all that remains of a large glacial lake that once occupied the entire Atigun Valley, according to the BLM. The lake is said to be home to Arctic grayling, Dolly Varden, trout, burbot and whitefish. The Department of Fish and Game even says 10- to 12-inch trout can be found here, though we went back to our campsite without any fresh-caught food.

We also found our back tire going flat, which meant we would indeed have to use one of the spare tires we’d brought. That little endeavor took a bit longer than it should have but resulted in a fresh tire being fully functional for our drive back, which included a rainy, foggy drive through the treacherous but beautiful Atigun Pass.

Sean Maguire changes a tire at a campground off the Dalton Highway. June 2020 photo by Beth...
Sean Maguire changes a tire at a campground off the Dalton Highway. June 2020 photo by Beth Verge.(KTUU)

After a short side cruise through Wiseman, we stopped again at Coldfoot and with a little more room in our budget — after not being able to take a shuttle to the ocean — we decided a dinner different from the past three days would be well worth the cost. Each of us splurged on a burger, fries and a soda, as well as a shared side of chicken fingers.

Heavy storms began moving in, but we wanted to check out Marion Campground, so we backtracked up the highway a bit before heading south again and stopping at Finger Mountain. Between regulations, safety and comfort, none of the areas seemed quite right for camping, and the campground we’d originally planned on using was fully booked by wildland firefighters working on a blaze just off the highway.

So, in the end, it was the Yukon River that called us back. Paul, one of the workers there, ended up offering a heavy-duty Arctic Oven tent to us. He said he wanted to help travelers the same way he’d been helped on some of his recent journeys. Lucky us!

Total spent: $325.00

Day 5

The last and final day of our road trip to Deadhorse and back started on the edge of the Yukon River. We woke up, packed up, had a quick coffee thanks to instant mix and our camping stove, and were on our way.

From the Yukon River, we headed straight for Fairbanks, with several stops before the Golden Heart City. We pulled over for more shots of the pipeline, video of some of the gnarly frost heaves that left major dips in the road, and our last few photos with the famed highway sign. We also finally learned what the white powder being laid down on the dirt road was for: a mix of calcium chloride and magnesium is put down on the road every so often to assist with maintaining the road, controlling dust and helping with stabilization.

In Fairbanks, we decided to fill up the gas tank one last time and even got to grab some snacks since we had some room left in the budget. Our drive from Fairbanks back to Anchorage took a bit less than 6.5 hours. Needless to say, after we unpacked and wiped down our very muddied car, hot showers and a good night’s sleep at home brought us back to life!

Total spent: $367.77

A rainbow is seen along the Dalton Highway on the way back to Fairbanks, Alaska. June 2020...
A rainbow is seen along the Dalton Highway on the way back to Fairbanks, Alaska. June 2020 photo by Beth Verge.(KTUU)

Wrap-up

In the end, driving the Dalton Highway was not only an amazing experience, but it turned out to be a relatively affordable one, too. We made it up the highway and back in fewer than five days, spending less than $400 for food, gas and other incidentals: Our total tally was $367.77 when we rolled back into the station parking lot on Day 5. Keep in mind, this was without a visit to the Arctic Ocean — which was our original plan — and with a big meal in Coldfoot on our way back south.

Are you going to try the drive to Deadhorse? You can check out this guide from the Bureau of Land Management for more advice on tackling the historic highway. Send us an email with your photos if you do and safe travels!

Check out all the segments from the 2020 edition of RoadTrippin’, A Summer to Ourselves, on the RoadTrippin’ section of the Alaska’s News Source website.

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