RoadTrippin’ Alaska: The long haul to Prudhoe Bay

 The Dalton Highway extends north from Fairbanks to the North Slope of Alaska. (KTUU)
The Dalton Highway extends north from Fairbanks to the North Slope of Alaska. (KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Jun. 19, 2018 at 12:59 PM AKDT
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As far as highways go, this one is certainly among the roads less traveled. Alaska’s legendary Dalton Highway stretches more than 400 miles across the state’s vast Arctic wilderness, crossing rivers and traversing whole mountain ranges on its long journey to Prudhoe Bay.

Named after renowned Arctic Engineer James W. Dalton, the road was built in 1974 to help with the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Today, hundreds of trucks use it daily to bring supplies and heavy equipment to Alaska’s oil and gas fields, which is why it’s still sometimes referred to by its original name: the North Slope Haul Road.

It’s an apt title. The road is mostly gravel-surfaced and the sections that are paved tend to be riddled with potholes that are difficult to avoid. The highway has a formidable reputation for smashing windscreens and shredding tires, which is why travelers are encouraged to bring not one, but two spares.

But perhaps the most daunting aspect of a trip along the Dalton Highway is its remoteness. Gas stations and repair services are extremely limited and cell phone coverage is almost non-existent. Along most of the road, the only signs of civilization you’ll see are the fenced-off TAPS pump stations and DOT maintenance facilities. Until the early 1980s, most of the road was reserved for truckers, and public traffic was permitted only as far as milepost 56.

That’s where the Dalton Highway and the pipeline cross the mighty Yukon River via another marvel of engineering: the Edward Patton Bridge. Unlike most bridges, the Patton Bridge’s wooden surface crosses the Yukon at a rather steep 6 percent grade.

On the far side, visitors will find the Yukon River Camp, one of just two places along the Dalton Highway that offers gas and some services. Jeffery Groenke, one of the employees there, says they very often see drivers come ill-prepared for the arduous journey to Prudhoe Bay.

“This stretch on the Dalton Highway is the longest stretch along the entire Pan-American Highway where you don't encounter small towns, small villages. It's just mostly devoid of any resources,” Groenke said. “Many people don't think they’ll need a spare tire or even two spare tires. Most frequently the people who get stranded get two flats in the same day.”

Still, the Dalton’s many challenges have not dissuaded a growing number of tourists from passing through, both in the summer and the winter, when temperatures have been known to plummet as low as negative 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Most recently, businesses along the Dalton Highway have noticed a surge in tourists from China who come to Alaska to see the spectacular aurora borealis from above the Arctic Circle.

In fact, the Yukon River Camp has been getting so many Chinese visitors lately that it's had to amass a large stockpile of Chinese noodles to cater to the new clientele. Dozens of boxes lined the wall of the café’s gift shop when we stopped by.

Even in the summer, when the aurora is hidden by 24 hours of sunlight, the Arctic Circle is a popular destination for tourists. Tour groups based in Fairbanks offer day trips to a small pullout on the side of the road at mile 115 where a large sign marks the crossing.

From there the road twists and winds through scenery that would make even Ansel Adams envious before passing through the small community of Coldfoot, our final stop for the day.