August 25 – September 1, 2022
It was late August and almost time for us to leave Alaska and start heading south. But I had one more place I wanted to go. To Deadhorse, north of the Arctic Circle, 415 miles up the Dalton Highway as far as one can drive in North America.
In 2015 Car and Driver listed the Dalton Highway as one of the “10 Roads That Lead to the End of the Earth.” Right up there with The Darian Gap (50 miles of swamp through the lawless jungle between Panama and Columbia) and Bolivia’s “Road of Death” (this one rises to an elevation of 14,000 above sea level and has no guard rails.) The Dalton Highway, although no doubt dangerous to drive in the winter, is fine for a well-prepared traveler in the summer. It may take you to the end of the Earth but is less likely to take you to the end of your life.
I’m being overly dramatic but the Dalton Highway does come with lots of warnings for travelers. There are very few services on the highway. There are only two gas stations, spotty cell service, no medical facilities, and no groceries except for snacks. The highway is mostly unpaved and used primarily by trucks going to and from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay in Deadhorse. These trucks have right of way and oftentimes drive down the middle of the lane. The pipeline to Valdez runs overland in most places right along the highway.
Despite all that, of course, I still wanted to go. Why? I love traveling routes like this, especially the road less traveled (some sources say only an estimate of 5% of tourists go to the Arctic Circle in Alaska, and even fewer travel all the way to Deadhorse). Because I was curious about the pipeline – it follows the road overland for many miles alongside the highway. And finally, the biggest reason, the promise of wildlife! Although my tourist guide mentioned some animals we didn’t see like, bears, moose, and Dall Sheep, we were bowled over by what we did see.
Our adventure started in Fairbanks. After visiting Denali we went to Alaska’s second-largest city to meet up with our friend Gehn, provision up for our Dalton Highway trip, see the sights, and hopefully get my camera fixed.
We found a hole-in-the-wall camera repair store. This guy looked like he knew what he was doing. The cramped little office was packed with cameras and parts. He was super nice but shook his head and said that water damage is a killer for digital cameras and he wouldn’t be able to help.
Plan B was to buy a new camera. The only option in town was Walmart and their selection was poor. I bought the one camera they had with the longest lens. I tried it out the next day at a Sandhill Crane preserve. It failed the test of being my new wildlife camera. We returned it. I’d have to make do with my little point-and-shoot.
We enjoyed Fairbanks while we were there. It seemed like just a nice normal city. It didn’t sit on a great body of water and wasn’t a long drive out to the middle of nowhere. We ate out, walked around, and visited the Morris Thompson Visitor and Cultural Center.
Day One – The Eliott Highway
To get to the Dalton Highway, you first drive 85 miles north out of Fairbanks on Elliott Highway. We left Fairbanks in the afternoon and made the first day of our journey a short one. I had used Google Satellite and a BLM map to scout out possible boondocking spots off the highway. But each one we turned down seemed a little too tucked into the woods and perhaps a tad bit sketchy. We were still too close to civilization. So we headed on to a nice wide-open hiking trailhead and settled there for the night.
I must have been driving because there are no pictures for this day.
Day Two – The Arctic Circle
We might have hiked the next morning but woke up to rain so we hit the road. Soon we would turn off the Elliott and continue north onto the Dalton Highway. Day two’s destination was the Arctic Circle. Very few people venture this far north in their own vehicles in Alaska. But there are plenty of tours that will drive you up for the day from Fairbanks. We arrived at the same time one of these tours did. A group of people unloaded from an old white passenger van. Their guide rolled out a red carpet and shook each one’s hand as they strode across the carpet and the unmarked line of the Arctic Circle. We struck up a conversation with a few of the tourists and when their guide passed out homemade cake he gave us some too. Don’t you love the idea of going all the way to the Arctic Circle for free cake?!
We spent that night in the BLM Arctic Circle Campground. That evening we spotted our first wildlife! Out in a clearing, maybe 25 yards from the van sat we saw a Lynx. He just sat there for the longest time, grooming himself, looking around, just being a cat. Darn my broken camera!
Day Three – Through The Brooks Range to Galbraith Lake
The next day we stopped in Coldfoot (175 miles north on the Dalton Highway and 259 miles north of Fairbanks) to refuel and visit the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center. At $7.49 a gallon gas was not cheap! But it was our only option if we wanted to keep going and by this point even if we had wanted to turn around. With a population of about 40, Coldfoot is also home to a restaurant and some overnight accommodations.
The Visitor Center was very good with displays about local wildlife, the pipeline, the Arctic Circle, and the Aurora Borealis, among other things. But the best part of the visitor center was the movies. There were three different ones you could request to see in the center’s theater. We watched one on the way north and another when we stopped again on the way south. Of the two the one about the pipeline was the most interesting and informative. I think it was produced by PBS. It documented the pipeline from its conception until its completion showing all sides (pro and con) and focused a lot on the people who made it happen at every level. Here is a link to a page on PBS about the video that I think we watched. I highly recommend it.
After our stop to get gas, we continued up the road. The terrain changed from forest to tundra and all the trees disappeared. We were heading for the Brooks Range and Atigun Pass. After the pass, it would just be flat tundra as far as we could see – not really exciting as far as the landscape but this is where we hoped to find some wildlife!
Before we made it to the pass we picked up a couple of hitchhikers, a father and son duo from Germany. They were in Alaska on vacation with the family but decided to do a little side adventure backpacking and camping up the Dalton Highway.
Once over the pass, we let our passengers off along a river where they were going to hike to a sheltered place for the night. We headed on to a free BLM campground at Galbraith Lake.
Day Four – To Deadhorse & Turn Around
This was our day to see wildlife! Our friend, Gehn had told us we could find Musk Ox around pump station three. And wow, there they were, in the middle of the road! I even got some ok pictures with my point-and-shoot camera. After we gawked for a while, we headed further up the road, where we saw Caribou.
By late afternoon we hit Deadhorse, end of the line, 414 north on the Dalton Highway, 498 miles from Fairbanks. We were almost at the Arctic Ocean but the only way to see this body of water is to go on a pricy bus tour. Seeing the wildlife and the landscape was enough for us. We fueled up at the only gas station, $8.019 a gallon, and headed south.
It was late so we didn’t travel far. We parked a nice flat spot for the night at the Last Chance Wayside. We found a few government and university science experiments at the wayside. That night I saw a white-tailed fox run past the van. We were 240 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was too late in the season for the midnight sun but even though the sky grew dark and the sun did set, the sun’s waning glow never completely disappeared. When I woke up in the middle of the night a bright orange band sat on the horizon.
Day Five – Back to the Arctic Circle
Back across the tundra, through the Brooks Range, into the forest again, we retraced our steps. Once again we had to stop to refuel in Coldfoot. We stopped at the visitor center to see another movie and took some time to have lunch at the restaurant. We ended our day once again at the Arctic Circle Campground.
Day Six – Finger Mountain & We’re Done
Due to rainy cold weather, we skipped Finger Mountain on our way north. It was gloomy but not rainy when we encountered it again so we stopped and did a little hike before heading back to the Elliott Highway and Fairbanks. We had done the Dalton Highway and Ballena Blanca was covered with Arctic dirt to prove it.
This concludes our Alaskan adventure. I’m super happy that I was able to get all of these stories documented. Alaska is an amazingly beautiful place with lots of opportunities for adventure and new experiences. People like to ask us if we are ready to move to Alaska. No, unfortunately for us, we found a lot of grey skies and rain. Bad luck, maybe? But still, we made the best of our month and a half traveling around. We had beautiful weather for our kayak in Portage Lake, and for our trek on Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, We made the best of a rainy day in Hope and came away with an interesting story, the clouds added to an eerie feeling at Independence Mine, and despite the gloom, we had an amazing wildlife show in Valdez and became part of the 30% club to see Denali Peak.
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