The James Dalton Highway is a 414-mile gravel road.
It heads straight north from the Livengood turnoff of the Elliott Highway (which is 70 miles north of Fairbanks), through arctic tundra to the farthest north reaches of Alaska.
Alyeska built the 360-mile haul road, now known as the Dalton Highway, from the Yukon River to Prudhoe Bay, for $150 million to supply the oil facilities on the North Slope. The pipeline bridge across the 1,875 mile Yukon River is the only span across that river in Alaska.
The road's northern 360 miles, beginning at the Yukon River, were built in just five months in 1974 using 32 million cubic yards of gravel. The pipeline parallels the highway most of the trip north.
But this is not a road for the faint of heart, or those with a brand-new vehicle! It is still the main supply route for the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, and you will be sharing the road with large tractor-trailers. Windshields and headlights are easy targets of flying rocks. Most rental companies will not allow you to drive their cars on the Dalton. Trucks speeding along the slippery gravel track kick up thick clouds of dust or mud, reducing visibility to absolute zero; potholes take a heavy toll on cars and services, gas, and repairs are practically nonexistent. Don't even consider driving the Dalton unless you have 4-wheel drive, a CB radio, extra fuel, food, tires, and a trunk filled with supplies. This is grizzly country, so when camping, keep a clean campsite, storing food at least a quarter mile from where you sleep.
Driving Haul Road Yourself
Permits to travel north were once required, but have not been since 1995.
If you do decide to travel the road yourself, be aware that semi-truck drivers can't stop their rigs quickly and often must accelerate downhill to gain momentum. Yield to these big rigs at all times, especially going over narrow bridges that often only accommodate one vehicle at a time. Also, you need to keep your lights on, avoid stopping or slowing suddenly if a semi-truck is nearby and keep the CB--if you have one--turned to Channel 19 (that's the frequency used by Dalton truckers and motorcoach drivers.)
The Bureau of Land Management staffs a log cabin visitor center (mile 56) at the Yukon River (the fifth largest river in North America) , open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Its official name if the Yukon Crossing Visitor Contact Station. The staff can fill advise you on camping, wildlife and road condition information. Gas, bathrooms, restaurant and hotel are available at Yukon Ventures.
Yukon River Tours, phone (907) 452-7162, on the north bank of the river, offers riverboat trips three times a day--morning, mid-day and late afternoon--for $20 per person. Reservations are not needed, but you may have to wait a few minutes. The excursions will take you to an operating Athabaskan fish camp, as well as provide opportunities to see wildlife.
At mile 86, there is a scenic overlook with a view of the oil pipeline 500 feet below. The road crosses the Arctic Circle at mile 115. This marks the latitude at which the sun just fails to rise on the year's shortest day and just fails to set on the year's longest day. There are picnic tables, barbecue pits, outhouses and camping spots here.
The northern-most truck stop in the world is at your half-way point, mile 175, Sourdough Fuel at Coldfoot.
Editors note: In 2009, we got an email from a Norwegian trucker who had this to say:
Coldfoot reportedly got its name in 1900, when a few gold stampeders came north up the Koyukuk River but got cold feet and turned back at Slate Creek, the settlement's original name. There is a 24-hour cafe, a 50-room inn, a complete tire shop with limited mechanical and towing service, a post office, gift shop, groceries, and RV park with plug-ins and dump station.
Reservations are suggested at the hotel, called Slate Creek Inn. In addition to the 50 rooms with private baths, there is a 28-room annex with shared bath facilities. Call (907) 678-5224. The cafe number is (907) 678-5201.
A visitor center in Coldfoot is run jointly by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. It is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and features information on recreation, natural history and visitor services along the Dalton. The center also features nightly slide presentations. Call (907) 678-5209 for more information.
Beyond Coldfoot, the Dalton climbs into the Brooks Range, a northern spur of the Rocky Mountains. Marion Creek, mile 179, has a campground with outhouses, fire pits and water.
The trees become sparser until they disappear entirely at Mile 235. A few miles later, the road crests Atigun Pass, Alaska's highest divide, elevation 4,800 feet. No services are available at Atigun Pass.
The road then drops steeply to the flat, marshy North Slope. Mile 414, Prudhoe Bay is the end of the road. All services are available here, but private vehicles are restricted from entering the Prudhoe Bay oilfield, which provides access to the Arctic Ocean. The only way you will be allowed to enter these areas would be as part of an organized tour.
Touring the Dalton
You can call any of these companies - they offer a wide variety of itineraries, some turning back at the Arctic Circle, and others offering tours of Prudhoe bay, or a chance to "dip your toe in the Arctic Ocean":