Alaska Route 11, aka the James Dalton Highway, has an interesting reputation. It begins high up north in the wintery state and occupies many articles and accounts of dangerous winter driving conditions. It also has a very romantic, adventurous dimension attracting off-roaders looking to cross the frozen wasteland all the way to the Arctic Ocean.
What makes Dalton Highway one of the most dangerous roads, and how can you cross it successfully? Set in a remote, extreme environment, this 414-mile road is one of the most isolated drives you will ever take, but it can be a great driving achievement to unlock, too. Here’s an essential guide on how to successfully navigate Dalton Highway.
Dalton Highway Key Facts
The Dalton Highway runs directly parallel to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, an oil pipeline built in the mid to late 70s and one of the world’s largest. It is 414 miles long (which, spookily enough, is exactly 666 km) and only crosses three towns with extremely low population numbers: Coldfoot (population 10), Wiseman (population 22), and Deadhorse (population 25, with seasonal residents coming in depending on oil production).
Deadhorse is the endpoint of the road, a settlement mostly dedicated to oil operations in Prudhoe Bay. However, it does attract tourists as visitors who come here from Fairbanks to see the Arctic Ocean and amazing wildlife: herds of caribou, birds, and waterfowl, as well as Arctic foxes, hares, and even grizzlies can be seen here!
As far as driving on the Dalton Highway is concerned, isolation is the keyword to remember. You won’t get to fill up your tank more than three times: the E.L Paton Yukon River Bridge (mile 56), Coldfoot and Deadhorse gas stations. And, likely, you won’t see many people around in the desolate surroundings!
Prepare to cross the Dalton Highway in a Jeep to be most comfortable. It’s mostly a primitive gravel road, and it is often frozen over and risky to travel across. This is what’s earned the highway numerous appearances in shows like World’s Most Dangerous Roads and the classic Ice Road Truckers. In fact, it’s mostly trucks that make it up and down the highway regularly, hauling various cargo. They have to always have headlights on and be extremely careful along the steeper gradients (up to 12%).
Off-Road Tips and Advice
If you’re planning to drive the Dalton Highway, the main things to look out for are:
- A comfortable vehicle with good traction and low consumption levels
- Ability to drive through really adverse weather conditions, including low visibility and snow blizzards
- Ability to deal with icy, slippery conditions
- Being comfortable with your own company (or that of whoever rides with you!)
- Watch out for unexpected massive potholes and damage to the road caused by the extreme weather phenomena
- Be extra careful going past trucks that are likely to dig up stones that can shoot straight for your windscreen.
One great way to prepare for the Dalton Highway is to watch the TV shows it’s been featured on and some YouTube videos such as the one below. They will give you a good understanding of the scale of the surroundings and how that all impacts your driving.
According to the US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, there are a few key rules on Dalton Highway:
- Big trucks have the right of way
- Always drive with your headlights on for maximum visibility
- Keep your headlights and taillights clean at all times
- Stay on the right side
- Don’t stop on hills or bridges
- Slow down when passing other vehicles
You should remember that this road was built essentially for truck traffic, so it’s not friendly to leisure traffic!
Driving Conditions on Dalton Highway
Many trucks use the Dalton Highway daily despite the remote appearance, so you won’t always be alone. However, you must have a good amount of spare food, water, and a first-aid kit in your vehicle with you at all times. If you have a breakdown or any issues, the nearest medical facilities are at either end in Fairbanks and Deadhorse, so quite a way to go!
Weather is your greatest potential challenge on the Dalton Highway, as extreme temperatures and poor visibility combine to affect the safety of any crossing. Moreover, the road actually crosses the areas where the lowest temperatures in the US have been recorded.
You should expect temperatures as low as 50 F (10 C) in the summer and well below that in the winter.
When can I drive on Dalton Highway?
The road is open year-round, but sections could be closed due to work being done on the highway or inclement weather. Check the DOT Alaska website for any updates.
Do I need special permits for the Dalton Highway?
No, the road is open to anyone with a valid driving license. We strongly recommend driving in a Jeep or other sturdy off-road vehicle with plenty of storage space for supplies and a good fuel consumption ratio.
Are there any historical sightseeing spots along Dalton Highway?
Yes. You can visit active gold mining spots near Livengood, which have been around for tens of years. There are also interesting spots like the northernmost saloon in North America, in Coldfoot. Driving along the Dalton Highway, you’ll be crossing the Yukon River, the Brooks Range, and the Arctic Circle.
Also, there are many features to tick off along the way, which have been named by the truck drivers using the road. These include the Bluffs, the Shelf, the Taps, Oil Spill Hill, Avalanche Alley, Gobblers Knob, Two and a Half Mile, Beaver Slide, and the Roller Coaster.
Where can I get a good map of the facilities on Dalton Highway?
This is one of the best maps showing pump stations, stops, and other useful information about the route.
Where can I stay overnight on Dalton Highway?
The only place we would recommend stopping is Coldfoot, roughly halfway. You’ll be able to find accommodation and places to eat and drink here before braving the second half of your journey.
What makes the Dalton Highway so dangerous?
One of the key dangerous aspects of Dalton Highway is how remote it is and how far away you will be from shelter and human help if something does go wrong when you’re driving through.
Additionally, the weather makes this corner of Alaska always more difficult than most. Whether it’s extreme cold or just poor visibility, Dalton Highway has lots of weather-related challenges to throw your way.
The weather also impacts the quality of the road significantly. We’re not just talking about potholes that can appear unexpectedly because of the temperature swings. In summer, the road is treated with calcium chloride to keep the dust down, and this turns very greasy and slippery when wet. A summer rainfall will make it very tough to drive up and down the steep hills like a Roller Coaster!
Conclusion: Dalton Highway – a Lonely and Rugged Off-Road Adventure
With its tough conditions and lonely landscapes, Dalton Highway is a great off-road challenge to take on if you’re off soul searching or want to brave some extreme weather and driving conditions. The best way to prepare for driving the Dalton Highway is to get a sturdy 4×4 vehicle well-stocked with essential supplies and get ready to enjoy the eerie silence. Along the way, you’ll be treated to some amazing landscapes and special wildlife encounters. Still, you’ll also need to be prepared for some challenging climbs and for dealing with natural phenomena that threaten even the most seasoned truck drivers.
Finishing the 666 km stretch by the Arctic will be worth it, though, so buckle up!