The Dalton Highway, running for over 400 miles from the Alaskan Interior to the North Slope, is one of Alaska’s most famous roads. Originally built as a supply road connecting Fairbanks with the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, it has since become a famous tourist attraction due to the scenic views it offers of Alaska’s terrain, as well as for the sights it offers of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, one of Alaska’s most important landmarks. It is also popular among those who wish to visit the Arctic Circle, which intersects the northernmost portion of the road.
While heavily used by truckers and tourists, the Dalton Highway is known for being difficult to traverse and dangerous to unprepared motorists. This is a guide to some of the sights along the Dalton Highway and how to stay safe when driving it.
Tourist Attractions of the Dalton Highway
The Dalton Highway runs for 414 miles from Livengood, a small town north of Fairbanks, in the south to Deadhorse in the north. It is known for its extreme isolation, with only a small number of sparsely-populated settlements along its length. Tourists who visit the Dalton Highway do so with an eye to take in the natural wonders it passes through and near.
Perhaps the most famous tourist attraction on the Dalton Highway is the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Constructed between 1974 and 1977 in parallel with the Dalton Highway, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is one of the longest oil pipelines in the world, connecting the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay with the port city of Valdez on Alaska’s Pacific coast. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is a ubiquitous sight along the Dalton Highway and can be seen virtually anywhere along its length.
Located midway between Fairbanks and the Brooks Mountain Range, the E.L. Patton Yukon River Bridge is a common stop for tourists and truckers, offering spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. The only bridge in Alaska that crosses the Yukon River, one of the longest rivers in North America, it was constructed as part of the Dalton Highway and Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. The Yukon River Bridge is also one of the few locations on the highway that offers fuel.
86-Mile Overlook is a common stopping point for tourists, allowing them to take in views of the nearby Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Ten miles north of 86-Mile Overlook is Finger Rock, an oddly-shaped rock long-used by bush pilots for navigation because it points southwards towards Fairbanks. The nearby Finger Mountain Wayside offers a rest stop and a short trail leading to the summit of Finger Mountain.
North of here is the Arctic Circle Signpost, one of the most famous attractions along the Dalton Highway. The sign is located at coordinates N 66 33’W 150 48, the southernmost limit of the Arctic Circle, and signifies to travelers that they have passed into the Arctic. The Arctic Circle Signpost is a common stopping point for tourists to take pictures proving that they have made the long journey to the northernmost region of the world.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was built with nearly 600 animal crossings, allowing wildlife to roam freely without being disturbed by the highway or pipeline system. One of the famous is located at mile 158, and motorists here can often gander at caribou and other animals going about their daily lives. Near this animal crossing, you can find the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center, which offers museum exhibits and information about Alaska.
At the midpoint of the Dalton Highway are the towns of Coldfoot and Wiseman, the only villages located along the highway’s route. Originally founded as gold mining towns, Coldfoot and Wiseman offer services to travelers, including fuel, food, and accommodation. Both towns feature historic buildings preserved from the days of the gold mining boom.
North of Wiseman, you’ll pass the “tree line,” a visible marker of your journey to the Arctic. Due to extreme weather conditions and thick permafrost, trees cannot grow in much of the Arctic Circle, meaning that as you travel north, you will gradually see forests thin out until they disappear entirely. Until recently, a milepost in this location marked the “tree line,” the part of the Earth where trees can no longer grow, and offers a stark contrast to the sights further south.
North of the tree line, you will pass through Atigun Pass Summit, notable as it represents one of the continental divides of North America. Rivers south of Atigun Pass Summit drain into the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean, while rivers north of it drain into the Arctic Ocean. North of this summit, the permafrost also grows deeper, up to 2,000 feet in some places.
At mile 245, you’ll be able to see an avalanche gun, an important tool in keeping the Dalton Highway open year-round. Avalanches are a serious threat to the safety of motorists and can shut down the highway for weeks at a time, so the Alaska Department of Transportation uses avalanche guns to keep avalanches from reaching the highway.
Finally, at the northern terminus of the Dalton Highway, you’ll arrive at the town of Deadhorse, which houses workers at the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Most of Deadhorse’s roads are privately owned and off-limits to outsiders, but tours are available to outsiders, allowing them to see the oil facilities, Arctic Ocean, and surrounding landscape.
Driving the Dalton Highway is considered challenging due to its primitive condition, adverse weather conditions, steep grades, and lack of human habitation. Due to the presence of permafrost, much of the highway is gravel. Additionally, Coldfoot, Wiseman, and the Yukon River Bridge are the only places where travelers can refuel and access services, and medical facilities are only available in Fairbanks and Deadhorse. Motorists are encouraged to bring survival gear, wear comfortable, multi-layered clothing, and drive safely. Motorists are also required by law to drive with their headlights on at all times, even during the day.
The Dalton Highway’s isolation, primitive construction, and harsh climate make it one of the most difficult roads in the U.S. to cross, but this does not stop tourists from traversing it every year, taking in some of the most unique sights Alaska has to offer. With proper preparation and careful driving, your visit to the Dalton Highway can be one of the most memorable experiences of your life.