Driving the Dalton Highway
Over the day and a half we spent in Fairbanks, the smoke cleared, the jeep was washed, and we relaxed a little. We decided we would continue north rather than turn around and go back to Denali. The Dalton Highway was probably the exact opposite experience we had in Denali and we were looking forward to it.
As usual, we got a late start. But we made it out of Fairbanks and onto the Elliot Highway, the connection between Fairbanks and Manley Hot Springs and the Dalton.
The Elliott Highway is a beautiful drive. It has bumps and frost heaves and gravel parts but for the most part, it is pretty fast. At mile 32 we started seeing signs for firefighters and the sky got darker and dreary. And then smoke. The smoke wasn’t as bad as Fairbanks but, since we hadn’t heard anything about fires up this way, we were a little apprehensive. (Hindsight – turns out the Elliott had been closed for a while at MM 34 because the fire had jumped the road).
We passed through the fire area without problem and found the Dalton Highway.
The Dalton Highway is considered one of the most remote roads in North America. It is also considered dangerous. Everyone attempting to travel on it is encouraged to have two spare tires, plenty of gas and food, and plenty of time. We had two out of the three and figured Meatloaf would approve. We decided to take the RV as far as we could and use the jeep from there.
The Dalton highway is listed as having pavement, gravel, and chip seal. I’m not sure if I actually saw any chip seal, but that might be what they call hard packed dirt. They also don’t mention the miles of dirt road which can be the most treacherous when it rains. Where ever there is a transition from one type to another, expect a rough ride. The worst was where pavement had eroded and been replaced by gravel. The longer ago the gravel had been placed, the deeper the hole where the pavement ended. New gravel was almost always a joy compared to the alternatives. It hadn’t yet washboarded and one could make fairly quick time. Of the longer stretches, the worst was the ‘chip seal’ packed dirt that hadn’t been redone in a few years. One could find a variation of potholes, washboards, grooves, and pockmarks. The pockmarks, hundreds of shallow depressions all over the road, would often go on for miles and could rattle teeth out.
Of all the miles of road on the Dalton, the worst is the first 30 miles. We covered it at an average of about 25 miles per hour. We talked to a motorcyclist on the road and he agreed. He, like us, almost turned back before 30 miles because the road was so treacherous and unforgiving. I’m pretty sure the state of Alaska allows that part to remain so bad to discourage people from continuing on the road. But honestly, once you pass that part, the road gets better and better.
Immediately on the right after crossing the Yukon River Bridge there is a tourist information area and a large parking lot. While overnighting in the parking lot is not allowed, the couple in the office have a lot of information. And a bathroom if you need it. Based on their local knowledge and assurance, we decided to continue on with The Short Bus into Coldfoot. We also picked up a brochure listing the highlights of the Dalton Highway and two certificates for crossing the Arctic Circle.
Across the road is Yukon River Camp, a place to get gas ($5.50/gal), food, and lodging if you need it. We didn’t, so we continued five miles north to 60 Mile Campground to spend the night. The campground is a large open area with some picnic tables, fire rings, and a great view. The campground also plays host to an artisan well from which fresh water tanks can be filled and the only public dump station on the Dalton. About 100 yards from the campground is The Hot Spot Cafe, a restaurant, gift shop, outpost. The owner is interesting, the food is good, and the prices, all things considered, are great.
It was very quiet in the middle of nowhere and with only five other rigs (a car, 2 truck campers, a B and a C), we had a good night sleep. So good, in fact, we didn’t wake up until almost 10AM the next morning. We quickly got ready and resumed our passage north.
For the most part, the road was improved from the previous day, at least as far as surface went. However, we were entering the “Rollercoaster” a long section of PUDs (pointless ups and downs) with grades up to 12%.
We stopped for a short break at mile 98 – Finger Mountain Wayside. The wayside is on a high spot with a lot of interesting rock formations and a short informative walking trail.
We continued on to the Arctic Circle where we had lunch and posed the bus for pictures.
We checked out the campground but it wasn’t that great and we still had hours of daylight left. We had only gone 60 miles (about three hours) and so we pushed on.
We stopped at Gobblers Knob to take in the view.
We continued on and passed rivers and meadows and hills.
The sky began to darken and cloud over and finally to drop rain as we approached Coldfoot.
We passed by Coldfoot to find a campsite at Marion Creek Campground, a developed BLM campground with beautiful surroundings in the foothills of the Brooks Range. For $8 per night, we got a 100 foot long mostly private campsite with a fire pit and a picnic table. The sites are well built-up from the tundra, about 3 feet of packed gravel, and have flowers, trees, and bushes between sites.
We settled in for a bit, shaking off the highway dust, then got hungry. We headed into Coldfoot. We checked out the really great Visitor Center (a must do if you want information for heading north) and then went to the Camp. While the buildings and the setting are nothing to write home about, the food was. Considering how far we were from ‘civilization,’ the food was exceptionally good. It was also very well priced: dinner was an all you can eat buffet for $21.95. While that may not seem remarkable, the buffet included a well-stocked salad bar, slow cooked steak, ahi tuna, roasted mushrooms and potatoes, sauteed brussel sprouts and green beans, and three kinds of dessert with soda to wash it all down. And it was all very fresh. It was probably one of the best meals I ate so far in Alaska and I hate buffets.
After stuffing ourselves beyond what our pants could hold, we rolled on back to camp for a good night’s sleep.