Coloring the Void

living nomadically

Archive for the tag “Dalton Highway”

Return from the Dalton

The return trip on the Dalton Highway was pretty uneventful. We could make faster time because we knew the roads and in the 2.5 days we were north, some road repairs were made.

Dalton Highway

South on the Dalton

There was a slight pucker factor when we saw this in our windshield:

Dalton Hwy

One of the hills on the Dalton

We didn’t remember anything this steep on the way in. We took as much of a running start as we could and hit the top at a respectable speed of about 25 MPH.

The view on the other side:

Dalton Highway

Dalton Highway

In places where there had been old gravel patches in the asphalt with tire killer transitions, new gravel had been added and the road smoothed. In places where the chip seal/dirt was deeply pockmarked and potholed, grading had been done.

Dalton

See, there is dirt on the Dalton – road crew grading the surface

Sometimes those road crews work really fast! And then we hit it – an area that was being freshly graded. It wouldn’t have been so bad had it been a flat straight away or if we didn’t weigh 26,000 lbs, or if we hadn’t had to slow when a truck passed the other way. Our guess is that when the crews grade the dirt, they first wet it down. A lot. Then they drag it repeatedly to get the dirt churned up and soft enough to roll. Then they add calcium chloride as a kind of binding, stabilizing agent. And then they roll it all flat. We hit an 8% grade up after they wet it and dragged it but before they rolled it.

Anyone who has driven a lot in snow knows the tipping point: the moment when weight and gravity overcome forward momentum on a slippery surface and one begins to slide backwards while going forwards. If lucky, forward movement is faster than backward movement, at least long enough to crest the hill. We hit that moment, just short of the crest of the hill. Creeping along at 10 MPH, though the gas pedal was to the floor, we crested the hill just as we slid back.

We were extremely thankful and continued carefully to 60 Mile Camp where we could assess the damage.

Yuck! Mud was caked everywhere. I really wish I had taken pictures because words can’t describe the amount of mud. We couldn’t see the headlights or foglights of the jeep; it was as if the entire front end was one solid mass of oozy ick. Just imagine a 2-4 inch thick blanket of mud thrown over it (people pay a lot to do that to themselves). My bike on the back was unidentifiable – it could have been a kayak. In each Short Bus compartment, 4 inches of mud was caked on the bottoms of the door where it met the frame. Mud had worked its way into the sewer drain compartment and the propane compartment as both had openings to the ground below. The wheel wells, exhaust, frame, bumpers, everything was covered in pounds of mud. We do a lot of off roading and have been known to take a turn through the mud just for fun but we had just never experienced it on this scale. It was probably due to the size of the Short Bus – we must have knocked about 500 lbs of mud off the vehicles in that parking lot. But, we lived to tell about it and now we can check one other bucket list item off (okay, mudding in our RV was not on our bucket list but it was something we accomplished so…).

We had a decent night’s sleep (the sun sets for about an hour before it rises again) and continued the last 60 miles of the Dalton.

Yukon River

the Yukon River

Yukon River Bridge

Yukon River Bridge on the Dalton

It started to rain when we had about ten miles left on the Dalton. As we had done many times on this trip, we repeated our mantra, “I think I can, I think I can.”

Dalton Highway

Dalton Highway – we kept running into the red and white German plated class C but we never got a chance to talk to them.

We made it off the Dalton and onto the Elliott. The rain eased up and we had an easy trip back down to Fairbanks through the fire zone and into the city.

bb4 bb5Notes on the Dalton Highway

We read all the scare stories about how horrible it was, how one needed extra gas cans, two spare tires, various other parts, etc. but we also read of other RVers who had done it. One in particular was extremely helpful: FulltimeUSA. I took my inspiration from him, though he no longer blogs. We didn’t carry gas cans. We had a spare for the jeep but none for the RV. We have a spare air filter for the RV and various tools and duct tape, but that is about it.

We had plenty of time.  We could go as slow as we needed to as we didn’t have any schedule to keep. This was probably our smartest move as too many people drive too fast. That is how one blows a tire or loses a windshield. Since we didn’t feel any pressure to get from point A to point B, or any pressure to even drive the Dalton, we had a much better, safer experience.

We watched the far off road as much as we did the road immediately in front of us. On the Dalton, one can see for miles. If we saw a semi behind us, we prepared for him to pass us: we slowed down and either found a very wide spot or even a pull off. It slowed us down but it was safer for both us and the trucker as typically, they were going significantly faster than we were. If we saw a semi coming towards us, we slowed down and moved as far over as we could. Slowing down probably saved our windshield – we were hit by quite a few rocks but we suffered no damage. If we were going to meet a semi on a hill, and he/she was going down, we got out of their way. With the narrowness of the road in most places, combined with the unevenness of the road surface, we were worried they might bounce right into us. While we had a few close calls, we came out without a scratch.

There are way more motorcycles on the Dalton than one would expect; from our discussions with bikers, it seems to be a bucket list item, much like it is for everyone else. We slowed down when passing them the other way, more for their safety than ours. If a rock can break a windshield imagine what it can do to a human body.

There were plenty of other RVs on the Dalton though we saw few trailers or fifth wheels. We only saw one other Class A but plenty of Bs and Cs and dozens of truck campers. Just from experience, the smaller you are the easier it is.

I guess the gist is: we went slow. We did about 680 miles on the Dalton and had absolutely no damage (other than the mud) to either of our vehicles. Going slow also gave us more time to enjoy the ride. And we did. Would we do it again? Probably.  But we would wait until the end of August to see the changes fall brings.

North of Coldfoot on the Dalton

We packed up our jeep with all the essentials – lunch, bug spray, water, and Belle. It was a beautiful day and the temperature was already in the 60s. We headed north on what had to be the best road in Alaska. We hadn’t believed the owner of the Hot Spot Cafe when she told us that but she was right; for 30 miles the pavement was the smoothest we had seen so far. The dirt/chip seal after that was also very good – it must have been done within the last year. We managed to make very good time heading north.

Brooks Range

Approaching the Brooks Range

We passed the “Farthest North Spruce” which no longer existed due to vandals, and the few straggling spruce that managed to grow just beyond that. The clouds gathered. As far as we know, there are always clouds over the Brooks Range. The mountains seem to suck up and trap all moisture for miles.

We had been worried about Atigun Pass and the stories of its dangerousness; it was why we didn’t take the RV further north. Well, it wasn’t as bad as we thought, at least in the jeep. We were the only ones in it on the trip up and so, other than the threat of rain, the passage was uneventful.  It was beautiful though.

Pipeline

The pipeline running through the Brooks Range

The Alaska Pipeline is a constant companion on a run up the Dalton but north of Coldfoot, it is almost always in sight of the road and takes a prominent position in the landscape.

Arctic Tundra

Arctic Tundra

We got our first views of arctic tundra. We continued north, through construction, just taking in the views. With an up and back route, we tend to go to our ‘destination’ making our stops on the passenger side of the road, leaving the other side for the return trip. This gives us a gauge of how much time we will need on the way back.

Our ‘do or die’ spot was Happy Valley Camp. When we reached there, we would have to decide if we would go all the Deadhorse or turn around – we needed to make sure we had enough gas for the return trip. It was 2PM when we reached Happy Valley. It had taken us about five hours to get there, with a lunch break. We decided to turn around.

We took some time to enjoy the view and wander around before turning back south.

Sag River

The Sag River at Happy Valley Camp

There was one five mile stretch of road where fireweed grew with an unimaginable abundance on one side of the Dalton. The color was so vibrant, if I stared too long,  green splotches clouded my vision.

Fireweed

Fireweed along the Dalton

jeep

The jeep on the Dalton

One thing the Dalton has is a lot of truck traffic relative to its traffic in general. And much of that traffic is wide loads. The Dalton, for the most part, is 28′ wide. In most parts, that includes the shoulder even if it is slanted down into a ditch. Twice, we ran into 21′ loads.

wide load

a 21′ wide truck on the 28′ wide Dalton

Luckily, for this one, we were in a very, very wide part of the road – it had just been redone so it was also smooth. The second time, the shoulder into the ditch wasn’t so slanted and soft so we were able to hide out there, as the road wasn’t wide enough for both of us. The pilot cars of the extremely wide loads called us on the CB (yes, we bought a CB just for this) to give us a chance to find a place to stop. It probably would have been a problem had we been in the Short Bus; chances are it would have rolled right off the highway at that slant.

pilot car

Pilot car through construction

The return trip through the construction zone was a little slower this time – about a 45 minute wait. We talked to the motorcycle guy we would run into two more times later. He also made the trip from Key West to the Arctic though he took three and a half weeks to do it instead of nine months like we did. He decided the Dalton did him in and, when he got back to Fairbanks, he would ship the bike back. I think a lot of that had to do with the 500 mile days he had to do to get there that quickly.

Nearing the Brooks Range, the clouds began to gather again.

the Dalton

The Dalton

The Dalton

The Dalton

The Pipeline was almost always in the landscape. But, without the pipeline, the Dalton wouldn’t exist, and vice versa.

pipeline

Gathering clouds and the ever present pipeline

mountains

mountains

As we started into the pass, it began to rain. Not too hard but enough to have us worry about road conditions – we didn’t know how long it had been raining. The pass was mostly uneventful, save for the speeding semi on the wrong side of the road. We missed him and he missed us, so we consider it a success.

Brooks Range

Rain in Atigun Pass

view

The view in Atigun Pass

The Dalton

Cutting through the mountains at Atigun Pass

overlook

An overlook with a view

Brooks Range

Landscape of the Brooks Range

Dalton

Out of the mountains and into the foothills and the land of trees

j20

Skukakpak Mountain

j21

Dalton Highway

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River along the Dalton

j23

The beautiful blue of the Middle Fork of the Kuyakuk River.

We thought about taking the side road to Wiseman but it was late, we were hungry, and I’m pretty sure Belle had had enough. She endured the drive like a champ but was getting restless in her kennel in the back seat.

We returned to camp, fed Belle, and then headed back to Coldfoot Camp.  I really needed a beer and Mike wanted to hit the buffet again. The beer was excellent (Silver Gulch Copper Creek Amber), just what I needed to get the dirt out of my throat.  The buffet was again very good – Ahi tuna, beef shish kabob, pizza, veggies, a salad bar, and more heavenly desserts. We again ate too much then toddled back to camp tired.

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).

Elliott Highway

Fire on the Elliott Highway

Elliott Highway

Recent burn on the Elliott Highway

We passed through the fire area without problem and found the Dalton Highway.

Dalton highway

Welcome to 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.

Dalton

The ‘chip seal’ of the Dalton

Dalton

The winding road of the Dalton. Here, paved for a while.

dalton4

More paved Dalton – high pass views.

Dalton meets Yukon

The Dalton Highway approaching the Yukon River.

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%.

Dalton

One of the PUDs in the rollercoaster, a section of the Dalton Highway

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.

Finger Mountain Wayside

The Short Bus at Finger Mountain Wayside – lots of smoke lingering in the air.

Finger Mountain

Finger Mountain Interpretive Trail

Finger Mountain

Finger Mountain

We continued on to the Arctic Circle where we had lunch and posed the bus for pictures.

Arctic Circle

The Short Bus at the Arctic Circle. She has made it from the Keys to the Arctic in less than a year.

Arctic Circle Sign

The back of the sign where people sign their names.

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.

Gobbler's Knob

Gobbler’s Knob. The far off mountains are the Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park.

We continued on and passed rivers and meadows and hills.

River

A River along the Dalton

The sky began to darken and cloud over and finally to drop rain as we approached Coldfoot.

Dalton

Approaching the Brooks Range and 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.

Marion Creek Campsite

Campsite at Marion Creek Campground on the Dalton Highway

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.

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