There's a road in Alaska that deserves its own chapter in the Guinness Book of World Records. It's called the Dalton Highway. It's the only road in the United States that goes all the way to the Arctic Ocean. It has the longest stretch of highway in America without any services. It's a gateway to some of the most vast and remote wilderness anywhere.
The road can be so rough that many car rental companies won't even allow you to take their cars on it. It's a road we just had to take. The Dalton Highway begins about 80 miles north of Fairbanks and it stretches more than 400 miles, crossing the mountains of the Brooks Range and descending to the Prudhoe Bay community of Deadhorse, at the edge of North America. The highway was built in the 1970's to service the Trans Alaska Pipeline. It wasn't completely opened to the public until 1994.
In the course of driving the Dalton Highway up and back, we'll put more than a thousand miles – and an incredible amount of dust – on the Jeep we're renting from the Northern Alaska Tour Company in Fairbanks. "We're up and down the road all the time. We have guides up there. We have people. We're gonna be keeping an eye on you," says Northern Alaska's Matt Atkinson.
This is not your usual car rental experience. There are many potential hazards and few facilities along the Dalton Highway, so our car is specially equipped with two full-sized spare tires, a first aid kit, a maintenance kit and a CB radio, which has its own rules of etiquette.
Matt explains, "You might see a truck that's coming down, knowing that he's gonna need to come back up that hill picking up speed, you might say something like, 'Oh, I see ya there, southbound truck. I'm gonna get out of the way.'"
Suitably prepared, we start our journey. We've got quite a ways to go before we even reach the Dalton, but the road we take to get there, the Elliott Highway, helps set the mood, with wide open expanses of black spruce trees and little sign of civilization.
And then we reach the beginning of the Dalton Highway, where the pavement ends and the gravel starts. It is 425 miles long, mostly gravel, all the way to the Arctic. This truly is the ultimate back road. The Dalton Highway, also known as the Haul Road, is still mainly used by truckers. Trucks can kick up a lot of dust, but this area is completely hazy due to wildfires caused by lightning – a pretty common occurrence in the summertime here. In some spots, fires are burning right beside the road. The smoke gradually clears, and so far the gravel road is in pretty good shape.
About 30 miles into our trip on the Dalton Highway we get our first good look at the Trans Alaska Pipeline, carrying oil from Prudhoe Bay all the way down to the port city of Valdez in the south. The pipeline is about 800 miles long.
We'll see a lot more of it as we wend our way north. For most of our journey, the pipeline and the road will be the only human imprints on an otherwise untamed landscape. We're pleased to find a stretch of paved road, but it'll be a few days and a lot more gravel before we reach our Arctic destination. Many travelers take a frigid jump in the ocean as a culmination of the trip. That's my plan, too.
In the meantime, we're approaching another major body of water – the mighty Yukon River. The Yukon starts in Canada and travels nearly two thousand miles west to the Bering Sea. This is the only bridge that crosses the Yukon in all of Alaska. Before the bridge was built, trucks were carried across the river on a hovercraft in the summer. They drove across the ice during the winter.
North of the river, we pass charred areas that are coming back to life. Where fires once burned, fireweed now blooms. It's well after ten o'clock at night and the sun is still shining when we cross the Arctic Circle, which is two-thirds of the way from the Equator to the North Pole. We still have a long way to go to get to the Arctic Ocean. Fortunately, we hit another stretch of paved road and the little rain we encounter doesn't dampen our spirits.
There's still light in the sky after midnight as we finally make it to our destination for the first night. Coldfoot is roughly the halfway point on the Dalton Highway and it's the only place with services between the Yukon River and Deadhorse. Coldfoot is known as the northernmost truck stop in the world. It's a remote outpost where the phone service is not always reliable, but the message pole never fails.
"All the truckers who come in here, if they have any messages for them or need to leave one, this – they'll look on this pole here," says Chad Conklin, one of Coldfoot's 14 year-round residents. Chad works as a guide and trains sled dogs. We're the heart and soul of the Dalton Highway right here," he says.
Coldfoot was first settled by prospectors after gold was discovered nearby in 1899. Chad explains, "James Mitchell was one of the first prospectors up here, and he and a few of the other prospectors decided that they were going to name the camp after some of the prospectors who came up this way, got cold feet and left the area." It's no wonder they got cold feet. One year the temperature reportedly dropped to 82 degrees below zero.
Chad says, "That was the new record in North America. The temperature gap was like 179 degrees difference." Today, Coldfoot consists of a restaurant/bar, a gas station and a 52-room inn made out of units originally built to house pipeline workers. Across the highway is a small airport and a terrific visitor center jointly run by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Here you can get all sorts of helpful information about the highway and any backcountry adventures you might be planning.
Meanwhile, I am astonished to run into Eric May, an old colleague of mine who now lives in Germany. Eric is here with a German TV crew. This is a series called 'Menschen und Strassen,' and it means streets and people. And they just do a story about a street anywhere in the world," explains Eric. "This is one of the best streets in the world. It's the Dalton Highway, and this is the street that we're doing." According to Eric, "The road itself is the community. Not these little towns, these little places. It's the road itself that is the community."