Very few people (less than 2% of Alaska‘s visitors) have traveled the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle. Understandable; it’s one of the most treacherous and isolated driving routes in the United States.
Why are the driving conditions so treacherous? Many reasons: the road surface is 75 percent gravel and pitted with potholes and massive frost heaves, there are countless blind turns and steep grades, and there are only three service stations along the entire 414-mile route. Oh, and the route is mainly trafficked by 18-wheelers, who have the right-of-way.
Only the most adventurous and well-prepared are willing to drive the Dalton Highway themselves. However, for those of us who prefer to take a back seat, Northern Alaska Tour Company offers driving and fly/drive tours to the Arctic Circle, and I’m giving the inside scoop on what to expect.
Dalton Highway to Arctic Circle Drive Adventure
A Very Brief History of the Dalton Highway
The Haul Road was built in 1974 as a commercial supply route for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. It wasn’t until 1981, when it was renamed James W. Dalton Highway that the public was allowed to use the road, and even then, only up to Milepost 211 at Disaster Creek. In 1994, the road was opened to public traffic all the way to Deadhorse.
Northern Alaska Tour Company Vehicles
Tours guests ride on a 25-passenger coach with comfortable padded seats, footrests, cup holders, mesh storage pockets, and power outlets. The vehicle is also equipped with an audio/video system for narration.
There is an emergency restroom on the bus, but a solo emergency can quickly become a communal event, and nobody wants that, soooo…
First Stop: Arctic Circle Trading Post – Joy, Alaska
This historic homestead cabin is about 60 miles north of Fairbanks on the Elliott Highway, shortly before you reach the Dalton Highway. The site was originally the home of Joe and Nancy Carlson and their twenty-three kids (eighteen were adopted).
As kids often do, they opened a lemonade stand outside their home, hoping to entice passing truckers to stop for a cold drink. Guess what? The truckers stopped!
The lemonade stand’s success inspired the Carlsons to open up this 1980s-style trading post from which they sold convenience store items and fuel out of gas cans until they retired.
Nowadays, the homestead is closed and only used in the winter for Aurora viewings. Still, the tour company has permission to stop and let passengers use the outhouses. Nobody wants to use an outhouse, but it’s better than a hole in the ground. Oh wait, that’s exactly what it is.
(We were told the next restroom stop would have indoor toilets, but it was about two hours away.)
So, with bladders emptied, we reboarded the bus. It was about another 20 miles to Livengood, where we picked up the Dalton Highway and left the relatively smooth pavement ride in our rearview mirror.
And things got bumpy… really bumpy.
The speed limit on the Dalton Highway is 50 miles per hour, and the tractor-trailers we encountered flew past us at full speed. They’re experienced drivers, it’s their haul road, and they have the right-of-way. It’s best to keep that top of mind.
Our bus did not travel at 50 miles per hour; it was usually more like 35-45 miles per hour. Yep, it makes for a looooong day, but safety wins out over speed every time.
Using a CB radio, our driver let truckers coming up behind us know they were free to pass and alerted them to our location if we were pulling back onto the roadway after a stop. There are a lot of blind turns and hills on the route, so CB radios are an absolute must.
The Dalton Highway is always a rough ride, but it was especially rugged for our journey—bone-jarring. Our guide said it gets that bad just a few times a year…lucky us. The rattling of the windows was especially obnoxious. It drowned out the sound of the guide’s narration and any video content playing at the time. But the padded seats absorbed the shock, so the only thing that really bothered me was the noise.
Good thing the scenery was worth it! Our drive took us through boreal forest, high alpine, and rolling tundra. The vastness of Alaska’s wilderness is awe-inspiring.
Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and shared fascinating information on the trees, wildlife, pipeline creation, permafrost, history of the Dalton Highway, Aurora Borealis, and more. She played several interesting videos during the roundtrip ride.
Cross the Yukon River on a Wooden Bridge
The E.L. Patton Bridge, named after the pipeline project manager, is the only road crossing the Yukon River in Alaska. Built in 1974, this bad boy is a whopping 2,290 feet long and carries not just cars but also the famous Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Talk about multitasking!
But here’s where it gets really interesting: the bridge has a wooden deck(!) and a mind-blowing six-percent grade from south to north. Yee-haw!
Once we crossed the Yukon River, we arrived at the Yukon River Camp. The outpost has a gas station, indoor bathrooms(!), and a small gift shop where you can buy snacks, drinks and “I Crossed Through the Arctic Circle” merch. Normally there’s a restaurant, but it was closed when I visited.
Visitors can also walk up to the banks of the Yukon River. We were there during break-up season, so there were still large chunks of ice on the river. In the winter, when it’s frozen solid, you can walk on it, and during the summer, you may see boats and rafts floating by. It’s a new experience with each changing season.
Exploring the Trans-Alaska Pipeline
Stopping to see the Trans-Alaska pipeline up close was so interesting! The massive, snaking steel serpent zigzags over 800 miles through the Alaskan wilderness transporting black gold—OIL! The mega-pipeline starts in Prudhoe Bay, up in the frigid north, and races down south to Valdez, crossing rivers, mountains, and all sorts of jaw-dropping landscapes along the way.
It’s built on towering supports to let caribou, moose, and other wildlife pass underneath freely.
Our guide told us a lot about the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline and also showed us an excellent documentary showcasing just what an engineering marvel it is.
Finger Mountain (Finger Rock)
Our tour didn’t stop at Finger Mountain (although there’s a wayside with a 1/2 mile out-and-back interpretive trail to the summit of Finger Mountain,) but if you’re traveling by car, you may want to stop there.
From the tour vehicle, it was way off in the distance but still worth looking for. Before the Dalton Highway was built, bush pilots heading to Fairbanks would use it as a navigation landmark.
There are several other granite tors along this section of the highway, so keep an eye out!
The Arctic Circle
I’m not sure what I expected to find at the Arctic Circle, but it’s mostly just a sign. To be fair, the Arctic Circle is an imaginary line of latitude, so the fact there’s even a sign at all is momentous. Oh, who am I kidding? We crossed the Arctic Circle! Who needs fanfare?
You do! Northern Alaska Tour Company rolled out the red carpet (literally) and gave all of us certificates with our names and the date proving that we crossed the Arctic Circle!
There’s also a small observation deck with signage about the seasons, but again, it’s mostly about the sign.
However, a Canada Jay (also known as a camp robber, for obvious reasons) provided unexpected entertainment.
Psst, at the Arctic Circle, they’ve got not one, but two sets of restrooms. There’s a potty station to the north of the Arctic Circle and another one to the south. Now, here’s where it gets exciting. If you’ve ever dreamed of proudly proclaiming that you’ve peed in the majestic lands north of the Arctic Circle, this is your golden opportunity!
Touching the Permafrost
As we returned south from the Arctic Circle, we stopped to walk out into the tundra to touch the permafrost, a very “cool” experience!
Fun Fact: Permafrost is a layer of permanently frozen ground that can extend from a few inches below the surface to over a thousand feet deep. It’s like a giant ice cube holding the soil, rocks and organic matter together, and it’s an essential part of the Arctic ecosystem.
The Long Ride Back to Fairbanks
At this point, we piled back into the coach for the return trip, most of which was sans narration or video. Everyone was pooped and wanted to sleep, but before we fell asleep, we happened to spot a snowshoe rabbit hop across the road in front of us. (If you take the trip during the Midnight Sun season, it never gets dark, so you can enjoy the scenery in both directions.)
We stopped for a dinner break at Yukon River Camp and then a bathroom break at the Arctic Circle Trading Post before finally arriving back in Fairbanks at 2:30 am. We were scheduled to arrive around 1:30 am, but with construction on the Dalton, we got a little delayed on the southbound trip.
It was a really long day on an extremely rough road, so the trip may not be for everyone. At the very least, know what you’re getting into before you take it on. I thought it was worth it, and I’m really glad I went, but if I did it again as a tour, I’d probably do the drive/fly combination where you drive to the Arctic Circle, stay overnight in Coldfoot, and then fly back the next day.
BUT there’s also a part of me that wants to take on the challenge of driving the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle in my own vehicle (with an extra gas tank, two spare tires, a short-range radio, food, water, a companion, etc.) Then I’d drive all the way to the end of the highway near the Arctic Ocean. I love a good adventure!
The Milepost – The definitive guide for ALL of Alaska’s highways, including maps, gas stations, points of interest, pull-outs, lodging, campsites – everything!
Bug Spray – Mosquitoes in Alaska are no joke. The first mosquitoes of the season are big and slow, so you can see them coming, but as the weather warms up, they get smaller and faster, so be prepared!
Food & Water – It’s a looong day on the road, so be prepared. We stocked up at a grocery store on our way out of town, and we bought enough to last the entire day.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Dalton Highway
It’s the northernmost highway in the United States and known for its extreme isolation, rugged terrain, unpredictable weather, and formidable conditions. It was also featured on Ice Road Truckers.
It’s a bucket list challenge for adventure seekers, but detailed preparation is key.
Yes, the public can drive on the Dalton Highway year-round.
The speed limit is 50 miles per hour.
Between late May and mid-September. However, road conditions can change instantly no matter when you travel.
A 4WD vehicle with all-terrain tires and high clearance is best. Bring two spare tires and a full can of gas as well. Motorcycles are not recommended and should be used with extreme caution. Be aware that not all rental cars are permitted on the road.
There are sections with a 10-12 percent grade.
Only three! Coldfoot at Mile Marker 175, Wiseman at Mile Marker 188, and Deadhorse at Mile Marker 414.
Yes! You can continue on to explore the Brooks Range, Atigun Pass, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Coldfoot, Arctic Interagency Visitor Center, Wiseman, Fort Yukon, Bettles, Anaktuvuk Pass, Prudhoe Bay, and Kaktovik.