“Don’t take the car past Lake Galbraith, or it’ll be too far for us to rescue you.”
The woman at the rental car agency wasn’t laughing. In a briefing that felt more like a CPR training course than the fine print of renting a Ford Explorer, she listed all the hazards that awaited us on the Dalton Highway. There were treacherous potholes, hundreds of miles of unpaved road, almost zero service stations, no cell reception, and bears.
“Have fun, guys,” she said without a hint of irony. “It’s gonna be a blast.”
Turns out, she was right on all counts.
I had enlisted a friend to share the journey with me, as I was told traveling the most remote highway in the country alone wasn’t the smartest idea. Credit to him for accepting an invite that pretty much read like this: “Hey, you wanna drive into the Arctic Circle on a highway that I’m pretty sure was in Ice Road Truckers?”
When you tell people you’re going to Alaska to “drive on a highway,” they react like you just told them you’re having SPAM for dinner. But anyone who knows the Dalton Highway understands that it’s perhaps the only road in the United States that can claim to be a destination in itself. Starting in Fairbanks, Alaska’s second largest city, the highway stretches 414 miles north to the Arctic Ocean through lush forests, winding rivers, dramatic mountain passes, and Arctic wilderness. It’s the most remote major highway in the US, ending about 600 miles north of where Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless starved to death in a disused bus.
With that comforting thought in mind, we drove our car off the lot and to our first — and most important — stop of the entire trip: the supermarket.
Before you go
Built in 1974 to supply the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, the Dalton Highway initially served solely as a commercial haul road. Although the infrastructure has improved since then, it still remains a trucker’s road at heart. Paved sections alternate with long stretches of dirt and gravel, only two fuel (and food) stops exist between Fairbanks and Deadhorse — the highway’s northern terminus — and you won’t find a single McDonalds, Walgreens, or grocery store. Basically, if you didn’t pack it in Fairbanks, plan to live without it.
People always tell you not to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach because you’ll buy everything in sight. Well, go on an empty stomach. This is the last chance you’ll have to stock up on food; you don’t want to be 250 miles above the Arctic Circle and realize you’re three meals short.
Our most important purchase was a cheap styrofoam cooler that allowed us to bring perishables on the journey. This really came in handy for cold cuts, cheese, pre-cooked chicken, yogurts, Lunchables — hey, there won’t be anyone around to judge you — and one of those crappy $3 birthday cakes they sell in the dessert section. We’ll come back to that later.
Beyond groceries, you’ll need a vehicle hefty enough to store your food purchase — and more importantly, to get you safely up the Dalton. A car with four-wheel drive, spare tires, and traction control is a must. You should also have a CB radio so you can communicate with other cars on the road, alert trucks if you’re turning around a hairpin curve, and call for help if needed. The Northern Alaska Tour Company in Fairbanks rents cars specifically for traveling up the Dalton Highway, so it’ll make sure your vehicle is properly equipped.
It’s also a good idea to bring bear spray. Much of northern Alaska’s land is owned by the Bureau of Land Management. That means it’s essentially public land with very little state intervention, and almost no designated trails. If you want to hike, you’ll have to forge your own path through the wilderness. It’s unlikely that you’ll be fending off bears, but better to have spray and not need it than not have spray and wish you’d bought better running shoes.
Stop 1: Yukon River Camp
Once you leave Fairbanks you won’t encounter your first outpost of civilization for about three hours. The Yukon River Camp isn’t just a simple truck stop. It’s a camp right on the banks of the mighty Yukon River that offers you a rare glimpse into a different pace of life. The camp is staffed by people from all over the country who came to Alaska seeking adventure, and each has a unique story to tell about how they wound up living on the Yukon River. You might even get to join the staff by the campfire as they watch for the Northern Lights.
A two-minute walk will bring you to the river, in the shadow of the Yukon River Bridge. If you notice two tents on a raft floating in the river, it’s not a couple of campers trying to one-up you. It’s Neil Ecklund and his son, Lauro. Meeting Neil and Lauro will make you feel like you’ve gone back in time to an age when tents were houses, you caught your own dinner, built your own fire for warmth, and the river was the primary means of transportation.
Neil Eklund competed in the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in the early 1980s, and has lived on the river since before the Dalton Highway existed. Now he and his son Lauro build log rafts, fish, transport firewood on the river, and mush dog teams. They also run a variety of tours including dogsledding, camping, log rafting, and Northern Lights expeditions. If you’re lucky, Lauro will even show you his kennel of rambunctious sled dogs.
Stop 2: Wiseman and Coldfoot
Not long after you leave the Yukon River Camp you’ll cross into the Arctic Circle. There are no visitor centers, road markers, or dramatic changes of scenery to mark the occasion — just a sign slightly off the main road that says “Arctic Circle.” There’s also a dispersed campsite in the vicinity of the sign, for those who want to say “I camped on the edge of the Arctic Circle,” but otherwise your passage is unceremonious. Just before the Arctic Circle sign, you can stop briefly at Finger Mountain. This deceptively named attraction is more like a large pile of stones than a mountain, but climbing to the top — which will take you 10 minutes — does give you a sweeping view of the lonely road, and a sense of the vast Arctic wilderness.
About three hours from the Yukon River Camp, you’ll have your choice of two lodgings — Coldfoot and Wiseman. If you have time it’s worth spending a night at both. Coldfoot, which you’ll reach first, is the oldest stop on the Dalton Highway. It has less of a summer camp vibe than the Yukon River Camp, but there are a wide range of excursions led by knowledgeable guides to keep you busy, and you’ll be staying in the trailers used by the workers who built the Alaska Pipeline, which is a pretty cool perk.
Coldfoot Camp pretty much has an excursion for every season and interest. There are packraft adventures, snowshoe trips, Arctic mountain safaris, Northern Lights viewings, dog sled excursions, and fat bike tours. Our fat bike tour took us to the peaceful Slate Creek on the Chandalar Trail, an old Gold Rush road. On the way back, our guide Dan showed us an abandoned school bus where a resident of Coldfoot used to live with his entire family. Now it’s a treasured part of Coldfoot Camp’s folklore.
When I made an obligatory Chris McCandless joke, Dan replied that the Into the Wild protagonist is a sore subject for many Alaskans, who believe McCandless is portrayed as a hero when he should be a cautionary tale. “There’s only one difference between that guy and the people who actually live up here,” Dan said. “Competence.”
Just a half-hour north of Coldfoot you’ll find the tiny village of Wiseman. Unlike Coldfoot and the Yukon River Camp, Wiseman is an actual village, and has been long before the highway was built. Located ten minutes off the Dalton, at the end of a dirt and gravel road, the old Gold Rush town is home to 14 permanent residents, all of whom live in log cabins among the trees.
Much like Neil and Lauro on the Yukon River, the people of Wiseman live a subsistence lifestyle, surviving largely on hunted meat. Stroll around the village and visit Nikki Reakoff’s craft shop, where she makes jewelry from animal fur, bones, and antlers; check out the vintage abandoned cars that have been sitting in the woods for decades; and spend some time down by the river. On Sundays you can even attend a church service led by local trapper Jack Reakoff.
I ran into Jack when he was sifting through some cranberries in his yard. Behind him, a pile of moose and caribou skulls. When I told him I was writing about the Dalton Highway he seemed amused.
“Everyone says Dalton’s dangerous,” he said. “But they shoulda seen it twenty years ago. I was here before the highway, and that was a tough haul. As long as you’ve got common sense, I guess it’s as safe as any other road.”
He was right.
Contrary to what you might think, lodging in Wiseman doesn’t consist of a chilly night in a canvas tent while Jack Reakoff patrols the perimeter for bears. The Arctic Getaway Log Cabins are both cozy and well-appointed. But the best part of your stay won’t be the warm bed — it’ll be your hosts. Berni and Uta hail from Friesing, Germany, and lucky for us, somehow found their way to Arctic Alaska.
The first thing you notice won’t be the rustic cabins or the moose skulls mounted above the doors. It’ll be the hand-built ping pong table sitting in the yard. Berni built the table himself, and it doesn’t take much convincing for him to drop everything he’s doing and play a game, or twelve, with you.
Over the Atigun Pass
Once you depart Wiseman and Coldfoot, your journey truly gets interesting. There are no more stops, fuel stations, or lodgings for 230 miles until Deadhorse, which represents the end of the highway just before the Arctic Ocean.
About an hour north of Wiseman, you’ll see the landscape change dramatically. The green, wooded wilderness you’ve grown accustomed to will suddenly give way to flat terrain. Previously, there was a sign marking the spot of the “last tree” and the beginning of the arctic tundra, but that tree has since been cut down. As you approach the Brooks Range, you’ll find yourself wanting to stop every five minutes to take pictures of the dramatic snow capped mountains.
The epic views really hit their stride on the Atigun Pass, at an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet. This is the point at which the highway crosses the Continental Divide, and the steep grades and hairpin curves make it one of the road’s most treacherous stretches. Use your CB radio to alert other drivers when you’re rounding curves, take it slow, and you’ll be fine. Honestly, you’ll want to drive as slow as possible anyway to really take in the views.
On the other side of the pass, the landscape looks dramatically different. The mountainous geography flattens and it suddenly feels like you’re driving through the Midwest, minus the cornfields. You can choose to go all the way to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay, which are essentially oil refinery sites, or turn around and head back. If you do decide to turn around, don’t do so without first visiting Lake Galbraith, about 27 miles north of Atigun Pass. The lake has a parking area and a few campsites, and it’s a great picnic lunch stop before embarking on the journey home. We took this opportunity to enjoy some cheap birthday cake, in celebration of reaching our northernmost point.
Treat yourself in Fairbanks
When you finally return to Fairbanks, your car will be caked in mud and you probably won’t look (or smell) much better. The only way to cap off an intrepid adventure on the most remote highway in the country is with a well-earned spa day. (No, that’s not just wishful thinking.)
Chena Hot Springs Resort, just under an hour from Fairbanks, is a geothermal spa ideally suited to travelers who have just returned from a rough week on the Dalton. You can treat yourself to a massage, take a dip in the outdoor or indoor hot tub, or enjoy the healing waters of the geothermal Rock Lake. There’s also an excellent restaurant on site serving locally caught salmon, a famous tomato bisque, and vegetables grown in the on-site greenhouse.
The most eye-catching part of Chena isn’t even the Rock Lake or the private massage cabins — it’s the giant ice museum sitting just outside the main entrance. The Aurora Ice Museum is the world’s largest year-round ice environment, created using over 1,000 tons of ice and snow. It houses dozens of meticulously carved and illuminated ice sculptures, including an ice bar where you can purchase appletinis served in glasses made of ice. There’s also a few bedrooms carved into the ice. Rumor has it, no one has successfully lasted the night without retreating to the main hotel, but if you were bold enough to brave the Dalton, you should also be bold enough to spend the night in a block of ice.