Thursday, June 30, 2016

Driving the Dalton Highway. May 29-June 1

Driving the Dalton Highway. May 29-June 1

We arrived in Fairbanks on May 19th. One of the things I wanted to do on our Alaska trip was to attempt to drive our motorhome up the Dalton Hwy. My plan was to research the road while we were in Fairbanks and also pick a time to drive it when we had very nice sunny weather.

More on our stay in Fairbanks in another posting.

The Dalton Hwy, originally was the haul road built to haul supplies to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay and to support the building of the Alaska Pipeline. It is about 415 miles of mostly dirt and gravel road with some parts paved. The road ends at Deadhorse, a town built to support the oil field operations at Prudhoe Bay.

The Dalton is also one of only two roads on which you can drive to the Arctic Circle and beyond. The other is the Dempster Hwy, near Dawson City, YT. I plan on driving part of the Dempster as we go back through Canada. We are only going to go about 40 miles up the Dempster, not nearly far enough to reach the Arctic Circle again.

After doing more research on the Dalton I felt we were reasonably prepared for the trip. We had a full sized mounted spare tire. The recommendation is for 2 mounted spares, but I figured we would be OK. Our tires are load range H which has extra load capacity, than the load range G which are standard for this RV. We are towing a small pickup, so we do have a spare vehicle in case the motorhome should break down. We have more than sufficient food, water, etc to sustain us for 10 days to 2 weeks if absolutely necessary. We have towing from Coach Net. Coach Net is “supposed” to tow you from regular numbered highway and the Dalton is an official state highway. I didn't call Coach Net and ask if they would tow us while on the Dalton. I figured we would just take a chance and deal with any issues if/when they came up. Besides, calling and talking to a customer rep is meaningless. Even if they say yes they will, if you do need a tow and they say no, it means nothing to say “so & so said you would tow us”. The response would be “well they were wrong and you were misinformed”.

For the Dalton Hwy trip we made sure we had no commitments as to where we were going to stay or how far up the hwy we were going to go. The plan was to drive up to the start and see just what the road was like. At any point that we felt uncomfortable or unsafe we would either stop until conditions improved or turn around and head back. Full fresh water tank, empty holding tanks and full gas tank we are good to go.

After about a week in Fairbanks, which we spent enjoying the sites in town, we saw a very nice stretch of weather coming up. So off on our adventure.

Day 1
We left our overnight parking spot at Sam's Club in Fairbanks and headed up the Elliot Hwy for about 73 miles on a paved road with lots of frost heaves. It took us almost 2 ½ hours to get to the start of the Dalton Hwy, including some short stops along the way.

The start of the Dalton leaving the pavement and onto the good graded dirt road

Welcome to the Dalton Hwy sign:

This very nice smooth road was typical of the road for the first 50 miles.
except for where it was paved. The paved parts were worse than the dirt. Pot holes and frost heaves. One major exception though, if the dirt part was wet, it would be slippery.

Some views along the hwy:

Lots of ups and downs. Some of the hills are 8%-9% grade. Notice the road going up the hill in the distance. This was on an exceptionally good part of the paved road.

A dip, called the Roller Coaster:
Going up the far side of the roller coaster.

Meeting a truck on the paved road
Interestingly, in the photo above, if you look close, there is a dark dot with a white top on the left side of the road (left from our perspective). This is a person on a recumbent bicycle coming up the hill. More power to whoever is on that bike.

Approaching the Yukon River and the bridge over the river

The Yukon River bridge from the shoreline on the north side of the river
View from the bridge

On the north side of the Yukon River is a small visitor center.  There are a number of informational displays here detailing the building of the bridge and the Dalton Hwy.  Info about the bridge here.

There is a gas station, small cafe and sleeping rooms on the other side of the road from the visitor center. We didn't stop at the gas station on the way up, but on the way back we stopped for gas, $5.50/gallon. Coldfoot, about 135 miles farther north was “only” $4.60/gallon. Gas in Fairbanks was about $2.60/gallon.

Up to this point the road was in great condition. A number of frost heaves and some potholes, but nothing to stress out the driver.

From the Yukon River to “5 mile camp” campground at mile marker 60 the road graders were working on a 5 mile long section of the dirt road and making a muddy mess of things. By the time we reached the CG I had an inch of mud caked up under the wheel wells. Also lots of mud splashed up on our pickup we are towing.

The mud also gave me a taste of just how slippery this road would be if it was raining. I have to say it made me think again about driving on the Dalton when it is wet.

There is not much at “5 mile camp” campground. Just a flat area to park with a few picnic tables around. A few sites are back in some low trees, but there will be quite a few mosquitoes in the woods.

The CG is free and there is a free dump and fresh water fill station. Good tasting water too. We made use of both, just in case we needed to wait out some rainy weather later on. 

Sorry, I didn't take a picture of the CG.  For a satellite view of the CG use Google Maps, Bing Maps or Google Earth and the Satellite View option and go to: 65.918610, -149.827365

Day 2
The speed limit on the Dalton is 50mph. However most of our drive on the Dalton yesterday was at 25-30mph. On a few smooth sections I got up to about 40mph, but not for long. Today was a repeat of yesterday's slow driving. Some pot holes, but mostly frost heaves, rough pavement and rough road. Nothing really, really bad as long as you took it slow. One driving skill you really must have is the ability to know where your tires are on the road. One reason is to dodge potholes and rough parts. The other is, When you meet an oncoming large truck, you need to pull over to the side and stop. You need to know where your right front tire is so you don't slip off the edge of the road. There are no shoulders. Even in the narrow parts of the road, it is wide enough for 2 trucks to pass with about 3-4 feet between them. That is, if you are within one to 2 feet of the edge of the road. If you are as far to the right as you can go and stopped, then you will leave it to the professional driver to judge just how much room he or she needs. Believe me, it is much more comfortable being stopped with an oncoming truck. I am sure the truck driver is much more comfortable if the tourist is stopped. They don't have to be concerned if we are going to make a stupid move and cause an accident.

Back to our travels.

Lots of beautiful wide open county with magnificent vistas all day long.

The road and the Alaska Pipeline

Approaching a 9% grade. Beautiful view.

We made it to the Arctic Circle. MM115

There is a BLM CG here at the Arctic Circle marker. We didn't stay here. Much nicer places to park overnight at large pullouts or gravel pits.

The view from Gobblers Knob at MM132. There is room here to park overnight and enjoy the view.

In the valley in the photo above, the coldest temperature ever recorded in Alaska occurred. It got to -80F.

Road and mountains. The snow capped mountains are the Brooks Range.

We stopped at Coldfoot for lunch and to visit the visitor center here.

Coldfoot really is a truck stop rather than a tourist center. There is a cafe, post office, some sleeping rooms and a gas station. We filled up with 45.5 gallons of gas at $4.60/gallon. Total of $209.

Lunch was great. Also the price was reasonable, for being out in the middle of nowhere. We both had a ½ pound hamburger, cooked just the way we wanted it, on an excellent bun they make themselves and some very good fries. $12 for the burger & fries. We have been paying that much in restaurants in Fairbanks and the burgers weren't as good.

We spent about 2 hours looking at the displays in the visitor center and talking with the staff. Excellent displays of the plants, country and animals of this area. The staff was very friendly. Since this was Memorial Day, at 3pm they asked all of us, that wished to, to join them at the flag pole for 5 minutes of silence to pay respect to all the fallen soldiers who have fought and died for our freedom.

From the visitor center we drove about 20 miles north to our over night parking spot in a large gravel pit.

There is a BLM CG just a couple of miles north of Coldfoot, but all the campsites are in the spruce trees, with no view except the tree trunks. The campsites are easy in and out, with most being pull thru sites.

Most of our drive today was on “paved” road. From MM90 to MM208 the road is “paved”. However the “paved” part of the Dalton is in worse condition than most of the dirt/gravel parts. However the paved part from ~10 miles south of Coldfoot to 33 miles north Coldfoot are about as good as other paved highways in Alaska.

Day 3

The name the natives have for boreal forest here is “Land of little sticks”. The black spruce trees growing here are very small and short. Many of the trees, with a trunk about 1.5 inches in diameter, are about 60 years old.

If you stop at the visitor center at the Yukon River they have display showing the growth rings of a black spruce 1.5” in diameter and a white spruce about 3” in diameter. Both are about 60 years old. They also have a display of an aspen or a birch, about 15-20 years old, with a diameter of about 3-4 inches.

The Boreal Forest here is very interesting. It is a mixture of tundra, low growing bushes and plants, black spruce trees, white spruce trees and aspen and birch trees.

In the western part of the lower 48 states, when you look at the mountains, the north facing slopes are greener and have larger trees. The south facing slopes are not as green and the trees are usually much smaller.

Here in the far north, the opposite is true. The north facing slopes are covered with low growing vegetation and the only trees are small black spruce trees. The south facing slopes have larger white spruce trees with large areas of aspen and birch trees.

The reason is the permafrost. In late spring the top few inches to a few feet of ground thaws out. This begins the growing season.

The north facing slopes get very little of the suns warming rays. So only a few inches to a foot or so of the ground thaws. The only trees which can survive in that shallow soil are the very hardy black spruce. They seldom grow taller than about 15', and most are in the 6' to 10' range. The same goes for the level ground. With the sun low on the horizon it doesn't warm the level ground much.

The south facing slopes get a lot of the suns warming rays, so the ground thaws much deeper and is much warmer so the white spruce, aspen and birch thrive here.

Now when the bigger trees mature they shade the ground which eventually reduces the amount of ground which will thaw. After a while (years) these trees will die out and the black spruce will take over.

Fire plays a major role here. In the summer, lightning from storms start wild fires. This burns off the trees and ground cover so next summer the sun warms the ground and fire weed, willow bushes and the aspen & birch trees sprout. This provides great food for moose and caribou and ground cover for smaller animals. Eventually these trees grow, shade the ground, die and the black spruce take over until the next fire.

Except for fires which threaten life and property, the fires are just monitored and allow to burn themselves out. Some fires that start in July burn until the first snows come in late August to September.

Here are some images from a rest area along the Dalton which describe the process in some detail.

Back to today's travels.

On the side of the road we saw this small pond with a foot to a foot and a half of ice in the ground exposed. I'm not sure if this is called permafrost, or just frozen water from the pond.

The white above the water and under the soil layer is a sheet of ice
A closer look at the ice layer

Once the pavement ended at MM208 the road grew rougher with areas of sharp gravel and lager pieces of gravel/rock. At about 10:30am near MM225 I decided we had gone about as far as I wanted to take the motorhome on the Dalton. This rough rocky road didn't look like it was going to get any better. Also a few miles farther north we would have the 12% grade going up over Atigun pass through the Brooks Range. On top of that our beautiful sunny days were giving way to high gray clouds. We turned around and came back to MM222.5 where I found a really nice place to park for the night right on the shore of the Dietrich River.

After getting parked we drove the pickup over Atigun pass. We got to the far side of the pass and turned around. The gray skies and flat lighting conditions were discouraging us from driving farther.

Views from part way up Atigun pass looking south

Looking down on the north side of the pass.

Road and pipeline north of the pass.

On the way back to the motorhome Sharon spotted this porcupine eating leaves across a narrow part of the Dietrich river. He/she was really going to town, chowing down on the leaves. We watched him/her for about 15 minutes.

We had a quiet rest of the afternoon and night. We were far enough off of the road that the noise from the trucks was not bothersome.

Day 4
We woke to gray clouds and intermittent sprinkles. Looking to the north I could see dark clouds building. We quickly packed up and headed south by about 7am. Light rain started before we got off of the gravel/dirt part of the road. Once we were on the good pavement the rain got heavier all the way to Coldfoot. After Coldfoot the rain pretty much stopped.

I still had thoughts of stopping for the night at one of the overlooks with great views. However every time I looked to the north the dark clouds were following us. So we kept moving.

About MM80 we saw this 18 wheeler hooking up a flatbed trailer with a travel trailer loaded on it:

As we passed by we could see the trailer's “A” frame going out to the trailer hitch was bent up about 20 degrees. It should be level with the rest of the trailer frame. It looks like the frost heaves and bumpy road caused the frame to break loose and bend up. Really ruined someones trip.

At about MM64 we were back on the part of the road which had been graded over the last 2 days. The top inch was really muddy. I was driving about 30mph and I felt the front tires of the motorhome start to slide a little, followed by the rear tires slip slightly to the side. I quickly and gently turned into the slide and everything straightened out. I slowed to 20mph until we got out of the muddy part of the road. I could see us sliding off the road. Whew! That was fun!

At that point we decided we were going to continue driving until we got off the Dalton on to good pavement.

No more problems the rest of the way.

We stopped for the night in a large gravel pit at about MM70 on the Elliot Hwy, about 3 miles from the start of the Dalton.

We drove 230 miles in about 8 hours today. Averaging about 30mph.

I do have to say driving the Dalton was fun. It challenged your driving skills. We saw some great country. Parked for the night in scenic locations. Went places a lot of people never have the opportunity to go.
Would I do it again? Probably not in a larger RV. We are only 29' long but are not built for slippery roads. Plus we have highway tires. That probably accounts for the little bit of sliding we did on the muddy part of the road. In a 25' class C motorhome with mud and snow tires, I would go again. Probably go all the way to Deadhorse.

What we didn't get to see, that I really wanted to, was the musk oxen. We would have had to go up (down?) the north slope to the last 100 or so miles of the Dalton to see them. I have read that there are places where you can park overnight with the chance to see the musk oxen.

Thoughts about the Dalton Hwy:
The road is ~415 miles of dirt and pavement. Lots of frost heaves, pot holes and where there is pavement, broken pavement patched by gravel and/or dirt. There is about 40 miles of good pavement near Coldfoot.

Before attempting this road read the description of the highway in the Milepost. Their description is not incorrect, but I do think they went overboard on the scary parts. The worse part is the potential for really slippery surface if there is rain. Especially if you meet an oncoming large truck. Heed their advice to pull over and stop when you see an oncoming truck. Also if a truck comes up behind you, pull over and stop on a straight stretch of road and let them pass.

I read about all the flat tires on the Dalton. Warnings about needing to take two mounted spare tires and the tools to change a flat tire. We didn't have any tire problems on either the motorhome or our pickup truck we towed. Were we just lucky? I don't think so. Some luck is involved, of course. However we had no pressure to drive “X” number of miles to point “A”. We were free and prepared to stop any time and any place we found a place to park overnight. There are plenty of places to pull off and park for the night. With that in mind we didn't need to drive any faster that I felt the conditions warranted. When we were on sharp gravel or larger rocks we would slow down to 15 or 20 mph. If we were committed to drive at least 250 miles before we could stop, I might have felt pressure to drive faster than we did.

The really nice smooth parts of dirt/gravel are hard packed dirt, a mixture of sand and clay. Get that stuff wet and it gets slick. For about 1-2 seconds I lost steering control and the rear end started slipping at about 30mph, on a recently graded wet part. The only place I could consistently drive at 45mph was for the 30 mile section north of Coldfoot. Newly paved (2-3 years ago), smooth and very few frost heaves. The worst section was starting about 35 miles N of Coldfoot for about 15-20 miles. Rough gravel with rocks, very bumpy and some washboard. Really rattled the RV. We drove about 15 miles on this part and decided we had gone far enough on the Dalton Hwy. Up north somewhere south of Deadhorse there is supposed to be more of this rough gravel. Some of the road is fairly narrow with no shoulder. When meeting oncoming traffic pull over and stop. Especially if meeting 18 wheelers. The scary part is if you slip off the edge, you drop down into a ditch, or off the edge of the 10-12' high berm some of the road is built on.
It is kind of a fun drive. The drive challenges your driving skills. Going up we only drove about 60-100 miles each day on the rough part of the road. However on the last day, coming out, we drove 230 miles because of the potential rain. I don't recommend driving that far in one day on the Dalton.
We did really enjoy the 4 days on the Dalton. Beautiful scenic views, wide open vistas w/o development to hinder the view. Beautiful mountains. Interesting history. Lots of boondocking places to park with great views.
Stop in Coldfoot to eat. Great food. We had a ½ lb. hand formed hamburger on a homemade bun with good fries for $12. Reasonable prices for being out in the middle of nowhere. They cater to the truckers hauling stuff to/from the Prudhoe oil fields.
Spend an hour or two in the Inter-agency Visitor Center in Coldfoot. The video and displays are very interesting & informative and the staff is very friendly & helpful.

Link to a blog from a couple who took their RV all the way to Deadhorse:

Info about the Dalton at these links:
BLM PDF file about the Dalton:
BLM info about the Dalton:

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