While the Dalton Highway is not as famous as the Alaska Highway or other major roads in Alaska, it is one of the most important highways in North America. Extending from Fairbanks deep in the Alaskan interior to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay along the state’s North Slope, the Dalton Highway is the primary artery for commerce in northern Alaska. It has also become a significant tourist draw due to its gorgeous views and closeness to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.
If you are planning to visit Alaska, the Dalton Highway is very likely going to be part of your vacation. Read on to learn more about the Dalton Highway and its importance to both Alaska and the U.S. as a whole.
The Dalton Highway and Alaska
Alaska’s road network has historically been underdeveloped due to its remote location, hostile climate, and sparse population. The Alaskan interior and North Slope have historically had few settlers, meaning there was little need for extensive road networks of the type seen in the mainland U.S. Additionally, harsh weather and permafrost make road maintenance in northern Alaska extremely expensive. To this day, the preferred method of transportation for rural Alaskans is air travel due to the lack of roads.
The Klondike gold rush in the 1890’s inspired large-scale settlement in the Alaskan interior for the first time in its history, and with this increased population came a need for more developed transportation infrastructure. The first major initiative in this regard was the Alaska Highway, built during World War II as a military transportation route. The first road connecting Alaska with the greater North American road network, it inspired a flurry of development in the state. In 1968, the discovery of large oil deposits in Prudhoe Bay furthered fueled interest in improving Alaskan road transportation.
Prudhoe Bay’s remote location along the Arctic Ocean, the presence of icebergs in its waters, and the lack of ports due to the region’s small population meant that transporting oil from the region via oil tankers was deemed impossible and risky. To get around this problem, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was built in the 1970’s, connecting Prudhoe Bay to the port city of Valdez in southern Alaska, where oil tankers could transport the petroleum safely.
With the Pipeline’s construction came the need to build a new road linking Prudhoe Bay to the rest of Alaska, allowing the transportation of people and supplies to and from the North Slope as well as allow maintenance crews to work on the Pipeline itself. As a result, the James W. Dalton Highway was built alongside the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. At over 400 miles, the Highway links Fairbanks, the largest city in the Alaskan interior, to the settlement of Deadhorse, where Prudhoe Bay oil operations are centered.
Compared to highways in the continental U.S., the Dalton Highway is very basic. Due to the expense of maintaining paved roads in the Arctic, much of the Highway is composed of gravel. Despite the sometimes poor condition of the Highway, it is heavily used by truckers driving between Fairbanks and Deadhorse; as many as 250 trucks use the road on a daily basis. Other classes of car are uncommon due to the difficulty of traveling the route and the sparse population of the North Slope.
Another notable feature of the Dalton Highway is its isolation, as it crosses very few villages or settlements. Excluding its endpoints in Fairbanks and Deadhorse, the only towns along the highway are Coldfoot and Wiseman, which have a population of 10 and 22, respectively. Due to the lack of human habitation, there are little to no services available on the Dalton Highway. While fuel can be purchased at Coldfoot and the Yukon River Bridge, the closest medical facilities are in Deadhorse and Fairbanks.
The Dalton Highway is remarked on for its scenic vistas, featuring gorgeous mountains, tundra, and plenty of opportunities to see wildlife. Due to the rough terrain it crosses, the Highway features many steep grades, switchbacks, and tight turns, making driving it risky for inexperienced motorists. Travelers are urged to bring survival gear if they traverse the Highway in case they run into car problems or inclement weather. Additionally, all motorists are required by law to keep their headlights on, even during daylight hours. Polar bears are a frequent sight on the Dalton Highway, and authorities will often block access to the road when they are spotted in order to prevent attacks.
The Dalton Highway is home to a number of notable tourist attractions. While the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is the most famous, other notable stops include the Yukon River Bridge and the Arctic Circle Monument Sign, which marks the point at which motorists have officially crossed over into the Arctic. Most roads in Deadhorse itself are privately owned, meaning that much of the city is not accessible to the public. Many tour operators offer guided journeys along the Dalton Highway that allow visitors to take in the sights without worrying about getting into trouble.
Anyone who is planning to take a visit to the Alaskan interior should familiarize themselves with the Dalton Highway. Despite its remoteness and primitiveness, the Dalton Highway is a significant link in the American road network, helping maintain the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and facilitate the delivery of people and goods to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. As one of the most scenic routes in Alaska, the Dalton Highway offers countless treats for the tourist, including unique wildlife, majestic mountains, and frozen tundra. Whether you are planning to drive the Dalton Highway on your own or ride along with a tour group, you are guaranteed to have one of the most memorable road trips of your life.