The Interior Sights

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Dalton Highway Review

Plenty of hardy, adventurous visitors are choosing to "do the Dalton," a 414-mi gravel highway that connects Interior Alaska to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay on the Beaufort Sea. Alaska's northernmost highway, the Dalton was built in the mid-1970s so that trucks could haul supplies to Prudhoe and Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction camps in Alaska's northern reaches.

The pipeline is the main attraction for many who make it up this way: stretching 800 mi across the 49th state from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, it's both an engineering marvel and a reminder of Alaska's economic dependence on oil production. It carries crude oil across three mountain ranges, 34 major rivers—including the Yukon—and hundreds of smaller creeks. It crosses permafrost regions and three major fault lines, too; half of the pipeline runs aboveground and is held aloft by 78,000 vertical supports that proved their ability to withstand sudden, violent ground shifts as recently as 2002 in a 7.9 magnitude quake along the Denali Fault.

Thousands of 18-wheelers still drive the formerly private Dalton each year, but since 1994 they've shared it with sightseers, anglers, and other travelers. That doesn't mean the Dalton is an easy drive. The road is narrow, often winding, and has several steep grades. Sections may be heavily potholed, and its coarse gravel is easily kicked up into headlights and windshields by fast-moving trucks. If you drive the Dalton in your own car, make sure you have windshield replacement insurance, because you positively will be making a claim when you get home. There are few visitor facilities along the way, and almost nowhere to get help if something goes wrong. And with tow-truck charges of up to $5 per mile (both coming and going), a vehicle breakdown can cost hundreds of dollars even before repairs. Thus, before setting out, check everything you can in your car to make sure it's all working properly, and know how to change tires. Public access ends at Deadhorse, just shy of the Arctic coast. This town exists mainly to service the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay.

Unless you're an experienced outdoors person, areas off the Dalton Highway are best explored on a guided adventure tour. The only lodging options are down-at-the-heels motels or wilderness camping.

Updated: 06-12-2013

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