While not as well-known as the Alaska Highway or other major routes in the Arctic region of North America, the Dalton Highway is one of the most important roads in Alaska. Stretching from the city of Fairbanks to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, the Dalton Highway is a major artery for commerce in Alaska and has become a tourist attraction in its own right due to its stunning vistas and proximity to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.
If you are planning a trip to the Arctic Circle in Alaska, the Dalton Highway will almost certainly be part of your adventure. Read on to learn about the Highway and its significance to both Alaska and the U.S. in general.
The Dalton Highway and the Arctic Circle
Due to Alaska’s remoteness, extreme climate, and lack of settlement, road connections in the state have historically been poor or nonexistent. With the Alaskan Interior and North Slope being sparsely populated, there is little need for paved roads and the expense of maintaining them. Even to this day, many rural Alaskans travel around the state by air due to the infeasibility of developing roads, in contrast to the lower 48 states.
The settlement of the Alaskan Interior that began in the early 20th century gradually necessitated the need for stronger road connections. The Alaska Highway, constructed during World War II, was the first road linking Alaska to the continental U.S. In 1968, the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay along the state’s northern coast fueled a need for infrastructure to support a burgeoning extraction industry.
Due to Prudhoe Bay’s isolated location in the Arctic Ocean and a lack of port facilities due to sparse population, it was deemed infeasible and expensive to use oil tankers to transport petroleum directly from the oil fields. This led to the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in 1974, a pipeline that carries oil directly from Prudhoe Bay to the port city of Valdez on the state’s southern coast.
However, the need to bring supplies to Prudhoe Bay as well as maintain the Pipeline necessitated a new highway to link the oil fields to the North American road network. Because of this, the James W. Dalton Highway was constructed in parallel with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Over 400 miles in length, it connects the city of Fairbanks, the most populous city in the Alaskan Interior, to Deadhorse, the headquarters of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.
By continental U.S. standards, the Dalton Highway is very primitive. Much of the Highway is gravel due to the expense of maintaining paved roads in the Arctic Circle. Despite this, the Highway is heavily used by truckers traveling between Fairbanks and Deadhorse, with as many as 250 trucks traversing the road daily.
The Dalton Highway is noted for its isolation, with little to no human habitation along its length. With the exception of its termini at Fairbanks and Deadhorse, the only towns along the Highway are Coldfoot and Deadhorse, with a population of 10 and 22, respectively. Services are extremely limited due to the sparse population; the only medical facilities are located in Fairbanks and Deadhorse. Fuel can be purchased on the Highway at Coldfoot and the Yukon River Bridge.
The route itself takes travelers through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Alaska, with mountains, tundra, and wildlife abounding. Because of this, the road also has many steep grades and tight turns, meaning that driving on the Highway is risky for unprepared motorists. Travelers on the Dalton Highway are encouraged to bring survival gear in case they run into trouble. By law, all motorists on the Highway must keep their headlights on at all times, even during the day. Polar bears are also common sights on the Highway, and authorities will often shut down portions of the road when they are seen.
Notable tourist attractions on the Dalton Highway include the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, the Yukon River Bridge, and the Arctic Circle Monument Sign at Deadhorse, signifying to motorists that they have entered the Arctic Circle. Because most roads in Deadhorse are privately owned, access to the town is restricted. Many tour operators offer guided tours of the Dalton Highway that take you from Fairbanks to Deadhorse and back again to enjoy the sights.
If you are planning a visit to the Arctic Circle in Alaska, you should familiarize yourself with the Dalton Highway. While remote and hazardous, it forms a vital link in the North American road network, helping ensure America’s energy needs are met. The Dalton Highway’s bevy of gorgeous vistas, unique wildlife, and tourist attractions make it a must-visit on your Alaska trip. Whether you travel on the Highway on your own or as part of a tour group, it will be one of the most spectacular road trips you’ll ever take.