In 1968, oil was discovered on Alaska’s North Slope, which is near Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. But those who wanted to extract that resource were faced with the challenge of getting the oil from the remote North Slope to the rest of the United States. The answer they found was a pipeline. And, in order to build the pipeline you need a road.
The North Slope Haul was built to aid construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Over the course of its 414 miles, the highway generally follows the pipeline from Livengood (north of Fairbanks) to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay. It consists mainly of compact gravel and approximately 120 miles of paved sections. (The paved sections are rough as a result of the constant cycle of freezing and thawing.)
After construction was completed, operation of the road was turned over to the state of Alaska, which named it the James W. Dalton Highway, after the Arctic engineer and lifelong Alaskan. Up until 1994, the public could only use a portion of the road, up until Disaster Creek at mile 221. Beyond that, use of Dalton Highway was limited to supply trucks headed to the oil fields. After 1994, the whole road was open to the public and was made famous by such TV shows as the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers.
This road is not for the average driver. There is no cell phone service and only three places to get gas – E. L. Patton Yukon River Bridge, Coldfoot Camp (also includes repair services), and Deadhorse (also has repair services). Because of the compact gravel, trucks can and do kick up rocks that have enough force to smash windshields. The trucks (and the weather) can leave ruts in the gravel, making even staying on the road a challenge, especially in areas where it is barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. While the road is mainly straight and flat, there are sharp turns—one playfully called “Oh Shit Corner”—and steep grades up to 16%. One of those sections is known as Ice Cut, which is cut through the ice shelf.
The road features a stunning view of the different environs of Alaska, from the Arctic forests, the Brooks Range mountains, and the vast tundra north of the Brooks to the oil fields. It is one of the few places where you can stop, and not hear any other sound of humanity.
Know Before You Go
Most rental car companies in Alaska do not allow their vehicles on the Dalton Highway and private vehicles are strongly encouraged to have more than one full-sized spare tire, tools, and a CB, as there is no cellphone reception. The Dalton Highway is open year-round, though services at the Yukon River are closed mid-September to mid-May. Check local conditions before driving.