To the Arctic Circle and Beyond!Posted: September 14, 2011
Two weekends ago we embarked on the ultimate road trip, 753 miles round trip from Fairbanks to Lake Glabraith, which is 160 miles north of the arctic circle. This was not your average road trip. The Dalton Highway, or as it is known locally Haul Road, runs 414 miles from interior Alaska up to Deadhorse on the Arctic Ocean. The road was built in 1974 to support and sustain half of the 800 mile Trans-Alaska pipeline. It was opened to the public in 1994, but the road is still predominantly used by pipeline truckers. The road itself is, for the most part, unpaved mud and gravel. There are several stretches of older pavement with cracks and potholes, and one section of newly paved road that runs 22 miles, but it is already showing the stress of this harsh environment with rolling hills developing like giant speed bumps. But overall, driving on the road is a bit like playing Mario Kart. It has tight curves, steep drop offs, insane grades, and semis fly along at high speeds. On this road, semis have the right of way, you have to pull over and let them pass you. It may be the only road in the country where trucks are moving four times faster than cars. Our rental car company wouldn’t even let us take our car on this highway. It specifically bans driving on gravel roads like the Dalton Highway. So we rented a second rental car from Rent-A-Wreck, a mid-size SUV equipped with a full-size spare tire in the trunk and a CB radio. The CB was my favorite part because it reminded me of a short story from the collection The Book of Ralph by John McNally. But really it also signified how hardcore this trip was. There is no cell phone service on this road and only two services stations with limited supplies. Driving on this road is like going back in time. Most tour books and visitor information pamphlets advise you to travel with a tour group rather than drive alone. Many websites try to scare you out of driving on it, but we were game for a little adventure so we packed our tent, lots of water, food, and hit the road.
Our first stop was the Hess Creek Overlook at mile 21 (mile markers are from the Dalton Highway only and do not include the journey from Fairbanks to the highway). It gives a panoramic view of the Yukon Flats area that we were about to drive into. The fall colors were beautiful. Lots of yellow and red with the dark green of black spruce trees adding to the contrasts of the landscape. We had sun here, but we were driving into gray clouds and a full-day of off and on rain. Our next stop was the Yukon River. It was much larger that I imagined, and it reminded me of the Mississippi River with the low flat banks and mud-colored water. This is one of two places on the Dalton that offer “services.” It has one building that serves as a restaurant, gas station, and hotel. There is also a small visitor center across the road and under the pipeline. They gave us some tips on upcoming road conditions and certificates to sign when we crossed into the arctic circle.
The next three stops were hard to take in because of the rain, but on the way home we got good views from all three. On the way up, in the rain and mud, I drove, on the way home, when it was sunny and beautiful, Lucas drove. Go figure. But I was actually glad it worked out that way, because I got a chance to really look out while he had to watch the road. On the way home, 86-mile Overlook was beautiful. It was at the top of a mountain where the pipeline company had cut into the side of a hill to dig out gravel. There are similar gravel piles all along this road. From here you can see the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge and more fall colors. At mile 98 we came to Finger Mountain, which is actually rock not a mountain, but it does look remarkable like a finger. During our return stop, we hiked out to the finger across the open wet tundra. The finger points towards Fairbanks and has been used by bush pilots as an important landmark when flying through this area. It was windy and the land seemed to stretch out in a never ending way from this point.
Reaching the Arctic Circle at mile 115 is a little bit of a let down. The land doesn’t significantly change here. The only reason you even know you have entered the Arctic Circle is a big wooden sign. But, we got our picture taken, and it did feel special knowing we would spend the next day and a half within the arctic circle. It seemed a little crazy to know we were that far north.
Gobblers Knob was our next stop, and like many places, it offered better views on the way home than out. From here you get your first good view of the Brooks Range, which is 700 miles long. The mountains in this range have a lower elevation than those in the Alaskan Range, but are still breath-taking and impressive. Grayling Lake at mile 132 is low and surround by trees. Normally it is a good place to see moose, but our trip was during moose hunting season and a large group of hunters were staked out at one side of the lake, so we did not see moose.
At mile 175 we reached Coldfoot, the last stop with services before Deadhorse. People there call it Camp Coldfoot, and it feels that way. Another building that was combination restaurant, gas station, and hotel. One log cabin with moose and caribou racks hung out front, and a low line of additional rooms for truckers and tourists. It was originally a goldrush town, and it has the desolate feeling of a transient place. Five miles beyond that was Marion Creek Campground, our home for the night. The campground is nestled in the Brooks Range with nice views. That night two moose came into the camp site across from our just after dinner. They snacked on the young saplings there, ripping all the leaves off in one quick slurping motion. It was fun to watch them from our site. The next day we also hiked a short trail up into the mountains to a waterfall. The trail offered great views of the valley, the creek, and the mountains. I really liked the spongy lichen covering the ground near the river underneath the black spruce trees. Coldfoot is also home to a very nice visitor center. We went to a ranger program on arctic plants that can be used as food and medicine. We even got to sample a few of the items she talked about. The low bush cranberry sauce was awesome!
On day two, the weather was gray in the morning, but by lunch it had cleared up, mostly sun and good visibility. It still rained a few times even with the sun, and we saw 7-9 rainbows throughout the day. I have never seen so many rainbows! But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. While it was still gray we stopped at Wiseman, the only official town on the Dalton Highway. It has approximately 21 residents. Really, it didn’t look like much of a town, only a few log cabins on a short loop road, no gas station or grocery store. I can’t really wrap my head around living in a place like that, so remote, yet not even in a good position to take in all the beauty of the land. It would be a hard life.
After Wiseman, we came to Sukakpak Mountain at mile 203. This is a giant wall of rock rising about 4,500 feet with a river at its base. On our way back it had direct sunlight making it look even more majestic. It is a place that makes you feel small in all the right kind of ways. Our next stop was the farthest north spruce tree. This is were the land really changes. Before the forest was mostly sick looking black spruce (they are stunted by the permafrost) and birch, but it still provided a sense of being in the woods. After the last spruce trees are gone, the land is blanketed in low ground cover like fireweed (a vibrant red color). It makes the mountains look even bigger.
The next two spots were my favorite parts of the drive, Chandalar Shelf and Atigun Pass. In this section you move up into and over the Brooks range. The road cuts through the center of the mountain, a dangerous avalanche zone in the winter, and crosses over the continental divide. The views here are sweeping. It even snowed a little as we crossed through this area. The sheer rock and river valley make for a harsh but beautiful landscape.
Our final stop at Galbraith Lake, mile 275, allowed us to look back at Atigun Pass and the Brooks Range. The mountains curved around us and the lake, carved by glaciers that once occupied the valley. This is also the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It is an impressive place. From here we turned around and drove back to the Arctic Circle were we camped for our second night. And the following morning we headed back to Fairbanks.
One of the interesting parts of this drive, beyond the beautiful scenery, is the constant presence of the pipeline. It goes underground in a few places, but for the most part you can see it from the highway. It snakes across the land, over rivers, through the woods, and even under the highway in a few places. Several pump stations also dot the road as well as gated direct access roads to the pipeline. The size and construction of the pipeline in an environment like this is staggering. But the presence of something so industrial in a place that is still so wild, also seems startling. The pipeline itself is not as much of an eyesore as I imaged. Watching it move across the land is actually interesting. But it, and the road, and even us being there, still seems a little strange. Alaska is a big place, and when you stand at an overlook and see how far uninhabited land stretches in this part of the state any touch of civilization seems strangely alien.