Day Distance: 391 Miles
It’s uncommon for me to get nervous about a road trip. I’m a pro at this, or at least I think I am. I’ve dealt with my share of road, weather, and traffic conditions and I’ve put several hundred thousand miles under my belt. I’ve driven coast to coast multiple times, and now to Alaska twice. But for some reason, the thought of today’s drive gave me a pit in my stomach and a feeling of uneasiness that I just couldn’t shake. Maybe it was the fact that many of The Milepost guidebook’s instructions were in red font as a form of warning.
This is a direct quote from the book:
Despite recent improvements, the Dalton remains about 75 percent gravel, with tire-puncturing rocks, bumpy washboard, dust in dry weather, slippery mud in wet weather, and dangerous curves. Services are few and far between.
This is not a road for the unprepared or for the faint of heart. It’s straight out of an episode of Ice Road Truckers – literally. The show was filmed there.
I told Jason last night. “I’m 60% leaning toward starting our long drive home, and 40% leaning toward driving to the Arctic.” He told me he was 85% for the Arctic. So, I was swayed. And we did it. About a week ago, I was in Tucson, Arizona about 70 miles from the Mexican border. And today, in the same car, I was so far north of the equator that on one day each year, the sun never goes below the horizon. And one day each year, the sun never comes above the horizon.
The Arctic Circle is the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for twenty-four hours; as a result, at least once each year at any location within the Arctic Circle the sun is visible at local midnight, and at least once it is not visible at local noon.
Locals had recommended that we fuel up at a service station called Hilltop in Fox, Alaska about 15 miles north of Fairbanks, so we did that first thing this morning. Once again it was a “diesel or unleaded” gas decision with no variety of unleadeds to choose from.
We drove another 60 or so miles on the two-lane Elliott Highway toward its junction with the Dalton Highway. Conditions seemed to get progressively worse. In some spots, the road had completely caved in. Road workers have done their best to mark the especially bad areas with orange cones for driver awareness until they can be repaired. I was apprehensive about our weather, knowing that the cloudy skies meant that we may hit rain and thus be mud-bogging in our sedans.
Pavement ended at the Dalton / Elliott junction. The next sign we saw was “All Vehicles Drive with Lights On Next 425 Miles.” And with that, we were off. Headed northbound on the road that’s taken lives and obliterated vehicles. We saw the carcass of a Mitsubishi Galant just a few miles down – crumpled and left by the roadside for some reason.
The road surface was indeed wet and muddy but my meaty Michelin Primacy tires seemed to have a good grip. More so than Jason’s, who reported from his walkie talkie that his Continentals were feeling a bit squirrely. In some areas I was able to get up to 55 or even 60 miles per hour on the unpaved portions. In other areas I had to quickly hit the brakes and pull evasive maneuvers to get around obstacles. If ever there were a time to have both hands on the wheel while driving, it was on this road.
In the 8 hour round trip, we saw minimal traffic. Only two other “cars,” in fact – a Chrysler 200 and a Ford Taurus that were surely both rentals. Everything else was a semi truck or construction related pickup. At one point I was following a tractor that was doing some grading of the road on a gravel portion. It had left a huge berm in the center of the road. I had to cross over it and scraped the underneath of my car pretty good. Luckily it was pretty loose dirt and not gravel or larger rocks.
In short sections, pavement did resume. But Jason and I both found that the condition of the pavement was even worse than the condition of the gravel. Huge frost heaves sent our cars lurching when hit just right. I managed to forewarn Jason via the radio of a few particularly tricky areas but neither one of us avoided the potholes entirely. Sometimes all I could do was grip the wheel strongly and grit my teeth. I kept a close eye on my gauge cluster watching for any losses of tire pressure, just in case.
The countryside was beautiful as we made our way up and down steep 7-8% grades, across narrow bridges, and through various types of terrain. For most of the drive, the Trans Alaska Oil Pipeline was visible from the road. The pipeline is why the road exists, after all. Eventually the clouds parted a bit and we saw a hint of blue sky which was a relief. Our road sharply descended into a small valley with the Yukon River at the base.
We crossed over the wooden bridge and arrived at Yukon River Camp, a rustic lodge with a restaurant and a single gas pump. To be on the safe side, Jason and I decided to top off there. A man named Stephen who was running the store was kind enough to give us some tips and an update on road conditions up ahead.
Here’s Stephen. Our gas was $5.49 per gallon.
The next 60 miles were more of the same, and by the same I mean amazing scenery, rough roads, and a surreal sense of “Am I really doing this?” as we crept further and further northbound. Pine trees cleared out and soon the terrain was more barren. There was still snow on the roadside in various places. The tundra up there is a rough place for any living thing to survive. Temperatures can reach 80 below zero during the wintertime. Somewhere along the way I managed to run over a rabbit that decided to cross the road at a very inopportune time. Otherwise our wildlife sightings were nil.
When we finally pulled up to the sign/marker at the official start of the Arctic Circle, I couldn’t believe we’d made it. We were both a little giddy. There was of course nobody else for miles around. We took some celebratory photos and then enjoyed the scenery while having some snacks. (Thanks Jason for sharing your Lunchables).
A Ford 15-passenger van pulled up a little while later with 4 visitors from Pittsburgh. They thought we were insane for having taken our personal vehicles on the Dalton Highway. Their tour guide was unloading supplies to fix a bite to eat for his clients so I told Jason, “Perfect, we’re just in time for lunch!” The guide laughed and said, “Yeah, did you bring some?”
On the way back into Fairbanks, we stopped again at Yukon River Camp, but this time to stop in at the one-room log cabin that serves as a visitor center. It barely opened for the season yesterday. The worker there, Rob, filled out a certificate for each of us that acknowledged that we had in fact that we had “Crossed into the Land of the Midnight Sun.” Awesome! I might just have to hang that in my cube at work!
So it’s back to our cozy motel here in Fairbanks now for one more night before heading back to the Lower 48.
Thanks for coming along!
Pavement ending at the beginning of Dalton Highway
Speed Limit 50, Next 416 Miles
ILX at the entrance to the highway
Road conditions for part of the drive
Distance marker. Deadhorse is the end of the highway at the far northern end of Alaska, Prudhoe Bay.
Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline as seen on the roadside parallel to us.
Distances! Getting closer to the Arctic!
Inside of the Yukon Camp.
Check out this rig!
Jason fueling up at Yukon Camp.
Never before has a “You Are Here” arrow sticker had so much meaning!
Sign on the door to the restrooms at Yukon Camp
Long (bumpy) road ahead
When one of these comes barreling at you, you close your eyes and pray for minimal damage when it peppers you with rocks.
Speaking of rocks, I took a few from the area around the sign because a friend asked me to get him a souvenir.
Tour van arrived just as we were about to leave. Otherwise we’d had the place to ourselves!
What do you think of my two-tone ILX?
Rob at the Yukon Camp visitor center.
Showing us our way around.
The scenery is very beautiful and the pipeline is very prominent.
Crossing the Yukon River.
Snow on the roadside.
Hope you enjoyed! Who wants to detail my car when I get home?