Notes on bike touring the Dalton Highway

Among the many standouts of bicycle touring in Alaska, the Dalton Highway was a special treat.  It’s rugged with majestic varied terrain, there’s abundant expansive aloneness, and the road and pipeline always themselves seem uncomfortable unnatural exceptions to the wildness of the place.

Superficially, the first few hours on the road can imply a wobbly blend of Into the Wild meets Mad Max.  It’s true that the exquisite sense of vastness, solitude, and remoteness is every day periodically cracked by the rumble of truck traffic. The Dalton is first and foremost a haul road, and it owes its existence to the need to move material to and from the immense industrial arctic oilworks at Prudhoe.  My overwhelming impression of the truck drivers was that they were polite, respectful, professional.  I never once had a conflict or felt in danger as a cyclist.  I was there well into hunting season, and I found the hunters, too, helpful, friendly, great to chat with.

In addition to the positive interactions with the community of the road, what stays with me is losing myself in hours of late-August orange, red, and gold paint dabs against a green canvas unfurling into skyline.

Fairbanks to Deadhorse is 496 miles (798km), including about 80 miles of the Elliot Hwy.  Substantial portions of the Dalton are paved and all of the Elliot is.  The unpaved portions of the Dalton vary from easy hardpacked dirt to the very occasional soft loose gravel.  This will, of course, vary according to the work being done on the road and with the recency of rain. Rain did substantially soften some portions of the road making for slower travel and a lot of mud thrown off tires.  Still, in my judgment, tire selection is not of great concern: cyclocross tires, touring tires like Marathons, mountain bike tires (obviously) would work just fine.  Aggressive tread is not necessary.  I think it would be great fun to ride a carbon road race bike on the Dalton and I have absolute certainty it would be straightforward.  But you’d have to, how to put it?, have a good attitude about that sort of thing.

Truckers report that riding southbound on balance incurs steeper climbs, and some aesthetes claim that the route becomes more beautiful the further north one goes. One Italian tourist I met claimed that going south to north is more admirable, because you’re not headed for the civilized security of Fairbanks. Logistically, though, north to south seems marginally easier: Picking a date and flying to Deadhorse from Fairbanks is easy, though not exactly cheap. (I paid US$315 one way plus US$80 for the bicycle on Era Airlines; the bicycle does not have to be boxed or otherwise packed.)  The advantage is that one does not need to make a prediction on when one is likely to arrive in Deadhorse when booking the flight.  On the other hand, I don’t doubt that it would be perfectly easy to arrange a (12-14 hour) ride back to Fairbanks from Deadhorse with one of the drivers.  And the south to north route would make it so that you wouldn’t have to transit a duffel full of food on the flight.

If starting from Deadhorse, very basic camping supplies and bike spares are available at the general store.  This is handy since some things — e.g., stove fuel, bear spray — are technically not allowed on the flight.  I spotted several different brands of standard stove cartridge on the shelves as well as typical canisters of white gas.  Do not expect to acquire much by way of groceries in Deadhorse. The workers all eat at the dormitory restaurants, so you absolutely must arrive there with nearly all your food for the southward journey.

Wild camping was simple.  There are frequent gated pipeline maintenance roads perpendicular to the Dalton, and putting up a tent on these without blocking maintenance vehicles (not that there were ever any) is apparently fine.  So, too, is simply heading off the road to a spot that looks decent.

The campgrounds at Marion Creek (milepost 180) and Arctic Circle (milepost 115) were very nice, though I failed to take sufficiently seriously that the latter has no water.  I had understood it to mean that there is no potable water.  That’s true, but it’s also true that there is no water at all.  So filling up bottles before making the climb is essential.  Water from streams and rivers was usually readily available dozens of times per day.

No sane person would want to camp at the campground in Coldfoot or the one outside of Livengood.  I found the Five Mile campground entertaining, but no one would call it nice.  I did not look at the Gailbraith Lake or Whitefish State campgrounds.

Coldfoot presents some fascinating sociology in watching the dense mix of truck drivers, pipeline workers, hunters, and awkward seeming tourists.  They are drawn by the $US20 buffet and the bar, both of which I found agreeable.  “Town” is just a few buildings and gravel lots for parking trucks.  There is no internet access, but there are a few phones for which you can buy a phone card at the restaurant checkout.

Coldfoot from the restaurant porch

The other legendary eating option is “The Hot Spot” in Five Mile, a few hundred meters from the campground.  This is little more than a series of shacks where Teresa and her staff cook up impossibly delicious food.  Their burger is the big draw.  Note that, if you’re headed south to north, Teresa’s place is not in Yukon Crossing; keep going up the slight climb after the bridge for another 2k. Speaking of Yukon crossing, it looked as if one could get lodging there, but I did not investigate the possibility.

Overall, I’m ambivalent about whether to call this ride difficult.  At the end of every one of my seven and half days on it, I was pretty knackered, averaging 70 miles (~110k) of pannier laden Fat Bike joy (I was on my Surly Pugsley).  But the pedaling itself was usually very easy and relaxed.  Atigun Pass wasn’t much of an obstacle.  On the other hand, there were some excellently steep pitches — sustained 14-18% — on the southbound route.  These generated a rhythm where you might be climbing dead slow for fifteen or twenty minutes, bomb down the other side at high speed, then repeat (on some days all day).

The Beaver Slide

The second to last day — i.e., the bottom of the Dalton before meeting up with the Elliot — seemed most difficult to me due to the climbing.

Nor do I agree that the North part of the route was the most lovely.  I enjoyed all of it, with the middle sections being the highlight.

The things said in the Bureau of Land Management publication are reasonable even if, understandably, a bit conservative and cautious.  You don’t need a detailed map unless you like maps.  This one is fine.