A few years ago I went up to do some hiking in ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). I wanted to be sure to get out there before any oil wells were put in. I had put together a trip report that was hosted on my old site which I have since taken down. So, I thought I would repost it here. It was a most excellent trip.
For those of you who are fans of the History Channels Ice Road Truckers, this is the road they drive on here in Alaska.
This post is long and picture intensive. It took me most of the day to load it. I hope it is enjoyed by many!
The Brooks Range and the Dalton Highway, Alaska.
A Unique Gateway to the Far North
The Dalton Highway stretches 414 miles across northern Alaska from Livengood (84 miles north of Fairbanks) to Deadhorse and the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay. Built during construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in the 1970s, this mostly gravel highway travels through rolling, forested hills, across the Yukon River and Arctic Circle, through the rugged Brooks Range, and over the North Slope to the Arctic Ocean. Along most of its length, youâ€™ll see no restaurants, no gift shops, no service stations â€“ just forest, tundra, and mountains from horizon to horizon, crossed by a double ribbon of road and pipe.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages a swath of public lands along the highway from the Yukon River to the north side of the Brooks Range. Within the Dalton Corridor, BLM maintains campgrounds, rest areas, interpretive panels and a visitor center.
BLM Alaska Dalton Highway Guide Main Page
Haul Road or Highway?
During its early years, most Alaskans referred to the highway simply as the “Haul Road,” because of its heavy use by tractor-trailer rigs hauling supplies and equipment to the North Slope for oil development. In 1981 the highway was named after engineer James B. Dalton, who was involved in early oil exploration efforts on the North Slope. Public access remained limited until 1994, when it became possible to drive all the way to Deadhorse.
Today, the Dalton Highway beckons adventurous souls to explore a still-wild and mysterious frontier. Respect this harsh land and appreciate the opportunity to visit a special part of our world.
We ended up following a tour bus for quite a while. It was just too rough to pass.
The Yukon River Bridge is wooden, and built on an incline. I think it is a 6% grade.
Built for Black Gold
In 1969, oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope. Excitement was high at the prospect of new money to fuel Alaska’s boom-and-bust economy. The nation was in the throes of an energy crisis and pushed for an 800-mile long pipeline. But first, Native land claims had to be settled, permits granted, environmental safeguards designed, and a road built to get workers and supplies north to the oilfield.
When finally approved, construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was run like a wartime project—money was no object and time was of the essence. The weather conditions, terrain, and the immensity of the project were all extreme. Engineers overcame permafrost, mountain ranges, and the relentless flow of the Yukon River in the process. Incredibly, the haul road was completed in just five months and the pipeline in three years (1974-77). The previously remote Arctic was changed forever.
Yukon River (MP 56)
The mighty Yukon River winds nearly 2,000 miles (3,200km) from Canada to the Bering Sea. Athabascan people first traveled this river in birchbark canoes. During the gold rush, wood-fired sternwheelers ferried gold seekers and supplies for trading posts. Today, Yukon River residents use motorboats in summer and snowmachines in winter to travel this natural highway.
Pipeline Quick Facts
¤ The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was designed and constructed to move oil from the North Slope of Alaska to the northern most ice- free port- Valdez, Alaska.
¤ Length: 800 miles.
¤ Diameter: 48 inches.
¤ Crosses three mountain ranges and over 800 rivers and streams.
¤ Cost to build: $8 billion in 1977, largest privately funded construction project at that time.
¤ Construction began on March 27, 1975 and was completed on May 31, 1977.
¤ First oil moved through the pipeline on June 20, 1977.
¤ Over 14 billion barrels have moved through the Trans Alaska Pipeline System.
¤ First tanker to carry crude oil from Valdez: ARCO Juneau, August 1, 1977.
¤ Tankers loaded at Valdez: 16,781 through March 2001.
¤ Storage tanks in Valdez- 18 with total storage capacity of 9.1 million barrels total.
¤ The mission of Alyeska’s Ship Escort Response Vessel System is to safely escort tankers through Prince William Sound.
Specially designed vertical supports were placed in drilled holes or driven into the ground. In warm permafrost and other areas where heat might cause undesirable thawing, the supports contain two each, 2-inch pipes called “heat pipes,” containing anhydrous ammonia, which vaporizes below ground, rises and condenses above-ground, removing ground heat whenever the ground temperature exceeds the temperature of the air. Heat is transferred through the walls of the heat pipes to aluminum radiators atop the pipes.
The hiway must be closed when an airplane is landing on this strip, a wide spot in the road.
The pipeline zig zags to allow for expansion.
Arctic Circle Wayside (MP 115)
The Arctic Circle is an imaginary line at latitude 66° 33’ North, where the sun stays above the horizon for one full day on summer solstice (June 21), and below the horizon for one full day on winter solstice (December 21).
We got a certificate at the Coldfoot Arctic Interagency Visitor’s Center for crossing the Arctic Circle.
Alaska’s Record Fire Year
2004 was Alaska’s biggest fire year since records began. Hot, dry, windy weather fanned the flames over 6.7 million acres, an area the size of Massachusetts. Similar conditions returned in 2005, the 3rd biggest year with over 4.4 million acres (1,780,617 ha) burned. Between Hess Creek and Coldfoot fields of bright pink fireweed, an early colonizer of burned areas, lead the way for regrowth that will eventually feed much more wildlife.
Grayling Lake Wayside (MP 150)
An ancient glacier carved this U-shaped valley and left a shallow lake. Moose feed on the nutrient-rich aquatic plants in summer. Charcoal, stone scrapers, and other artifacts found nearby indicate that Native hunters used this lookout for thousands of years.
Coldfoot (MP 175)
The original gold rush town of Coldfoot was located on the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River near the mouth of Slate Creek. It got its name in 1900 when early prospectors reportedly got “cold feet” and left before winter set in.
They have the wonderful Arctic Interagency Visitor’s Center. From here you can also check out Bear Resistant Food Containers (BRFC) at no charge for trips into the Brooks Range.
Yes, it was rainy…
While stopping at Coldfoot to eat I looked out the window of the cafe/gas station and noticed this family on motorcycles. I realized right away that they were the ones who were featured recently in our news paper. Mom, dad, and the two kids had traveled from South America and were almost to their goal of Prudhoe Bay. I immediately went out to meet them. It was exciting. They were actually just hoping to make this last couple of hundred miles before the bikes were totally worn out. The mom had lost her top gear and the dad was having problems with his bike too but I forgot what he said they were. The kids were funny.
Next Services 240 miles.
Know Before You Go!
Traveling this farthest-north road involves real risks and challenges.
Services are available at only a few places along the Dalton Highway, so proper planning is essential. There are no public services at Department of Transportation maintenance stations or Alyeska Pipeline Service pump stations.
Medical Facilities. There are no public emergency medical facilities along the Elliott or Dalton Highways. In a critical emergency, contact the state troopers by calling 911 or use a CB radio (channel 19).
Banking. There are no banks along the highway. The only ATM machine is located in Deadhorse. Most services accept major credit cards.
Repairs. Tire and repair services are available only at Yukon Crossing, Coldfoot and Deadhorse.
Groceries. There are no full-service grocery stores along the highway. Snack food and cafes are available at Yukon Crossing, Five Mile, Coldfoot and Deadhorse.
Water clear enough to see the rocks at the bottom of a river is actually kind of rare up here as the water is normally full of glacial silt, giving it a milky look.
Farthest North Spruce (MP 235)
As you approach the headwaters of the Dietrich River, trees grow scarce until they disappear altogether. This last tall spruce, approximately 273 years old, was killed by a vandal in 2004.
Atigun Pass (MP 244)
You cross the Continental Divide at Atigun Pass (elev. 4,739ft). Rivers south of here flow into the Pacific Ocean or Bering Sea, while rivers to the north flow into the Arctic Ocean. Watch for Dall sheep, which are often on the road or on nearby slopes. Storms can dump snow here even in June and July. This is just the beginning. I didn’t get any good pictures going OVER Atigun Pass as I was too busy either driving, or holding on…
Galbraith Lake (MP 275)
This is all that remains of a large glacial lake that once occupied the entire Atigun Valley. Just downstream from the bridge is the spectacular Atigun Gorge and the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
This is where we made our base camp. There is a small BLM primitive camp area and a gravel airstrip. Gailbrath Lake is in the background. Life’s necessity is in the foreground.
Eh, he’s not a morning person.
Neither am I.
Gates of the Arctic National Park is just a 2-3 hour hike over that hill. Our goal was to hike in ANWR so we didn’t have time to go there also though that would have been really unique, to hike in the two largest national parks in the world, on the same day.
Atigun River Gorge and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ANWR!
Sukakpak Mountain (MP 203)
A massive wall rising to 4,459 feet (1,338 m) that glows in the afternoon sun, Sukakpak Mountain is an awe-inspiring sight. Peculiar ice-cored mounds known as palsen punctuate the ground at the mountain’s base. “Sukakpak” is an Inupiat Eskimo word meaning “marten deadfall.” Seen from the north, the mountain resembles a carefully balanced log used to trap marten.
Finger Mountain Wayside (MP 98)
The largest tor in the surrounding area.
The windshield had been cracked by a wreck the previous owner had, but we got this pretty big rock hole for a souvenir of our trip.
Oh it was a muddy, slippery, pot holed, washboard trip!
Exploring the Northern Landscape
The Boreal Forest
Livengood to Coldfoot (MP 0-175)
A cold, dry climate and sporadic permafrost dictate what grows here. Those scraggly spruce trees may be more than a century old! Lightning-caused wildfires benefit wildlife by recycling nutrients into the soil and creating new sources of food and shelter. The largest forest ecosystem in the world, the boreal forest circles the northern hemisphere.
The Brooks Range
Coldfoot to Galbraith Lake (MP 175-275)
Steep, rocky slopes and glacier-carved valleys dominate this rugged landscape. Extending over 700 miles (1120 km) from east to west, the Brooks Range creates a formidable barrier across the Arctic for plants, birds, and weather systems.
The North Slope
Galbraith Lake to Last Chance
This far north, the sun never sets between May 10 and August 2, and never rises between November 18 and January 23. Only tough, ground-hugging plants can survive the frozen ground, frigid temperatures, icy winds, and weak sunlight.
The Coastal Plain
Last Chance to the Arctic Ocean
Annual precipitation is only about 5 inches (13 cm) but underlying permafrost seals the ground. Water remains on the surface in vast wetlands where protein-rich sedges and huge populations of insects thrive, providing a banquet for migratory birds and other wildlife.
How cold does it get in winter?
The coldest temperature ever recorded in the United States was -80°F/-62°C at Prospect Camp, 39 miles (62 km) south of Coldfoot in 1971. Winter temperatures in Interior and Arctic Alaska commonly range between -20°F/-29°C and -40°F/-40°C, or colder.
Most of the land you see from the Dalton Highway is federal public land, a legacy for future generations. These areas are so unique that Congress established special designations which honor their special values to the nation and the world.
In 1971 after oil was discovered on the North Slope, the Utility Corridor was established to protect the route of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The Corridor’s boundaries vary from less than a mile to nearly 12 miles from the pipeline. While the corridor’s primary function is the transportation of energy resources, the Bureau of Land Management encourages recreational activities such as hiking, fishing, gold panning, and canoeing on these lands.
Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve
Much of the Brooks Range west of the Dalton Highway lies within one of the premier wilderness areas in the National Park System. Forester and conservationist Robert Marshall explored the area in the 1930s. Impressed by two massive peaks flanking the North Fork of the Koyukuk River, he called them the “Gates of the Arctic.” Encompassing 8.4 million acres, the park and preserve protect primeval landscapes, their flora and fauna, and the culture and traditions of Native people.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)
Bordering the Utility Corridor near Atigun Canyon, this refuge extends east across the Brooks Range and North Slope to Canada. It offers extraordinary wilderness, recreation, and wildlife values. The Porcupine Caribou Herd (named for the Porcupine River on the herd’s migration route), polar bears, muskoxen, and snow geese depend on its unspoiled environment. Pioneer Alaska conservationists Margaret and Olaus Murie traveled the region by dog team and canoe, and were instrumental in gaining refuge status for the area.
Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge
Located west of the Finger Mountain area and slightly larger than the state of Delaware, this refuge protects large wetland areas that are critical to nesting waterfowl and other wildlife. These resources provide sustenance for the people of the Koyukuk River valley.
Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge
Encompassing an area larger than Vermont and Connecticut combined, this refuge protects a vast complex of lakes and rivers in the Yukon watershed upstream from the Dalton Highway. Wildlife, especially migratory birds such as ducks, geese, and songbirds, thrive in these wetlands and support the hunting and gathering tradition of Yukon River villages.