I have an unhealthy fascination with the state of Alaska. Having lived most of my life in Tennessee, I find it hard to imagine a place so disconnected, distant, and cold. As you might expect, Alaska’s geographical detachment from the continental United States that this has become a defining aspect of its character. That’s part of why cheesy television shows refer to it as the Last Frontier.
When it’s relegated to a tiny box in the bottom left corner of a map, it’s easy to lose a sense of the scale of the state. Alaska is 2.5 times bigger than Texas – a state which prides itself on its size. Bear in mind that Texas is an absurdly large state – about 3 times the size of the United Kingdom.
Alaska is a massive, isolated, cold state. That’s why I’m so fascinated with Alaska Highway 11, also known as the Dalton Highway or North Slope Haul Road. This is a road which captures all the ruggedness of the state and much of the beauty as well.
The Dalton Highway is a 414 mile stretch of road that starts about 80 miles northwest of Fairbanks and stretches all the way up to the ominously named oil refinery town of Deadhorse. It’s an ugly road. Most of it is unpaved. You can expect multiple flat tires. It can snow at any time, including July and August. There’s very, very few places you can stop for gas or shelter. Big trucks have the right of way at all times. The speed limit is 50 miles per hour, but there will be places where you can’t go faster than 15. This is not a road for the faint of heart.
The reward for steeling your nerves to travel this dangerous road is an unparalleled peek into the hundreds of miles of untouched wilderness. I throw around the word “isolated” a lot, but this road makes “The Loneliest Road in America” seem like the 405 in California.
As if the road weren’t hard enough to traverse because of its constant slushy consistency and ample potholes, there’s mountains to climb, including the fearsome Atigun Pass. Some of these mountains are so scary that even pilots are worried about crashing.
Travelling this road is an ambition of mine. You don’t travel it for the food. The food isn’t good. You don’t travel it to reach Deadhorse, because the town of Deadhorse is hideous. You don’t travel it to see the Arctic Ocean, because you can’t see that unless you’re going on a trip with others. You don’t even drive it for the scenery, which while gorgeous, is still hard to justify going to Alaska to see.
You drive the Dalton to drive the Dalton. You do it for its own sake. You do it to conquer it. Why else would you drive a road so dangerous that rental agencies outfit cars specially for the road and refuse to rent to folks under age 30?
Have I piqued your interest? Check out this fantastic article by the New York Times written from the perspective of someone who’s driven the Dalton. It’s a great read!