Beating the Haul Road: Alaska’s Dalton Highway

Dalton Highway
The long, lonely road to Deadhorse can be your best friend, or your worst enemy. Luck plays as big a part as preparation. Photos by Jack Gustafson.

If you’re a Harley rider, you have to ride to Sturgis at least once in your life. For road race fans it’s Austin or Laguna Seca. But for adventure riders, the defining, must-do ride is the 414-mile Dalton Highway, more commonly known as the Haul Road, beginning north of Fairbanks, Alaska, and ending at Prudhoe Bay on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. While it’s legendary as one of the toughest roads in the U.S., it’s nowhere near as deadly as some people say, and you can ride it on most any motorcycle, not just a round-the-world-prepped ADV bike.

Dalton Highway
The 414-mile Dalton Highway, known locally as the Haul Road. Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

Jack Gustafson has lived in Alaska for 60 years, and has been up and down the Haul Road at least two dozen times on a variety of bikes, and at various times of the year, including once on Christmas Eve. While you can find out a lot of what you need to know to tackle the Haul Road by going online, there’s no substitute for talking to someone who’s actually done it. Gustafson has some insider information you might not find anywhere else.

Dalton Highway
Roller Coaster Hill, at Mile 76: a long drop with little room to pass at the bottom. Plan ahead.

When to Go

“August is generally monsoon season,” says Gustafson. ”The Brooks Range serves as kind of a barrier, and north of there the weather is more affected by the Arctic Ocean, so the seasonal change is delayed about a month. Same in the fall—it’ll stay mild up there after it starts to get cold in the interior. You can be into the monsoon season down south, and then you get up north of the Brooks Range and it’s nice and dry, because that’s basically an arid climate.

“I’d recommend the first half of June—historically the time of the best rides I’ve had up there—although anything can happen. Some riders talk about miserable conditions heading north and, after staying overnight at Deadhorse, it’s beautiful sunny weather on the way home.”

Dalton Highway
South of the Artic Circle, wayside at Mile 110. These bikes are too clean to have gone much farther north.

What to Ride

The bike you ride doesn’t matter much, Gustafson says, “as long as the rider is proficient. I’ve seen guys coming back down two-up on Harleys with street tires, doing just fine. I’ve seen just about every kind of bike you an imagine up on that highway.” The road takes a toll on motorcycles, though. “The calcium chloride will cake on every square inch of the bike, and sometimes the rider as well. Wet rubber cuts easier than dry rubber so if it’s raining and you’re going over some sharp rocks, there’s a good chance you can get a flat if you’re not careful. I’ve had only one flat in all my trips but I take it pretty easy when it’s wet.” Gustafson suggests renting a bike in Alaska if you’re concerned about trashing your own.

Dalton Highway
The day before, this Gold Wing rider was using the whole road, going under 25 mph. The next day his confidence grew enough to register on a trooper’s radar.

Mental Prep

“Everybody that I’ve ever been up there with has had the same reaction. They’re going up anticipating terror and feeling it, but by the time they get up there they realize hey, I made it unscathed. The trip back is always quicker than the one going up. They have at least a couple hundred more miles of gravel road experience, and it’s fresh in their mind, so they’re much more proficient on the way back. They understand you don’t get carried away and go zooming down the road. They understand caution and quite a few things they didn’t before they started.”

Dalton Highway
Snow on the approach to Atigun Pass stopped the street tire-shod FJR, but even the KLR with knobby TKC80s found it rough going. Later that day both bikes made it over the pass.

Preparing for Problems

Stuff happens no matter where you ride, but it’s worse if it happens on the Haul Road. “Make sure the bike is in good shape before you start, including a fairly new chain before you leave Fairbanks. Take tire-patching tools, and know how to use them. It’s also a good idea to leave Fairbanks on fresh tires. Take drinking water, and a small container and sponge so you can stop at a stream and wipe off your lights if necessary. That road can throw some curves at you, both literally and figuratively. People have died on that road because they didn’t take it seriously.

“You’ll almost always hit rain somewhere along the way. Rain gear is usually windproof so it also comes in handy when you get up on the coastal plain where there’s almost always a northeast wind blowing. If I’m on a bike with tubes I’ll carry spares, and I always have a 12-volt compressor with me––not just CO2, but an actual 12-volt pump.”

Dalton Highway
Gustafson’s KLR on its inaugural Deadhorse ride, with Sukakpak Mountain in the distance.

Extra fuel is a good idea, too, since there’s one 250-mile stretch of road with no fuel available. “I recommend people have more than 300 miles of gas on board. If you’re going north out of Coldfoot, for example, and you get to the tip of Ice Cut and find you can’t make it any farther because the weather is nasty, you have to turn around and go back, and that’s a 300-mile round trip right there.”

Although Gustafson has done many solo rides to Deadhorse, he doesn’t recommend it for others. “Bring a buddy. Get some practice riding dirt, mud and gravel. Practice picking up your bike. If you can’t do it on dry pavement you’ll never manage in several inches of slick mud.” He also suggests you consider a SPOT GPS tracker and a satellite phone, telling someone where and when you’re going before you leave, and checking in again when you get to Prudhoe Bay and back to Fairbanks.

Dalton Highway
Boat launch on the Sagavanirktok River. A great place for a picnic, but watch for wildlife, including grizzly bears.

And if everything does go upside down? “Alyeska Security runs 24 hours a day. There is some traffic even in the wee hours. If you were to break down at midnight you’d get cold, but just stay warm as long as you can. I recommend taking some matches and fire starter. I also carry firecrackers with me in case a bear wants to nose around and check me out––toss out a string of firecrackers and the bear’s gonna take off.”

Dalton Highway
About 30 miles north of Atigun Pass, at 1:30 a.m. The Brooks Range is in the background above a dense fogbank that shrouded the road until this high point.

Mind Your Manners

Keep in mind where you are and why the road you’re on was built in the first place. “It’s important to remember you’re not really supposed to be on the Dalton Highway,” Gustafson says. “It was built so big rigs could deliver machinery and supplies to the oilfields at Prudhoe Bay, not for tourists. Trucks have the right of way and there’s nothing to gain by arguing the point except a quick ride into a ditch.” It’s hard to believe riders don’t notice big rigs coming up behind them, but it happens often because the road requires so much concentration. “Watch your mirrors––they’ll sneak right up on you.

“The truckers are actually pretty good. If you slow down and edge toward the shoulder well in advance so they can see you’re being cautious, they’ll slow down for you. Give them a wave as they go by. They’ll stop to help if you’re in trouble but don’t forget—they’re on the clock and you’re just out there playing. If you stick to your lane and bop along like you’re on a paved road they’re not going to waste their brakes on you. They’ll pass you hard and toss up gravel at you.”

Dalton Highway
The pipeline near Coldfoot. Vertical support members (VSMs) raise it above the swampy surface.

Where to Stay

On the way up, Gustafson says, “Most people aren’t going to want to stop before Coldfoot. Coldfoot has the Slate Creek Inn. I stayed there once, and that was sufficient. I prefer going another 13 miles to Wiseman where there’s a B&B. They don’t serve breakfast until 8 a.m., so if you want to get to Prudhoe for the early tour you’re pushing it, and might want to take the afternoon one. There’s also a lodge in Wiseman. Nice folks run both of them. The lodge doesn’t have breakfast but they have a nice little kitchen—no microwave, though—and you can buy groceries in Fairbanks before you head north.

“At Prudhoe you don’t absolutely have to make reservations, especially during the summer—most of the work up that way takes place during the winter when it’s frozen because you can’t get out on the tundra when it’s soft. I’ve never known the Prudhoe Bay hotel to be full, but it’s not a bad idea to make reservations anyway.”

Dalton Highway
Photos ops are plentiful, as are mosquitos who enjoy coming along for the ride in your helmet.

The Road

Be ready for anything from pavement to gravel to mud—and worse. “Don’t assume the road won’t change over the next rise. On a bike you can duck around a lot of potholes, but they’re always doing maintenance on some of the gravel sections, and there it’s going to be wet and mucky and slippery.” Finally, remember to stop now and then, get off the bike, and appreciate where you are—riding a road carved through one of the largest wilderness areas in the U.S., just you and your bike, the mountains and the sky. And a few trillion mosquitos.

Dalton Highway
Leaving Wiseman at 5:30 a.m. provided this view of Sukakpak Mountain with the sun still low on the horizon.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Drove up in July, 2012 in a Dodge Sprinter long wheelbase. Saw caribou, swan, musk ox, swam in the Beaufort Sea and took the side trip to Manley Hot Springs.

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