Bikepacking - Dalton Highway, infos and feedback
Updated: 5 days ago
In July 2023, I rode the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to Deadhorse. Here's some information and impressions gleaned along the way. All with a fairly light bike, still in the bikepacking style.
Some numbers/infos : - The Elliot + Dalton highways distance : 830 kilometres between Fairbanks and Deadhorse,
- Elevation gained : 10,000m D+.
- Built in 1974, this is one of the most northerly roads in the world.
- It crosses the Arctic Circle.
- It only exists because of the famous pipeline, which runs from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.
- 30% of the oil consumed in the USA passes through this pipeline.
- All this information is in the south-north direction, from Fairbanks to Deadhorse.
- The number of kilometres below are from Fairbanks downtown.
- When I say toilets, I don't just mean in the traditional sense, but also include protection against rain and mosquitoes.
- All this information is based on my own experience, which means that you may encounter completely opposite conditions, and have a completely opposite general feeling.
-A spike room is a room where food is distributed continuously 24/24. Made for the surrounding workers who come and go day and night. Some have more food than others. If you don't eat meat, it's still less advantageous. Access to the spike room is included in the price of the night, which also explains the high prices. If you don't sleep there, you can access it for 20/25$.
For that price, you can eat as much as you like, for as long as you like, and you can even take a bit of everything with you. Which makes the deal not too bad, since you can carry several days' worth of food in your bag...
A few points of reference:
- Hilltop: KM 26
Petrol, water, toilets, groceries, phone network, restaurant
- Wickersham creek train: KM 60
- Livengood junction: KM 127
End of Elliott highway, the "end" of asphalt
- Yukon river camp: KM 215
Crossing the Yukon! Café, restaurant, souvenirs, toilets, hotel, water, DEET, free camping for cyclists. Very poor internet network, so don't count on it!
- 5 miles campsite : KM 223
Free camping a few miles north of the Yukon. Unlimited drinking water! A huge hose provides enough water for washing and drinking!
- Arctic Circle: KM 310
The famous Arctic Circle sign! Toilets, fire pit, campsite ($10 per pitch), non-drinking water. During the summer season, volunteers look after the camp, so you can be sure of a seat in the shade from the sun and mosquitoes, as well as drinking water! No telephone signal
- Gobblers Knob: KM 337
Nice viewpoint, toilets and large car park for parking and/or camping.
- Coldfoot: KM 406
The halfway stop. Free camping for cyclists, very good 4G network. Comprehensive tourist information centre, restaurant, all-you-can-eat buffet, coffee shop, souvenir shop, bar, petrol station.
- Abandoned firehouse: KM 534
Abandoned building, the door is open! Stream and river nearby. Lovely view!
- Happy valley camp: KM 669
Hotel, spike room, water, toilets, river, wifi, washing machine for a fee. Free camping for cyclists.
- Toilets : KM 702
- Unofficial campsite at Deadhorse: KM 790
Numerous options for camping by the river or artificial lakes.
- Deadhorse: KM 793
This is as far north as you can drive. Multiple hotels, spike rooms, large DIY shop, grocery shop selling everything but food. You'll find snacks but no pasta, rice, sauces, etc.
- Water :
For the first leg between Fairbanks and Coldfoot, you'll need to plan ahead!
Apart from a few specific points, you'll need to stop at watercourses and filter your water. These streams are more or less easily accessible, and the water is more or less clear.
On this section, I would advise taking between 2 and 3 litres each time. Aim for streams, rivers or other sources of water for camping. Bear in mind that this often multiplies the mosquitoes too...
Between Coldfoot and Happy valley camp, it's much easier to find water. I rarely had more than 2 litres, and it's easy to find a nice stream with clear water.
Between Happy valley camp and Deadhorse, I found it more difficult. There's a lot more stagnant water, and it doesn't taste very good, which doesn't make it any easier to drink!
You'll find unlimited fresh and good water at Yukon river camp, Coldfoot, Happy valley camp and Deadhorse.
But on the whole, don't miss an opportunity to fill your bottles when you find a good source of water. It can be very hot, and you can end up filtering water that you don't really want to drink.
To put it simply, you won't find a grocery shop or supermarket anywhere other than Fairbanks.
The last possible stop north is Hilltop, where you can buy a few more basic items.
After that, there's absolutely nothing between the "camps": Yukon river, coldfoot and Deadhorse.
- At Yukon river camp, you can buy sodas and cereal bars, a restaurant is open all day too, but there are few vegetarian options. All-you-can-eat coffee!
- At Coldfoot, you'll find the famous all-you-can-eat buffet, which is open for breakfast and dinner. From 6am to 10am and from 5pm to 9pm, for $17 and $27 respectively (tips not included).
You can also buy a plate of chips or cookies, or order à la carte. All-you-can-eat coffee. Vegetarian burger à la carte! - At Happy Valley Camp, you have to pay to enter the Spike Room. There, you can eat and take a little with you too.
- At Deadhorse, the shop only supplies soda, cereal bars and crisps. No food to speak of. On the other hand, each hotel has its own spike room, and here again you can stock up on food, even for a few days if necessary.
A few roadside toilets, but not for every day. So you'll probably need to take along a small shovel to dig your own toilet. Bear in mind that the ground is not always kind to permafrost.
But above all, the mosquitoes make the task very unpleasant. All the best!
- Where to sleep
Really, just about anywhere. The best place to camp is off the road when you cross the tracks leading to the pipeline. You can get away from the noise and glare and camp in peace and quiet.
What's more, the pipeline makes a perfect place to hang your food bag.
You can also sleep in car parks, beside rivers, in corners where workers store raw materials... But the Pipeline is definitely the quietest of them all !
You can get a room in one of the hotels on the way. The prices are outrageous, so don't count on that unless you're on a serious budget.
However, they will let you camp for free at Yukon river camp, Coldfoot and happy valley camp.
For Deadhorse, the room rates are even more absurd, and camping is forbidden in/around the campground. You can easily drive a few miles south to get out and camp by lakes or rivers, knowing that you can find some nice spots a little out of sight and off the road.
Forget about taking a shower, but rivers are perfect for bathing.
In places where you can camp for free, showers cost $14, so it's not that there aren't any, but you'll have to pay dearly to access them.
- Safety and security
On the whole, safety is not a problem. Depending on the season, traffic increases, and in summer you'll have no trouble finding a driver to get you out of your situation. There's not much on the road, and all amenities are in Fairbanks, so the further you are from town, the longer it will take you to get back to a hospital.
Animals and trucks are your biggest risks, but overall it's a pretty safe place.
Traffic increases dramatically in the summer/high season months. It's amazing the difference you'll find between May and July, for example.
More traffic means more noise and dust, but it also means a greater chance of hitchhiking or finding help.
Lorries often drive very fast, leaving you in a cloud of dust. Many make the effort to overtake by a wide margin, others don't. When in doubt, I always try to stop and pull over. It makes their lives easier and makes me feel safer.
My advice is to stay on good terms with the drivers who work here all year round, and when you're gone, it's other cyclists who will pay for the ill will of past cyclists.
- Work in progress
This is a road that is constantly under construction, and for which they only have a few months a year. So you're bound to come across some, and you'll have to climb into the back of a pick-up truck to get past these sections.
If you're lucky, you won't have to climb, but if you're not, you won't enjoy a descent or two.
The people at either end who are in charge of signposting are sure to offer you water and sometimes even snacks.
What can I say? They turn every potentially pleasant moment into an intense ordeal.
The year 2023 was apparently one of the worst, so maybe you'll be luckier.
But eating, going to the toilet, drinking, stopping, climbing, can become an ordeal.
As you can't eat in the tent because of the bears, you'll probably have to walk fast in circles to eat in peace. Or smear yourself with toxic mosquito repellent. It's not pleasant, but it's still what works best.
This part of the world is far from flat, and if they're around, they'll wait until you're going 6km/h uphill to come and harass you. It's not harassment, in fact, because they get straight to the point. They're often really aggressive.
The heat and direct exposure to the sun, as well as the wind, drive them away. Avoid undergrowth (hell on earth), and cute little spots where the water is stagnant.
What's more, sometimes you only need to walk a few hundred metres for them to disappear, or appear. So don't hesitate to try and move around a bit to find a quieter spot.
I haven't cracked the mystery of logic, namely why there's an army here and not 100 metres further on. But never mind. Good luck with that.
Even though it's a toxic product, slathering on DEET like you would sun cream helps a LOT. It doesn't last as long as promised on paper, but I find that the smell disappears quickly, and you don't end up sticky in the evening because of the product.
There's a lot of wildlife on the Dalton, at least potentially. Arctic fox, musk ox, arctic squirrel, caribou, elk, bear, wolf, birds...
I didn't come across many animals myself. Fortunately, or unfortunately.
As far as bears are concerned, it's the same procedure as everywhere else in a territory populated by bears, so nothing new.
What we seem to fear most is wolves. There are a lot of them, and recently wolves have been spotted out on their own, which is not a good sign.
One biker was bitten, but he had it coming. In any case, stay away from them, stay in a group if possible, and always be ready to react.
- The wind
The cyclist's enemy par excellence! But here it has the advantage of chasing mosquitoes away.
So it's almost desirable, even from the front, as it's much more pleasant than a cloud of ravenous mosquitoes.
- Road quality
It's relatively good all the way, but that's mainly down to the weather. If it's cold or sunny, the ground will be dry and hard. Perfect. As soon as it rains, it's a disaster, and the ground quickly turns to peanut butter.
I was also quite surprised by the amount of asphalt! I'd say almost 50% of the time. Which means it's easier to ride than I thought, and the weather doesn't really affect these parts of the road either.
It's often dusty. It really is. To the point of having a sore throat and a blocked nose. You only have to look at the state of the cars to understand what you're breathing in.
- Atigun pass You're bound to hear about this pass, which climbs to almost 1,500 metres and is the highest point on the Dalton. It's beautiful, it's steep, but it's not that long. If you're fit, it shouldn't take you too long. And if not, at worst you might end up pushing yourself a bit!
You'll find water along the way.
- Physical preparation
It's a route that's sometimes a little chaotic, but above all it's long and has a lot of gradients. Coming without any physical preparation is bound to make you struggle.
- Mental preparation
You're often far from everything, with no comforts, and always with the idea of moving among bears and bears. It's not a bike ride in Alsace, that's for sure.
You have to be prepared to eat dust, and eat at the side of the road. You only have sporadic access to a few comforts. But that's the charm of the road!
- Sending a parcel to Coldfoot
There's a post office in Coldfoot, in the middle of the Dalton, and you can send a parcel of food so you don't have to carry everything back and forth.
However, it's only open 3 days a week, and the opening hours are pretty tight. Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 1.30pm to 6pm.
It's a good solution in my humble opinion. It's a solution we didn't choose for obscure reasons, but it's the wisest one. Especially as you can camp for free next door, so waiting a day is not a problem, and it'll give you a rest!
- Getting to and from Deadhorse!
There are several options for getting to and from Deadhorse: plane, shuttle bus or hitchhiking.
The plane is very expensive, at $450, and flights are often diverted or postponed because of the weather. But it's clearly the quickest.
The shuttle leaves one way or the other, and takes you to your destination for a similar price, around $380 with the bike. You need to call the company and book the journey in advance.
As for hitchhiking, it's probably the longest, the shakiest but the cheapest. People start at the beginning of the Elliot Highway, at a petrol station called Hilltop. But we were often told that it would be easier to find a car in the opposite direction, to get back from Deadhorse.
It's also much easier in July/August because the traffic is so dense.
We split up to hitchhike back, and found a car in 30 minutes for Tristan, and without even giving me a thumbs up.
- The phone coverage
Absolutely nothing between Fairbanks and Coldfoot, you'll have a good internet network on Coldfoot.
Then nothing until the first summit of the Atigun pass. From there, it's 50/50 to Deadhorse. And then, once you get to Deadhorse, the network works perfectly again, and even better than in Fairbanks...
Notes et impressions : - The scenery
It's nice, but it's far from absolutely magnificent. At least for most of the route, which is often very similar.
This isn't a very technical route, but the section between Fairbanks and Coldfoot is quite brutal. Come in good shape, or risk damaging your knees, really.
Don't underestimate this route. Everything can change very quickly.
- Plan wide
The weather can be really changeable, so you might want to pack some extra food in case you're stuck in a tent for a whole day. If it rains, the road can become unroadworthy, so it's best to be patient and wait for it to dry out.
- Getting stuck in Deadhorse If you got stuck up there, and running out of food, the spike rooms are your best option, and actually the only one to get food. You can eat, and take away a few days worth of food. Also, you can get things shipped from Anchorage straight to the hardware store. It might cost you in shipping, but you can pretty much got anything you'd like.
I was expecting a long dirt track, but in the end, almost half of it is tarmac! The quality varies, but at least if the weather's bad, you won't be stuck in the mud!
- Wilderness It's not as wild as I'd imagined. At the height of the summer season, there's a lot of traffic. Trucks, cars, HGVs, mobile homes... A few cyclists too from time to time.
What's more, we didn't see many animals.
- The essentials
DEET, mosquito net, water filter, waterproof trousers and socks.
For peace of mind when eating or at the bivouac, look out for the thermacell, a small device that gets very good press and gives you a bit of peace and quiet with the mosquitoes.
- For how long ?
Under 8 days is a bit optimistic. It can be done, but it won't necessarily be very pleasant, it implies little rest and above all perfect weather to be able to ride every day as much as you like.
Between 8 and 10 days seems more likely. It allows you to stop halfway and take your time on the road.
There are two reasons why you might be pressed for time: if you have a flight home from Deadhorse or if you're on a tight schedule with your food supplies.
Is it worth it?
It's hard to say. It all depends on what you're looking for. But I have no regrets whatsoever. It was nice, not always exceptional, but just being up there, around the Arctic Circle, on a mythical road, was really worth it.
The place isn't breathtaking, but maybe you have to find your motivation in the effort and the achievement that it represents. And then there's no question if your route starts in northern Alaska and goes all the way to southern Argentina!
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