Dalton Highway

The Dalton Highway provides the only road access to the US Arctic, across the only bridge over the Yukon River in Alaska. It connects the Elliott Highway north of Fairbanks with Deadhorse, the Prudhoe Bay service center, 414 miles to the north. The state of Alaska owns the land from the Elliott Highway to the Yukon River on the southern end and the extreme northern end on the Arctic Coastal Plain. The central portion of the corridor containing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and the highway is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM corridor is adjacent to some of the prime northern designated wilderness and wildlife refuges in Alaska. These include the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge, the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Two Native Corporations own and manage land adjacent to the corridor and these public lands: Doyon Ltd. and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.

The "Haul Road" was constructed by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company in 1974 to serve the industrial transportation needs of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and the construction and maintenance of the TransAlaska Pipeline. The largest engineering and construction challenge, the Yukon River bridge, was not completed until 1976. An earlier attempt to construct a road north for heavy trucks had been a failure. The "Hickle Highway"—named after then governor Walter J. Hickle—was built as a winter haul road in 1968 and was reconstructed during the winter of 1969-1970. With the spring thaw, the disturbed permafrost melted and extensive erosion took place. In contrast, the new highway was constructed with permafrost in mind. It is 28 feet wide, with 3-6 ft of gravel surfacing. Some sections are built on plastic foam to help prevent permafrost thaw. The road requires extensive maintenance and rebuilding during the summer months. During pipeline construction, it served the construction camps at Happy Valley, Old Man, Prospect, and Deadhorse. Ocean barges provide the only other surface transport to Prudhoe Bay, and they are often held hostage by unfavorable ice conditions. The Dalton has continued to be the primary supply route for the continuing needs of the northern oil fields. Depending upon special projects, the traffic has averaged approximately 85 trucks a day. The road is kept open year round and is now maintained by the state of Alaska.

The Haul Road was renamed in 1981 by the Alaska legislature for an engineer, James W. Dalton, who spent his career pioneering oil exploration work in northern Alaska. The road was first opened to the public in 1994, following a spirited political and legal battle. The spectacular scenery has drawn a relatively small, but growing tourist traffic. There are only three service and fuel facilities along the entire road: at the Yukon Bridge, in Coldfoot, and at the terminus in Deadhorse. The road was constructed for commercial purposes, not with tourists in mind. The steepest grade is 12%, and there are relatively few pullouts. Most car rental companies will not allow their vehicles to be driven on the Dalton, and private travelers are advised to carry at least two spare tires, emergency equipment, and sufficient fuel.

The highway traverses four distinct ecological zones: the boreal forest up to Coldfoot, the Arctic mountains of the Brooks Range, the North Slope, and the Arctic Coastal Plain. It crosses the continental divide at Atigun Pass, the highest point on the highway at 4800 feet. Wildlife can frequently be seen from the road, especially beyond the treeline. Large mammals include Dall's sheep, caribou, moose, bear, wolf, and muskoxen. There are also waterfowl, including swans, geese, and ducks. Of special interest are several varieties of falcons and the snowy owls of the Arctic Plain. The University of Alaska maintains a scientific research station at Toolik Lake at mile 284.

Public awareness of the wilderness value of the Brooks Range was created through the writings of Bob Marshall. It was key to the creation of the Gates of the Arctic National Park as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980. The park and other protected land strictly limits development outside the pipeline corridor and preserves the wilderness nature of the landscape beyond the immediate vicinity of the Dalton Highway.

Hunting is limited to bow hunting within 5 miles of the pipeline, and the general use of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) is restricted. Sport fishing is allowed on the numerous streams and rivers that cross the highway, and there are numerous places to put in or take out kayaks, canoes, and rafts.

There is an abundance of sport fishing available along the highway. North of Atigun Pass, there is lake


trout in some of the deeper lakes and Arctic char in the Sagavanirktok, Kuparuk, and Ivishak rivers. To the south, rivers also contain grayling, Dolly Varden, whitefish, burbot, pike, chum, coho and king salmon, and sheefish. The most popular for float fishing is the Jim River.

The Dalton Highway crosses a portion of the historic Koyukuk mining district. The mining community of Wiseman, continuously occupied since the Gold Rush, retains its picturesque frontier appearance. There is still active gold mining, especially in the vicinity of Coldfoot.

Further Reading

Coates, Peter A., The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Controversy: Technology, Conservation, and the Frontier, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Lehigh University Press, 1991 Diel, William R. & Arthur Banet Jr. (editors), Riches from the Earth: A Geologic Tour Along the Dalton Highway, Alaska, Anchorage: Bureau of Land Management and the Alaska Natural History Association, 1993 Jensen, Michael, Umbrella Guide to Alaska's Wilderness Highway: Traveling the Dalton Road, Seattle: Epicenter Press, 1994

Lampright, Richard L., Gold Placer Deposits in Northeast Alaska (Dalton Highway): An Inventory of the Gold Placer Mines, Prospects, and Deposits Located Within the Beaver, Bettles, Chandalar, Tanana and Weisman Quadrangles, Anchorage: Iron Fire Publications, 1997 Marshall, Robert, Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Range (2nd edition), edited by George Marshall, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970

Marvin Falk

See also Trans-Alaska Pipeline

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