Classic Roads: Alaska's Dalton Highway

Classic Roads: Alaska's Dalton Highway

The U.S. has plenty of long, lonesome motorcycling roads—US 50 or 6 through Nevada, Beartooth Highway, Going-to-the-Sun Road… But the longest, loneliest, and most challenging is Dalton Highway.

A dear child has many names, and Dalton Highway is also known as the Haul Road and, ever so clinically, SR 11. For 414 miles (or ominous 666 kilometers), the road stretches through the Alaskan wilderness from Livengood (population 16) to Prudhoe Bay.

If you’ve dreamed of a motorcycle ride to take you away from the crowds, ringing cellphones, and all the other pesky annoyances of civilization, this is it.

It’d be wrong to say there’s nothing along Dalton Highway. There’s plenty—the scale of nature in the northern wilds boggles the mind.

Classic Roads: Alaska's Dalton Highway

The mountains are huge and the woods, when present, are endlessly deep. Passing by Sukakpak Mountain or crossing the mighty Yukon River along the E.L. Patton Bridge puts you in your place in the grand scheme of things.

Indeed, man is not the master here but a guest in an area teeming with wildlife. From caribou and moose to wolves and bears, any manner of critter might suddenly burst out of the brush onto the road.

Dalton Highway is a paradise for the rugged outdoorsman, fishing enthusiast, or experienced hiker who wants to challenge Mother Nature herself on two wheels.

And make no mistake, Dalton Highway is a challenge—perhaps the most daunting one you will ever take. Many riders tackle the road, but not all finish it.

That’s not some kind of marketing attempt using reverse psychology, either. The Haul Road was built in the ‘70s as a construction and service road for pipelines and oilfields and it reflects that character to this day.

Forget about pavement. More than three-quarters of Dalton Highway is gravel, dirt, and mud. Whatever asphalt there is, Alaskan winters ensure it’s far from pristine.

A dual sport or dirt bike with knobbies or 70-30 tires is a must. I’ve heard of people doing Dalton on Harley-Davidsons, but I’d liken that to crossing the Pacific on a rowboat. Sure, it’s possible if you get lucky, but do you want to try your luck?

After you pass Fairbanks, services virtually disappear. There is one nearly 250-mile stretch with no gas stations or towns. Bringing spare fuel is critical to your adventure’s success.

Classic Roads: Alaska's Dalton Highway

In addition, you need water, food, emergency communications, tools, and camping gear. Finally, make sure to pack a healthy amount of respect for the enormous trucks that speed down this remote road. They always have the right of way and can fling rocks the size of a baseball into your face.

None of this is to dissuade you from tackling Dalton Highway. It’s only to make sure you’re properly prepared for this genuinely dangerous road.

As long as you are, you’re in for an adventure of a lifetime.

Points of Interest

Fairbanks, AK

Fairbanks is the last major outpost of civilization you’ll encounter before venturing onto Dalton Highway. The city is worth visiting in itself, though.

There’s plenty to see and do year-round. Tours in summer and winter take you to see the gorgeous Alaskan nature in a more guided fashion than Dalton. Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum boasts one of the largest collections of antique cars in the world, while Aurora Ice Museum offers a decidedly more frigid experience.

Motorcyclists heading to Dalton should know that you can ship your off-road tires to Adventure Cycleworks in Fairbanks. Ride up with your street-oriented rubber and they’ll swap you for more suitable tires once you’re up here.

Yukon River

Dalton Highway crosses the Yukon River along the E.L. Patton Bridge some 40 miles after you start on the road. This mighty river, the longest in Alaska, is intricately linked to the state’s history.

For a long time, the river was the primary means of transportation through the wilderness. It played a pivotal role during the Klondike gold rush between 1896 and 1899, taking thousands of would-be prospectors to the Klondike, Canada, in hopes of striking it rich. For most, the trip was in vain as they never found a nugget—while others wasted their newfound fortune in boomtown taverns.

Sukakpak Mountain

Sukakpak Mountain rises nearly 4,500 feet above the surrounding wilderness. Part of the Smith Mountains of the Brooks Range, the Dalton Highway skirts this peak soon after you pass Wiseman.

The mountain’s name reportedly stems from an Inupiat word meaning a “marten deadfall trap.” When viewed from the north (perhaps on your return trip along Dalton Highway) Sukakpak resembles a carefully balanced flat stone or log local Native Americans used to catch marten.

Sukakpak is surrounded by palsas, unique peat mounds with a permanently frozen core. The mountain makes for an unforgettable sight along Dalton Highway.

Prudhoe Bay, AK

Prudhoe Bay marks the northern terminus of the Dalton Highway. In the adjoining community of Deadhorse, you can find a general store, lodging, and fuel.

Despite its name, Prudhoe Bay is actually 10 miles away from the shores of its namesake part of the Arctic Ocean. It’s possible to get to the water on a guided tour, although you should book a spot in advance.

Frankly, there’s not a whole lot there in Prudhoe Bay—but you didn’t come all this way to find a bustling city, anyway. If anything, Prudhoe Bay stands as a testament to the human ability to survive even in the most rugged and remote locations.

Facts & Information

It probably doesn’t surprise you that Dalton Highway isn’t exactly bristling with five-star hotels. After leaving Fairbanks, accommodations are few and far between. You can find beds at:

There are four campgrounds (Five Mile, Arctic Circle, Marion Creek, and Galbraith Lake Campgrounds) along Dalton Highway. Primitive camping on BLM lands is allowed, but be cautious of wildlife and make sure to camp well away from the roads as trucks can hurl rocks up to 30 feet away.

Best Time to Travel

June is the best time to head out on Dalton Highway. Not only will the road be (mostly) free of snow, but you can also time your ride to coincide with the summer solstice and the Midnight Sun for 24 hours of daylight.

July through mid-August are also good times to travel on Dalton, but late summer rains can turn the road into a swamp. Although Dalton Highway is “open” all year, September through April are frigid, snowy, and not suitable for motorcycling.