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Avoiding Defeat on the Dalton Highway:  10 Things You Need to Know Before Cycling the Haul Road

Avoiding Defeat on the Dalton Highway: 10 Things You Need to Know Before Cycling the Haul Road

We pedaled out of Deadhorse toward the straight, thick gravel road of the Dalton Highway. As we set off into the mist of mosquitos, we were giddy with excitement for the 22,000 miles ahead to Ushuaia but were also weighed down by a hefty pit in our stomachs, wondering “What in the world did we just get ourselves into?”

Twenty-five miles later, our not-so-epic journey came to a screeching halt when Jake’s derailleur broke in half and proceeded to lodge itself in his wheel, bending his rim and preventing him from moving forward. Little did we know, this was not the first time that the Dalton Highway would test our mental and physical limits for the next few weeks until we reached our first destination of Fairbanks.

The Dalton Highway starts at the beginning of the Elliot Highway, heading north of Fairbanks, Alaska, and ends at Deadhorse, which is the furthest north you can reach by permanent highway in North America. It is essentially a wilderness highway, and the few “towns” – if you can even call them that – along the way offer almost no services.

Through our struggles, we learned to navigate this remote and unique part of the world, and we’ve compiled a list of ten things to know for those so daring as to depart on this trek. Other than the information we provided below, we’d suggest you mentally come fully prepared to be out in the wild.

 

A truck approaches the Brooks Range near Galbraith Lake

1. Move Over for Truckers

Originally, the “Haul Road” for the trans-Alaska pipeline, the Dalton Highway is still a crucial supply for the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay and the pump stations along the way. The road was opened for limited public access in 1981 until it was opened to the public all the way to Deadhorse in 1994.

Since the purpose of the road is to provide services for the oil companies, the trucks have the right of way. For the most part, the trucks are respectful, will slow down, and give you plenty of space, but, for each passing trucker, it is certainly in your best interest to wear reflective vests and to stop on the outside of the road to allow them to pass you with care.

 

A truck kicks up dust south of Deadhorse

If you listen for trucks and respect the drivers, they will look out for you. For us, the truckers were exceptionally generous, periodically donating some fruit to our cause and three-day-old chicken strips to Mabel’s, and they also recommended that we ride on the non-dusty side of the road to avoid rocks and dust being kicked up in our direction.

 

A quick visit to the Prudhoe Bay General Store

 

Departing Deadhorse, the first mile of the Dalton Highway

2. Travel to the Arctic

Should you feel inclined to make your way to desolate Deadhorse to ride one of the most remote roads in North America, there are three main ways to get there. First and fastest, you can fly from Anchorage or Fairbanks. There are numerous airlines that make this route, but Alaska Airlines – which we took – is the largest. A few months prior to our departure, we applied for the Alaska Airlines Visa Credit Card, which is available to American citizens. After achieving the mileage bonus, we were easily able to fly from Anchorage to Deadhorse using miles, and it also included three free checked bags for each of us (including our bicycles but not our overweight bags and our dog).

The second, longer and, potentially, cheaper option is to take a bus from Fairbanks that is offered by companies like the Dalton Highway Express. It runs twice a week from June 1 to August 28 with a one-way cost of $250 along with additional baggage/freight costs (costs are based on that for 2019). Most bus offerings will have stops at the Yukon River, Arctic Circle, Coldfoot, Wisemen and Galbraith Lake as well.

To maximize your self-inflicted punishment, we wouldn’t recommend starting anywhere other than Deadhorse, which would also allow you to have supplies sent up in the odd event that you forgot something.

Lastly, the third, most unreliable option is to hitchhike. Without much development on the entirety of the Elliott Highway or Dalton Highway, rides will be infrequent and, when you do find one, long. We expect that the best place to get started from the Fairbanks area is probably the Hilltop Cafe, located just north of Fox (a small suburb).

 

Packing up and ready to go at the Deadhorse Airport

3. Fly with Supplies

While Fairbanks is a pretty standard city, hosting as many amenities as you could possibly imagine (even an REI!), sending supplies to Deadhorse is a different story. Without ensuring you have everything you need to assemble your setup and get rolling on the road, you could not only be left spending a few nights and hundreds of dollars at a local hotel but without a beer to soothe your sorrows while you wait as no alcohol is allowed in Deadhorse.

You should be aware that shipping is not standard. While shipping through the USPS, UPS or FedEx, may indicate that it will take a certain number of days, you would be wise to conservatively expect shipments to arrive anywhere from two to four weeks longer. Otherwise, your excitement will dwindle when you find that you’ve arrived but your supplies did not. This happened to us as we tried to ship our bear spray and fuel bottle to ourselves via USPS Ground (apparently, it never arrived) as well as our friend, Alan, who shipped his bicycle and gear to himself, which arrived nearly two weeks later than he anticipated after he already scheduled in a buffer week.

 

Visiting the Prudhoe Bay General Store

Our recommendation would be to check everything you need on your flight as there are limited supplies available in Prudhoe Bay and, although it will be much more expensive, purchase bear spray and fuel upon arrival. If you call ahead to the Brooks Range Supply two weeks in advance, you can ensure that the mentioned supplies will be available when you get there. Besides, you’ll stop there anyway to take your photo in front of the sign outside.

If you find yourself in Deadhorse without something necessary to get started, the fastest way to have something shipped (that does not require it to be shipped via Ground) is to send it through Alaska Airlines’ GoldStreak program, which will have your supplies up to 150 pounds on the next-available flight as long as they arrive at the airport 60 minutes before the flight departs. When Jake’s derailleur decided to kamikaze into his wheel, we had the Bike Shop in Anchorage send us a new wheel via GoldStreak the following day so that we could continue our southbound trek.

The fastest way to ship something expedited to Coldfoot is through the Northern Alaska Tour Company that offers regular flights and ground shipments from Fairbanks. After we arrived in Coldfoot, we were out of tubes and were concerned about running low on fuel for our stove, so we reached out to Beaver Sports in Fairbanks who coordinated with the Northern Alaska Tour Company to send up the supplies we needed the following day.

4. Filter Water Early and Often

While there is potable water available periodically and, occasionally, pipeline workers will offer desperate-looking cyclists bottled water, it is very important that you plan to carry some sort of water filter or water treatment system to filter water along the route. With all the hills and sunlight, you’re going to need it.

There are plenty of river and stream sources along the entire haul road, so you shouldn’t have any issue with filling up regularly. Potable water is readily available in Deadhorse, Coldfoot, Five Mile (which hosts an amazing Artesian Well), and the Yukon River. The DOT camps, which are located roughly every 60 miles, are also a good spot to stop as they will likely have water available for passing cyclists.

 

Camping adjacent to the pipeline near the Dietrich River

5. Camp Where You Like

Free dispersed camping is everywhere. In regards to camping on the Dalton Highway, anything goes. While there are only a few designated campgrounds along the length of the route, cyclists are also able to camp outside of designated areas so long as they camp well off the highway and do not block pipeline access roads.

Marion Creek Campground is the only public, developed campground along the length of the Haul Road that requires a fee, and there are undeveloped camping areas that provide space off the highway and outhouses at the Yukon River, Five Mile, the Arctic Circle, and Galbraith Lake (you’ll love the view of the Brooks Range from here).

 

Enjoying a calorie-dense dinner near Galbraith Lake

6. Pack Plenty of Food

There are only a few places to eat between Deadhorse and Fairbanks (well, really, Fox) – the Aurora Hotel (the best and one of the only places to eat in Deadhorse), the Coldfoot Camp, the Hotspot Cafe at Five Mile, the Yukon River Camp, and the Hilltop Cafe. Upon arrival by bicycle and after burning thousands of calories each day, you’ll find that the listed establishments serve undeniably tasty food. However, failing to properly plan for food on the Dalton Highway may leave you with a dwindling snack supply as you approach the next hill like us, or – even worse – without enough food to keep you going to the end of your ride.

 

Indulging in a cheeseburger and milkshake at the HotSpot Cafe

Our best advice is to plan for a few extra days than you think you will need. So we wouldn’t have to carry half of our food supply with us, we sent a shipment of food to Coldfoot to be held at the post office for pickup. If you plan to do this, we recommend that you ensure the resupply is sent well in advance and contact the Coldfoot Camp directly to provide instructions after the package arrives.

 

A muddy day near the Yukon River

7. Bring Quality Gear But Keep It Minimal

In July, we experienced everything from sunny, 80°F days to an Arctic storm boasting freezing temperatures, hail, and 40-50 mph wind gusts. It is common that Atigun Pass still contains snow well into the summer and that the roads are muddy after precipitation and maintenance. It is essential that you ensure you have reliable, waterproof, quality gear as everything that you bring will be tested against the elements. Do not follow our mistake of bringing poorly functioning raincoats as I promise you will regret it.

Speaking of mud, the DOT treats the roads with calcium chloride salt, which is used as a binding agent. On dry days, this makes the road your best friend. On wet days (and after they finish dumping water on the recently treated roads), this will likely be one of your biggest enemies. Not only will it have you sliding all over the road, but the mixture will stick like glue to every inch of your bike and gear. Near the Yukon River, the mud from the DOT road maintenance was so jam-packed in my rear fender that I had to remove it altogether. So, we’d suggest that you ride without fitted fenders just to save this headache for yourself.

 

All packed up on the Arctic Tundra

High-quality, waterproof panniers, handlebar bags, and trunk bags will ensure that your gear is protected throughout the day and dry enough to keep you warm throughout the night. We used Arkel’s Orca panniers, Large Handlebar Bags, and Trunk Bag and continue to be amazed by not only their waterproof capacity but solid construction and durability. Throughout the entire 500-mile ride, we had issues with a lot of our gear (we even bent a tent pole) but never had any problems with our storage setup.

Whatever you plan to pack, keep it to the necessities. We brought a lot of unnecessary items and paid the price for it – not only on the long ascent over Atigun Pass but on the many, many hills that continue south of Coldfoot all the way to Fairbanks. We even brought some fancy Patagonia sweaters and a hammock that we were not able to hang for the first few hundred miles that we sent home in Coldfoot in a 20-pound shipment of supplies that weren’t necessary. In short, don’t bring what you don’t need.

 

A section of glorious pavement south of the Yukon River

8. Know That Anything Can Break

The Dalton was relentless to all of our gear, and, in total, the damage included requiring that we replace one derailleur, one wheel, one cassette, and one tire. All this doesn’t include that we had countless flat tires and managed to snap our aluminum Burley hitch in two near the Yukon River.

Be prepared to replace essential bicycle parts that commonly break. We’d recommend that you carry plenty of spare tubes, extra tube patches, chain links or an extra chain, spokes, as well as all the tools necessary to work on your bike, such as a multi-tool, Allen wrench set, tire levers, a spoke wrench, and a chain breaker (if needed).

 

Mabel enjoying the view south of Toolik Lake

9. Prepare for the Worst

As expected, there will be minimal cell phone coverage throughout the length of the Dalton Highway. For emergency purposes, we carried a Garmin InReach Mini that has the capability of calling for emergency support in a life-or-death situation. It gave our family peace of mind that we had the ability to contact them and emergency services if needed.

If you need to hitch a ride, the best opportunity is with a willing tourist. Semi-truck drivers may be willing to help you out in a pinch but won’t be able to haul your bicycle and all your gear. Note that pipeline pickup trucks are not allowed and will not pick you up unless it’s an emergency.

 

Cycling through the Brooks Range

10. Be Patient and Enjoy the Ride

For us, the Dalton Highway was an incredible challenge to start our bicycle tour. If it wasn’t mosquitos, it was a headwind or mechanical failure. If it wasn’t rain, it was mud or DOT road maintenance. We’re convinced that the Dalton Highway is the epitome of Murphy’s Rule. So, be patient if you are not meeting your mileage goals and trust that, if you keep trudging up that hill, you will arrive at your destination, eventually.

 

Learning to survive the swarms of mosquitoes

Lastly, if you’re planning to make the trek to Northern Alaska to ride this route, you are one of the very few people to travel beyond Fairbanks and even fewer that opt to cycle this part of the world. Enjoy the once in a lifetime experience and all the unique landscapes and wildlife that the Arctic has to offer.

Linden is currently cycling from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina with her partner, Jake, and their dog, Mabel. Read more about their journey on their website at www.3boondogglers.com.

 

Happy cyclists at the summit of Gobblers Knob

 

At last, the end of the Dalton Highway

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