07 Oct Bicycle Touring the Dalton Highway
Logistics of Bicycle touring the Dalton Highway
About the Dalton Highway
Before bicycle touring Dalton Highway, let’s first find out what the Dalton is all about.
The James W. Dalton Highway, also known as Alaska Route 11 or the Haul Road, is dubbed one of the most dangerous and remote roads in the US.
It was built as a haul road in 1974 during the construction of the Alaskan pipeline. Today, it is heavily used by large trucks to supply the Prudhoe Bay Oilfields.
The Dalton Highway starts at Milepost 73 on the Elliott Highway, 84 miles north of Fairbanks and ends after 414 treacherous miles in Deadhorse near the Prudhoe Bay Oil Fields at the Arctic Ocean.
The road reaches its highest elevation at 4739 feet, when crossing the Brooks Range at Atigun Pass.
Along the way there are also several steep inclines, 10 to 12 percent, and the occasional 16 percent gradient. The hills are steep enough to earn fun names like “Beaver Slide”, “Oil Spill Hill”, or “Gobblers Knob” just to name a few.
Like that isn’t enough to deal with when cycle touring the Dalton Highway, it is also good to note that only about 25% of the narrow haul road is paved. The other 75% are gravel and riddled with potholes and frequent washboard stretches.
When the road conditions are dry it’s easy to get blasted by rocks and visibility can be reduced to close to zero when one gets dusted out by the trucks hauling supplies to the oilfields. Luckily 99% of the truck drivers are awesome, super courteous, and slow down and give cyclists plenty of room.
On the other hand, wet conditions bring their own challenges. As the road is treated with calcium, the gravel road turns into a muddy mess when it rains. It becomes very sticky, almost like wet cement, and mud and grime sticks to tires, fenders and anything else it comes in contact with.
The sticky mess can get so bad that it keeps tires from rolling. We had to stop frequently to clean the mud between our fenders and tires to continue on.
As if the road conditions are not enough, you also have to consider the remoteness of this route when cycle touring the Dalton Highway.
About the Remoteness of the Dalton Highway
The Dalton Highway is probably one of the most remote areas to bicycle tour in the US.
The stretch between Deadhorse and Fairbanks crosses about 500 miles of Alaskan wilderness. The scenery changes from vast open Tundra where Caribou and Muskox roam to spruce tree laden mountains where moose and porcupines hang out. Of course there is always a chance of a bear crossing your path at any time or any place.
There are very limited services along this 500 mile stretch. In fact there are only 3 places to get fuel and very limited supplies.
- Deadhorse has a gas station and a small general store. Since the oilfield and pipeline workers, as well as the truckers have all meals provided along with their work provided lodging, there really is no need for a proper grocery store. Thus, the store has only snacks and non alcoholic drinks to offer. Selling alcohol in Deadhorse is actually forbidden for safety reasons.
- Coldfoot, (Mile 174) which is almost at the half way point, offers a gas station and a truck stop with a restaurant, but no real groceries. The restaurant actually has good food with generous portions and reasonable prices. Depending on the time of day, the restaurant either serves an all you can eat style buffet or at other times you can pick meals off the menu. Again, there are a few snacks for sale, but no actual groceries.
- Yukon River Camp (Mile 56), which also has a gas station and restaurant but no supplies. Supposedly this restaurant has a good menu selection. However, when we passed through it was mostly closed due to COVID-19 and had only pie and ice cream to offer. There is a small shop attached to the restaurant, where you can buy snacks, souvenirs and mosquitoe spray, but again there are no groceries for sale.
While cycling the Dalton Highway, you also have to keep in mind that there are no bike shops nor any medical facilities between Deadhorse and Fairbanks. Needless to say that planning ahead is a must when wanting to cycle tour this road.
How to Get There
As our plan is to cycle the Americas, we decided to start bicycle touring in Deadhorse and to travel South.
There are different ways to reach Deadhorse.
- Hitching a ride. If you have a very flexible itinerary and you don’t mind waiting around, the cheapest way is to simply hitch hike a ride either with travelers or with one of the truckers heading north. Supposedly this has worked for cyclists before. The downside is, that it can be uncertain if anybody is actually interested or able to pick you up. Supposedly, truckers are less likely to pick riders up anymore because of liability reasons and work policies.
- Taking a bus from Fairbanks. The Dalton Highway Express runs two times a week between Fairbanks and Deadhorse. It takes almost 16 hours to get there. The cost ranges between $210 and $250. The upside is you can bring bearspay on the bus and don’t have to reserve and pay the extra price for bear spray in Deadhorse. The downside is, you may have to box your bike and pay extra fare for your bike and gear. Also, it takes a long time to drive there and you have about 16 hours of watching the same road you are about to cycle on. In our opinion this could be a little bit of a deterrent of actually wanting to cycle it.
- Fly to Prudhoe Bay. It’s easy to catch a flight either coming through Anchorage or Fairbanks to connect to Prudhoe Bay through Alaskan Air. Airfare is reasonable, we boxed the bikes, and we boxed all of our gear. Alaskan Air counted each as a piece of luggage. The downside is, you won’t be able to bring pear spray on the airplane. Also, you might have extra luggage charges depending on how much gear and how many supplies you bring along.
The only official camping spot along this route is in Coldfoot. Camping there is free, but a shower will cost you $14.00 per person. Otherwise, wild camping is the only other option when bicycle touring the Dalton Highway. Finding a wild camp spot is usually easy since it is such a remote area. We had some of the most beautiful views near lakes, rivers or up on mountains while camping along the haul road. Also, we were told by pipeline security workers, that it is OK to set up a tent under or near the pipeline. Usually there are small service roads leading to the pipeline or a service road runs along the pipeline, where it is easy to pitch a tent. The pipeline is also useful for extra shelter from the wind or rain during the day. Just keep in mind that cooking right at the pipeline is properly not advised.
As always make sure to pack everything out that you packed in to keep Alaska wild and beautiful.
The weather on the North-slope can be unpredictable even in June and July, with temperatures plummeting into the mid 20s Fahrenheit, you want to be well prepared. We would recommend to bring a good sleeping bag, especially if you travel in a 3-season tent. Otherwise, make sure to bring enough layers of clothing to be comfortable at night.
Food Supplies, Food Storage, and Bear Safety
As mentioned before, there are no supply opportunities along the Dalton Highway if you travel from Deadhorse south. So planning all your meals ahead of getting there is important.
Initially, we figured it would take us 10 days to cycle from Deadhorse to Fairbanks. We quickly found out that the Dalton Highway is a little bit more challenging and tasking than we anticipated. We actually ended up spending a total of 13 days cycling the haul road. This includes a down-day in Coldfoot.
Luckily , we planned ahead for unforeseen circumstances and decided to bring 6 days of food with us. We shipped another 6 days of supplies to the Coldfoot post office which is located at the truck stop.
It is also possible to drop ship supplies to the post office in Deadhorse which is located inside the convenience store, if you don’t want to pack the food on the flight.
However, keep in mind that it takes extra time to ship anything north of Fairbanks. We were told to plan on roughly 5 to 6 weeks to ship packages from Florida to Coldfoot.
We also would recommend to call the post office to confirm that the supplies have made it in time, before heading there. This way you could still bring food with you if need be. As mentioned before, there are no real supplies along the Dalton.
Also remember, you are in “bear country”. Thus bringing a bear proof food canister and practicing bear safety by keeping food, all scented items, such as toothpaste, soap and any other attractants away from your camp are a must.
Unfortunately, practicing bear safety can be a little tedious and time consuming. It means you will spend extra time to scout out a camp spot, a separate cooking and eating spot, and then another area to store your food, trash and what have you away from your tent.
We each carried the “Backpacker’s Cache – Bear Proof Container” on our bikes while in Alaska.
If you hitch a ride or take the bus to Deadhorse you can buy bear spray in Fairbanks or Anchorage and bring it along. Should you opt to fly though, you are not allowed to bring bear spray on the airplane, not even in your checked luggage. However, the General Store in Deadhorse has bear spray for sale for twice the price. We recommend calling the store a few weeks ahead of arriving and reserving your bear spray to ensure there is enough available when you get there. You can do the same for butane cooking canisters if you use those.
Special Equipment to Bring when Bicycle touring the Dalton Highway
Besides bringing bear spray and bear proof food containers when cycling the Dalton Highway we would also recommend bringing:
Since there are no resupply opportunities along the Dalton highway you will have to filter drinking water. Most streams and creeks along the North Slope and the Brooks Range are crystal clear and appear to have almost drinking water quality. However, sometimes, you may only find a small pond when you are ready to set up camp for the night. This is when you want a good filter to filter out all harmful viruses and parasites . Overall, we recommend to filter any water and prefer getting our water out of good running streams and creeks that don’t carry a lot of silt, which tends to clog up most water filters.
Mosquito Coils, Mosquito Repellent, Headnet
Yes, trust us, mosquitoes are this bad here! We are from Florida where mosquitoes make up a good part of the ecosystem. Yet, the Alaskan mosquito appears to be its own breed and should be dubbed the Alaskan State Bird. They seem to be especially bad in the tundra and then again once you are in the trees where there is no breeze.
Rain Gear and Layers of Clothing
Alaskan weather is ever changing during the summer months. One moment it can be cold windy and raining, with a bone chilling wind shield factor. The next moment all clouds disappear and the sun beams down on you relentlesly. Within the first three days of cycling the Dalton highway we got wind burned and sun burned; we had moments when we shivered uncontrollably and then we sweated our butts off.
We took several breaks throughout the day to either put another layer of clothing on or take one off.
Yet, we didn’t need a thick jacket or super thick sweaters. We usually cycled in capris pants and a thin merino wool base layer shirt. Our most used pieces were our merino wool shirts and socks, which retained warmth, even when they were somewhat wet and sweaty. Of course we also utilized our rain jackets with armpit zips and rain pants when it started raining or when the wind was really cold. When we reached camp and were tired, hungry and cold, we would also layer up with a fleece under the jacket for extra warmth.
Bike Gear and Spare Bike Parts
–Wide tires, durable tires. We would recommend a tire size of minimum 35 mm to have a more comfortable ride over gravel, potholes and washboard areas. Personally, we like the Schwalbe Marathon Mondial Tires, (26 x 2.0) they have taken us over some of the most difficult terrain without getting any punctures in the past.
–Fenders are great to keep the mud and water off of you and your gear. Just make sure you have plenty of clearance between your tire and fender to keep the mud from seizing up your tires.
–Tubes and patches, because the road conditions are very rough
–Extra chain links, or if you run a Gates Carbon belt, an extra belt. The mud and rocks have a way to jam into any small moving parts
–Disk brakes and extra brake pads
First Aid Kit
First aid kid and the knowledge on how to use its content is recommended, since the area is very remote and any medical support is a long time away.
Baby wipes. Since there are no facilities with showers along the way, baby wipes can be very handy to clean off at the end of day. Just remember baby wipes do not easily decompose, so please dispose of them appropriately.
Bicycling the Dalton Highway has been a long time dream of ours and we knew it was going to be a tough ride. However, we didn’t expect it to be such a physically and mentally challenging rollercoaster.
The road is super rough and bumpy for very long stretches at a time. Occasionally, it was so bad that we took a short break just to give our butts and backs a break from getting beat up.
Some of the climbs are long and gradual, others were bone breaking super steep and challenging. In deed, we wondered often how the truckers are able to manage some of these inclines on loose gravel.
The ever changing weather, the strong headwinds and the temperature changes had a way to play on our mood as well.
However, seeing muskox and caribou roaming along the way and watching earth squirrels, fox, and porcupine wander around is enough to lift your spirits. Also, Alaska’s breathtaking scenery, the changing landscape from open vast tundra to big majestic mountains and beautiful river valleys make you forget all these struggles and make it all worth it.
We also want to give a BIG THANKS to all the wonderful people we met along our way.
There were the truckers and pipeline security workers, who usually slowed down for us, gave us lots of waves, thumbs up, and occasionally water and snacks along the way.
There were construction workers, flagmen, and pilot car drivers who also gave us lots of encouragement, props, water, and snacks,
All in all, the Dalton Highway is a physical, mental, and emotional challenge on a bicycle that should not be underestimated, but it is also a worthwhile adventure to be had.
You can watch and follow our YouTube video series (playlist), “Cycling the Americas”. The first 10 Episodes are from Alaska, where you can follow us along as were are getting to Deadhorse and cycle tour to the bottom of Alaska where we take the ferry from Valdez/Whittier to Bellingham, Washington.