We just returned home from a road trip–Alaska style. We drove the Dalton Highway from Anchorage to Deadhorse and back for a total of just shy of 2000 miles, half of which were gravel. The Dalton is known locally as the Haul Road. It is the supply lifeline to the oilfields. All goods that can’t be flown in, are driven to the north slope in an endless parade of semis screaming down the road. Reality show addicts will be familiar with this road from “Ice Road Trekkers”. The Haul Road passes through some of the most incredible terrain Alaska has to offer including the Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge and Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Amazingly, the entire road was constructed in just five months. That’s one hundred miles of new road through permafrost, big rivers, mountain passes and a whole lot of tundra every month. Impressive. The road was opened to the public in 1994 and since that time, numerous improvements have made the drive more civilized including a beautiful visitor center and camp ground in Cold Foot. But don’t worry, there is still plenty of adventure to be found on the road. The official Bureau of Land Management guide advises two full sized spare tires, extra gas and motor oil in addition to plenty of water, camping gear and a CB radio. The glaring omission from the mandatory gear list is a head net and mosquito repellant. Really, that should be the first thing on the list. The bugs can be absolutely horrendous. We didn’t go out of the car for even a minute without head nets on. Supposedly, they aren’t as bad in August, but in July, when we went, they were out in biblical proportions. For this reason, I’m not sure I would take a baby on this adventure. It would be a challenge to keep the bugs at bay from sweet little baby skin. Actually, it was a challenge to keep them off of my skin! Don’t let the bugs scare you away though. A good head net, some nylon pants and a stiff wind are all you need.
The Dalton has plenty of easy access adventures for kids right along the road including gold panning, photography, bouldering, tundra hiking, fossil hunting, wildlife viewing and even a junior ranger program. This area is a dream for anyone remotely interested in rocks and geology. We brought along the National Geographic Guide to North American Rocks and Gems to help us identify our treasures. It proved to be a great addition to our arsenal of car activities. We also brought a bird guide which was equally fun. Getting kids excited about guide books at home isn’t very easy, but out in the field, guide books become relevant and yes, even exciting. We only found one fossil, and a few flakes of gold, but we found tons of red granite and other beautiful rocks and more importantly, had a great time looking.
Camping is allowed along the road and in pull outs. There is only one official campground–at Coldfoot. It has a lovely pit toilet and a water pump. That’s about it for amenities. The campground is just off from Marion Creek and the trail to the falls. If you plan to tent, I can’t encourage you enough to bring a screen tent. It will provide a heavenly respite and serve as a possible source of income if you charge admission to the neighbors. Our favorite camp site though, was about 4 miles outside of Deadhorse. It was a gravel pull out right on the Sag river. The tundra went on forever all around us. The horizon was punctuated by the pipeline to the west and to the north by the flames from the oil rigs. We saw a herb of caribou, a grey wolf and the jaeger bird common to the arctic circle. Walking on the tundra is an experience everyone should have. From the road, it looks flat and monatamous. But when you walk on it, you realize how alive it is. There is the constant hum and chirping of birds, the surprise bursts of pink and purple and orange and yellow from flowers, the scurrying of little critters and the sponge like spring to every step. It is like the tundra spends the entire, long winter planning on ways to be amazing. And it succeeds every time.
If you like such things, there are numerous pull outs with interpretive displays along the road. The BLM road guide has all of them listed by milepost. Be sure either print off a copy or pick one up before you hit the road. The two visitor centers are must sees. The first one is right on the Yukon River. It is a small cabin staffed by lovely people who love the land. They have stamps for park passports for the kids and kids at heart. There is a small viewing platform for you to appreciate the volume of the mighty Yukon. The Coldfoot visitor center is most impressive. It has a beautiful interpretive display, a small theater to show movies about the area, a well stocked gift shop and super friendly and knowledgable rangers. They also loan out free kits for junior rangers. We checked out the bird and insect kit. It had a bug container, a bird caller, coloring book, a story book and some guide books. My twins were thrilled to use the kit.
Once home in Anchorage, I asked the kids what the highlights of the trip were. Number one was watching the wolf followed by bouldering. Would I do it again? Absolutely!