There are many roads and routes across the world whose extreme outline and weather conditions make up for an experience well beyond what can be called an ‘adventure’. One of them is Alaska’s Route 11, better known as the James Dalton Highway. It has the reputation of being one of the most dangerous in the country because of its isolation. Weather conditions don’t help either. Frost, snow storms and extremely low temperatures are customary, accounting for very difficult driving conditions.
It is 669 kilometres long and it starts at the Elliot Highway, 134 kilometres north of Fairbanks. It finishes in Deadhorse, at the edge of the Arctic ocean, in the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, the very reason why it was built. It is one of the most isolated routes in the United States and it only passes through three towns: Coldfoot, Wiseman and Deadhorse, which hardly reach 70 inhabitants combined. In the latter however, due to the oil extraction industry, there can be up to 5000 seasonal residents.
Crossing the Arctic Circle
There are several legendary spots along this route on the Arctic tundra. The first one is the Patton Bridge over the Yukón river, the greatest river in Alaska. At kilometre 185 the road crosses the Arctic Circle and further along it reaches Prospect Creek, the coldest point in the United States (the lowest temperature recorded , minus 62º, dates back to 1971).
After this, the Dalton Highway delves into the Atigum Pass, a mountain pass 1.444 metres high which crosses the Brooks mountain range and perfectly captures the essence of Alaska. The road is tarmac throughout ( although it is closed for most of the year) and at several points it reaches a 10 to 12 degrees gradient. At the Atigum pass avalanches and fatal accidents are not uncommon.
The Dalton remains frozen for up to 85% of the year and it is because of this that it is often known as the “ice road truckers trail”. Truck drivers are the regular users, constantly putting their driving abilities to the test. Most of the road’s surface is made up of loose gravel, which under the wheels of the trucks, passing at great speed, resemble a firing range, stones getting shot in all directions.
The risk of death
All these qualities make driving on this route an extreme sport where breaking down in the middle of the winter could have fatal consequences. The state’s authorities recommend carrying two spare tyres at all times and a good provision of food and drink to last at least two days. Speed is also limited to 80 km/h. It is not surprising that vehicle hire companies forbid its customers to drive on the Dalton.