As the northernmost bus service in North America, the Dalton Highway Express covers a rugged 500 miles from Fairbanks, Alaska to the ominously named Dead Horse Settlement.
Outside the window the cold tundra stretches to the horizon. The vastness, the absence of trees, was unnerving. I am the only passenger on the Dalton Highway Express, the northernmost bus service in North America, which travels along Alaska’s infamous transportation highway toward the Dead Horse settlement near the Arctic Ocean. The only other traveler was a concise Canadian who had disembarked a few hours earlier at a desolate truck stop called Coldfoot. From there, the driver and I kept driving north, passing the last campsite on the road, the last outbuilding, and the last tree (a lonely-looking spruce with a “Do Not Cut” sign). It was as if I was experiencing an extreme form of social alienation before Covid-19 became a necessity.
Stretching 414 miles from Livengood north of Fairbanks to the rugged Prudhoe Bay oil fields at Deadhorse, the Dalton Highway is the northernmost interconnected highway in the United States. Arguably, it’s also the most dangerous. Huge 18-wheeler trucks occupy the center of the unpaved pass; arctic storms can reduce visibility to nearly zero; and the weather can be frigid. in 1971, Cat Prospect Camp south of Coldfoot recorded the lowest temperature ever recorded in the United States, reaching a chilling -80F (-62C).
The Dalton Highway was built in 1974 to serve the Prudhoe Bay oil patch, the economic lifeblood of Alaska and nearly 85 percent of the state’s budget. In its early days, it was purely a trucking road. Then, in 1994, the state opened the highway to private vehicles. Don’t expect an easy ride as the 100,000-pound behemoth roars along at full speed over loose gravel.
“In the summer or winter, driving on the Dalton Highway can be extreme,” said John Rapphahn, park ranger and manager of the Coldfoot Arctic Interagency Visitor Center. “In the summer, trucks can raise dust and muddy roads can make the roads slippery. Winter brings ice and avalanches. The roads are only about a quarter paved, and drivers should be prepared for a flat tire or two.”
Failures can be costly. “I once found a couple stuck in a ditch in the middle of winter at -30F,” Rapphahn recalls. “I couldn’t get their car out, so I took them to the Yukon River Campground, where they called a tow truck. It cost them about $1,200.”
If you’re driving, he recommends equipping yourself with a radio. “It’s worth investing in a handheld CB tuned to channel 19. that way, approaching truckers and pilot cars can notify you of oversized loads when they see you on the road. You’ll also get the added benefit of being able to talk to other vehicles if there’s a problem.”
Without a car or radio, I needed help to reach Deadhorse by land and to fulfill my ambition of crossing the Arctic Circle overland. Hitchhiking with a truck was not an option, as commercial trucks are prohibited from hitchhiking on Dalton for liability reasons. Instead, I booked a ticket for one of the most unlikely bus services in the United States.
Dalton Highway Express was launched more than 20 years ago to meet the small but growing demand for road surface transportation.
“We have guests from all over the world, although most are American tourists,” explains Kathy Hedges, the company’s marketing coordinator. “Some are looking for low-cost transportation to get to and from Deadhorse on scenic routes; others are trying to find a good starting point to hike into the Gates of the Arctic National Park or canoe the Yukon River Bridge. More and m ore travelers are riding one way and looking for rides in the other direction.”
From early June through the end of August, the company is offering twice-weekly round trips between Fairbanks and Deadhorse, covering a rugged 500 miles in just 16 hours.
Pressed for time, but eager to experience one of the world’s most surreal bus trips, I booked a one-way express train to Deadhorse with the intention of flying back. I chose June 21 as my departure date. I wanted to see the ethereal midnight sun for myself during 24 hours of daylight north of the Arctic Circle.
There are few settlements along the Dalton Highway Express, so spontaneous request stops are not available. You book and schedule your trip in advance. Some people like to camp overnight and then re-board the bus on the return trip; others plan ambitious hikes with survival gear through Alaska’s trail-less wilderness.
Says Hedges, “We like to think we’re a service people can trust, and if a client drops off and books a pickup on a particular day, they can count on us to be there for them.”
As a visitor from lower latitudes, I felt as if I was transiting a strange new universe
Reliability is critical. Dalton is a very lonely road. There is no medical service, almost no cell phone coverage, and only two pinhole settlements along the way: Coldfoot (population: 10) and the subsistence hunting community of Wiseman (population: 14).
I felt very safe riding the bus. The company’s drivers are experienced and have received professional in-house training. “Usually, people get into trouble on the highway either because their vehicle is not suitable for gravel roads or because they themselves are not prepared,” Hedges reveals. “They’re driving too fast in these situations or making poor turning and lane layout decisions.
06:00 Quickly leaving Fairbanks, our durable Ford Econoline van drove through slender spruce and paper birch trees to the start of the road at Livengood. With just me and the Canadians on board, there was plenty of room. Eight hours later, after crossing the vast Yukon River and the Arctic Circle, we stopped at Trucker’s Café in Coldfoot for a quick lunch and a final snack of 240 miles, which was also the point where my companion disembarked.
After Coldfoot, Dalton climbed the remote Brooks Range, then ascended 4,739-foot Artigon Pass before descending to the hair-raising North Slope, one of the most isolated roads on Earth. The scenery – a vast, intact ecosystem with little human exposure – was unlike anything I had ever seen. Knife-shaped mountains are slowly being replaced by barren tundra, shallow lakes, frosty mounds and icy wedge polygons shaped by extreme Arctic weather. As a visitor from the lower latitudes, I felt as if I had traveled through a strange new universe. Even the bus drivers seemed to be in silent awe as they deftly navigated the steep grades and sharp turns.
“What’s the highlight of the Dalton Highway?” Hedges agrees, acknowledging the road’s unique appeal, even to stubborn regulars. “Even traveling once a week, our drivers notice the differences. Changes seem to happen overnight. it’s amazing what 24 hours of daylight can do to vegetation.”
In the south, aspen, birch and spruce trees are interspersed with cotton grass and sedge meadows. Further north, the flat monotony of the tundra is broken by willow shrubs, caribou lichen, pink tickseed and blue anemones. The wildlife is diverse and varied. Moose, lynx, beaver, wolves and grizzly bears inhabit the northern and mountainous regions, while on the desolate northern slopes, cattle can be seen in the form of musk oxen and caribou. Ironically, my most memorable “wildlife” encounter occurred when a swarm of mosquitoes literally ate my lunch during our mandatory photo shoot in the Arctic Circle.
The only constant on the road was the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Due to permafrost, the pipeline carries nearly 500,000 barrels of oil per day over the ground at these high latitudes. As we approached Deadhorse, 500 miles of open tundra stretched on both sides of the road, one of the few visible features besides pingos (ice-core mountains) and musk oxen.
Although I played no role in the driving or navigation, reaching Deadhorse after 16 hours of loose rocks and half-frozen mud felt like crossing the finish line at the Dakar Rally. I’d like to give the driver a trophy and a tip.
Huddled eight miles south of the Arctic Ocean, the monotonously practical Prudhoe Bay oil camp looked like a scene from an anti-utopian movie. With gusty winds raging across the coastal plain, getting here is more about the journey than the destination.
I booked a room at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel, an industrial work camp with 24/7 cafeteria food, no alcohol, and a sign on the door that says, “Everyone must take off their boots. Red-faced oil workers counted down the days to their next vacation (and drink), an integral part of the Dalton Highway experience.
After a celebratory sandwich, I walked outside for a nighttime stroll. It was already midnight and still bright. Half hidden behind low clouds over the lake, the midnight sun did its best to give off a faint, insignificant glow. I had reached the top of the mainland, the last stop on Dalton’s only regular land transport route. For one day, at least, I could enjoy the distinct honor of being the northernmost bus passenger in the Americas.