Introducing Dalton Highway

There are precious few adventures to be had while sitting down - but then, most road trips aren't on the legendary Dalton Hwy. Also known as the Haul Rd, this punishing truck route rambles 414 miles from Alaska's Interior to the North Slope, paralleling the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to its source at the supergiant Prudhoe Bay Oil Field. The highway reaches further north than any other on the continent, and is the only way to motor to the stunning Brooks Range and the Arctic. If you're steeled for multiple days aboard a gravel rollercoaster - dodging hell-on-wheels big-rigs, risking bankruptcy if you need a tow, and (almost) reaching the edge of the Earth - it's a helluva trip.

Fueled by crude-oil fever, the Dalton was built in a whirlwind five months in 1974. For the ensuing two decades, however, it was effectively a private driveway for the gas companies, until a bitter battle in the state legislature opened it to the public. Even now, though, you can't drive clear to the Arctic Ocean: due to security concerns the road ends just shy of the oilfields, at the sprawling industrial camp of Deadhorse. From there the 'beach' is 8 miles distant, accessible only via a corporate tour.

Though the Dalton is slowly being tamed - since 2000 around 130 miles have been paved - it's still not a road that suffers fools. In summer the 28ft-wide corridor is a dusty minefield of potholes, its embankments littered with blown tires. Paint scratches and window chips are inevitable, which is why most car-rental companies don't allow their vehicles here. There are few services, such as telephones, tire repair, fuel and restaurants, and none for the final 225 miles from Wiseman to Deadhorse.

The road is open year-round, but you should only tackle it between late May and early September, when there's virtually endless light and little snow and ice. Drive with headlights on, carry two spares, and always slow down and swing wide for oncoming trucks. Only the reckless exceed 55mph; expect a 40mph average and two hard days to reach Deadhorse. Other alternatives are to join one of the various van tours up the highway, or drive halfway - to the Coldfoot truck stop - and from there catch a Prudhoe-bound shuttle-bus, letting the pros negotiate the roughest stretch while you can gawk at the best scenery.

Mile 0 of the Dalton is at the junction with the Elliott Hwy, 84 miles from Fairbanks. Immediately, the Haul Rd announces itself: the pavement ends and the blind curves and technical pitches begin. At Mile 25, there's a lookout with good views of the pipeline crossing Hess Creek. Near the Hess Creek Bridge are serviceable campsites among the trees.

The highway begins descending toward the Yukon River at Mile 47, and the silvery ribbon of pipeline can be seen reaching into the distance. At Mile 56, the 2290ft-long, wooden-decked Yukon River Bridge carries you and the pipeline across the silty, broad river - the only place where the legendary waterway is spanned in Alaska. On the far bank, turn right and pass under the pipeline to reach the BLM's Yukon Crossing Visitor Contact Station (9am-6pm Jun-Aug), staffed by an affable retired couple and featuring displays on the road and the terrain you're about to enter. It also has copies of the handy 24-page Dalton Highway Visitor Guide.

On the opposite side of the highway is a vast muddy lot and Yukon River Camp (474-3557; r $89; breakfast $9-12, lunch $8-10, dinner $19-22; 9am-9pm), a utilitarian truck stop with work camp-style rooms, showers ($6), costly gas, a gift shop, and not-half-bad food. An alternative is the agglomeration of temporary structures called the Hotspot (451-7543; r $95; 10am-midnight), five miles north, with similar accommodations but cheaper fuel. Its burgers are famous up and down the highway.

Around Mile 70, as the road clambers back out of the river valley, burned-over patches of forest appear, a legacy of the wildfires that scorched the majority of the Interior in 2004. Pavement starts at Mile 90 - a mixed blessing, given its potholed, frost-heaved state. Soon the highway ascends to an alpine area, with the 40ft-high granite tor of Finger Mountain beckoning to the east. At Mile 98, a windy BLM wayside offers great cross-tundra hiking to other tors, plus berry picking and views of the sprawling flats of the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge to the west. A steep descent takes you past the homesteader-operated Arctic Circle Inn (457-9080, 800-932-4468; www.arcticcircleinn.com; Mile 103 Dalton Hwy; cabin $75), with a gift shop, snacks and rustic lodging. Twenty minutes beyond is the inn's namesake, Alaska's most famous imaginary feature.

From Gobbler's Knob (Mile 132) northward, the pyramids of the Brooks Range begin to dominate the scene. In the next 50 miles you'll cross several grayling-rich streams, including Prospect Creek, which, in January 1971, experienced America's lowest-ever temperature, 80°F. Then, at Mile 175, in a mountain-rimmed hollow, you'll arrive in Coldfoot. Originally named Slate Creek, the area was first settled by miners in 1898. When a group of greenhorns got 'cold feet' at the thought of wintering in the district they headed south, and the community was renamed accordingly. It was a ghost town by 1912, but its moniker, at least, was revived in 1981, when Iditarod musher Dick Mackey set up an old school bus here and began selling hamburgers to Prudhoe Bay-bound truck drivers.

Nowadays, with an airstrip, post office andtrooper detachment, you might expect Coldfoot to be a quaint Arctic hamlet. No such luck. The place consists mainly of Coldfoot Camp (474-3500, 866-474-3400; www.coldfootcamp.com), a plug-ugly truck stop with the last gas(24hrs) until Deadhorse, plus Spartan rooms in the Slate Creek Inn (r $165) and a restaurant (breakfast $6-13, lunch & dinner $8-14; 6am-midnight) with passable diner-style fare and a photo collection of jackknifed 18-wheelers. At Frozen Foot Saloon (6pm-10pm) - Alaska's northernmost bar - you can sip microbrews on a deck overlooking (and oversmelling) idling trucks. The exhaust, it seems, keeps the bugs down.

A world apart is the Arctic Interagency Visitors Center (768-5209; 10am-10pm Jun-Aug), on the opposite side of the highway. This impressive $5 million structure opened in 2004 and features museum-quality displays about the Arctic and its denizens. It has ultrahelpful staff, a schlock-free gift shop and nightly nature presentations - the best show in town.

As the visitors-center employees will tell you, the area's best lodging is down the highway. Campers should proceed 5 miles north to Marion Creek Campground (Mile 180; sites $8). This 27-site campground almost always has space and is situated in an open spruce forest with stunning views of the Brooks Range.

Those seeking a bed - or wanting an antidote to Coldfoot's culture of the quick-and-dirty - should push on to Wiseman(population 24), a century-old log-cabin village accessible via a short dirt spur road at Mile 189. The only authentic town on the Dalton, Wiseman occupies an enviable spot, overhung by peaks and fronting the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River. Its heyday was 1910, when it replaced the original Coldfoot as a hub for area gold miners. Many buildings from that era still stand, including those of Arctic Getaway Cabin & Breakfast (678-4456; www.arcticgetaway.com), which offers a sunny, two-person cabin for $90 and an antique-laden four-person house for $150. Next door, cheaper but more institutional, are the rooms at Boreal Lodge (768-4566; www.boreallodge.com; s/d without bath $55/75). Once upon a time the Wiseman Historical Museum, near the entrance to town, was open to the public, but Northern Alaska Tour Company has purchased it and admits only its own clients.

Those wanting erudition should instead follow the signs to the cabin of Wiseman's wiseman, Jack Reakoff, an engaging and surprisingly urbane trapper who sells crafts and will discourse at length about local history and wildlife.

North from Wiseman the Dalton skirts the east edge of Gates of the Arctic National Park. Dall sheep are often visible on the mountain slopes, and the scenery goes into overdrive. By Mile 194 the first views appear of the massive wall of Sukakpak Mountain (4459ft) looming dead ahead. Just before Mile 204 is a lookout with a half-mile trail to Sukakpak's face, while soon after, even taller promontories arise - imposing black talus cones, 7000ft high, riven by glacier-carved valleys. At Mile 235 you kiss the woods goodbye: the famed Last Spruce, though recently girdled by a vandal's ax, stands stately even in death near a turnout on the highway's east side.

The ascent of Atigun Pass(Mile 242) is where the real fun begins. At an elevation of 4739ft this is the highest highway pass in Alaska, and marks the continental divide. While clawing your way 2 miles up the washboarded 12% grade, watch for downward-bound trucks and try to ignore the guardrails mangled by rockslides and avalanches. The view from the top - with the Philip Smith Mountains to the east and the Endicotts to the west - will steal your breath away.

The Brooks Range is largely behind you once you reach the turnoff for the undeveloped Galbraith Lake Campground at Mile 275. From here on it's all rolling tundra, where hiking and camping options are limitless, wildflowers and berries grow in profusion, and wildlife is far easier to spot. Especially at the beginning and end of summer, migrating waterbirds throng roadside ponds, and caribou - members of the 31, 000-head Central Arctic herd - often graze nearby. Also, keep an eye out for weird polar phenomena such as pingos - protuberant hills with a frozen center - and ice-wedge polygons, which shape the tundra into bizarre geometric patterns.

You'll know the coast draws near when the weather turns dire. Even in summer, wind, fog and bitter cold are de rigueur at the Arctic Ocean. The gloom sets the mood for your arrival at the dystopia of Deadhorse, the world's northernmost anticlimax. Centered around Lake Colleen, this is no town - nobody lives here permanently - but a sad expanse of aluminum-clad warehouses, machinery-laden lots and workmen counting the moments until they return south. Don't even think about camping: the tundra is a quagmire and the gravel pads are plied by speeding pickups. Having come all this way, you can either turn around (after gassing up with what is, ironically, some of America's costliest petrol), or do what locals do: hole up in a hotel and watch cable TV.

Arctic Caribou Inn (659-2368, 877-659-2368; www.arcticcaribouinn.com; r $125) and the Prudhoe Bay Hotel (659-2449; www.prudhoebayhotel.com; dm/r with bath $90/110), both near the airport and under the same ownership, aren't froufrou but are a shockingly good deal because the price includes quality café-style meals - the only food service in Deadhorse. (Note that Prudhoe Bay Hotel's ensuite bath can be accessed by two separate bedroom doors.) What differentiates the two places is that, because the Caribou is more tourist-oriented, its gift shop has espressos rather than porno mags. Souvenirs and sundries can also be bought at the Prudhoe Bay General Store (659-2412; 9am-9pm), located on the town's east edge and containing the post office(659-2669). Send Mom a postcard from the top of the world!

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