Think Twice Before Taking A Road Trip On This Infamous Alaska Route

A road trip in Alaska is one of the best ways to get your head around just how big this state is — and there are a ton of routes to choose from. The Seward, Glenn and Richardson Highways offer visitors epic drives through breathtaking scenery on (mostly) beautifully paved roads. But we're not talking about them. We're talking about a route you need to think long and hard about before taking: the James W. Dalton Highway.

From Livengood to Deadhorse on the Arctic Ocean, the Dalton Highway runs for 414 miles through varied and dramatic scenery. During a trip on this road, you'll cross vast areas of Arctic tundra, boreal forests, the Brooks Mountain Range, and the 4,800-foot-high Atigun Pass. It's a trip through some of the most remote parts of Alaska.

The road was built in 1974 by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company to help with the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Keen viewers might have seen the Dalton Highway featured on "Ice Road Truckers," where the intrepid drivers talk about the high chance of accidents on the road. Unlike the truckers, you probably won't be driving in winter, but even a summer trip should be approached with caution.

What to know about driving the Dalton Highway

On the Dalton Highway, you'll travel 414 miles but only pass three communities (they are so small, calling them towns would be misleading). After arriving at the second community of Coldfoot, you'll drive 240 miles to Deadhorse without passing any services. This is not a trip to take on a whim.

The highway is open year-round, though the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities warns that winter driving can be extremely dangerous. And winter can last from August to June up there! That said, conditions are challenging all year. You can check the current road conditions on its website, and we did just that in early October. At that time, road conditions were described as "fair" near Livengood, but we were warned that the roads near Deadhorse were "dangerous." Avalanches and snowdrifts are common in winter; mud abounds in summer.

If you plan to drive the highway, you'll need a tough 4x4 vehicle with plenty of supplies. Essentials include food, water, a first-aid kit, appropriate clothing, and extra gas and spare tires (plural) for your car. Be aware that many rental car companies don't allow you to drive on the Dalton Highway, so you'll have to search for one that does. People drive and thrive on the highway every year, and a quick search on YouTube will allow you to watch people doing just that — from van lifers to 4x4 drivers to motorcyclists. With meticulous planning, you might enjoy the Dalton.

Road trips to do in Alaska instead

If you're looking to get off-road in Alaska but don't want to take on the dangers of the Dalton, consider driving the Denali Highway instead. The road runs from Paxon in the east to Cantwell, just south of Denali National Park. It's a 135-mile gravel road through splendid isolation, with incredible views of the tundra and snowy mountain peaks. You are allowed to camp anywhere on the highway, and there are pull-outs at regular intervals.

Another route to think about is the Top of the World Highway from Tok to Dawson City in Yukon, Canada. The border crossing to Canada is only open in the summer, and the rough gravel road will be hard on your vehicle. But it's 187 miles of sublime scenery as you pass along mountain ridges and through tiny settlements like Chicken, Alaska. Rental car companies often don't allow their vehicles on either of these routes, so as with the Dalton, check before you go.