“The secret is in the dirt”

Let’s just get this out of the way right up front: Denali Highway became an immediate nominee on my top ten list of most scenic highways in the US. Immediate nominee. I’ve been on Going to the Sun Road, Coastal Highway 1 in Big Sur, Trail Ridge in Colorado, Broadway in Manhattan (don’t dismiss it until you’ve tried it!), Windy Ridge to Mount St Helens, and now the Dalton on this trip. Denali Highway is spectacularly beautiful, and I ran out of superlatives to describe it.

Denali Highway

Denali Highway history lesson: it opened in 1957, and was the only highway to Denali until the Parks Highway opened several years later

Central Alaskan Range

You could sit all day and watch the weather go by

Alaskan taiga

Alaskan taiga from the Denali Highway

Denali Highway hilltop

Denali Highway hilltop

We entered on the western side from Cantwell, which apparently is the wrong way to go, as Denali Mountain is then at your back as you travel eastward. It didn’t matter on this day, as the mountain wasn’t out during our passage. We danced with some rain clouds and more slippery construction zones, and even caught a rainbow.

Rainbow on Denali Highway

Rainbow on Denali Highway

We took our time going across, and eventually settled down at the BLM campground at Tangle Lakes. Half of the campground was closed to construction, looks like they’re putting in new sites and tables, and the construction trucks continued deep into evening with an incessant beep-beep-beep signal of reverse drive. The wind had kicked up too. It was the kind of wind that puts whitecaps on the lake and makes your tent flap all night. It also kept the bugs away.

Tankgle Lakes campground

The wind was moving strong through Tangle Lakes campground

TIP: The town of Healy appears to be the tourist capital of visitors heading into Denali National Park. It’s an insane juggle between RVs, tour buses, and cars looking for places to stay and grab some food. But tucked in between the buildings and RV camp are two food trucks, one for Chinese food, the other for Thai. Both had delicious entrees with heaping portions, although a little overpriced. Recommended.

“Gas-Food-Lodging”

Upon landing in Fairbanks, we immediately gas’d up and headed over to Adventure CycleWorks to clean up the bikes and attend to oil changes. It’s important to get the calcium chloride off the bike as soon as possible, as it will harden and do a vulcan-merge meld thing with the bike metals. Dan and Shawn run a nice shop there, highly recommended. Check out their site for more info.

Power washing at Adventure Cycleworks

Shawn shows us what to power wash - make sure all the little holes in the wheels are clear.

Adventure Cycleworks garage

Nice shop

We used the following day as ‘McGuyver’ Day to attend to Brady’s bike and catch up with shopping. We scored a $5 replacement fender (!) from the spare parts bin at the Trail’s End dealership, and picked up a left blinker and left mirror. I also needed a new blinker cover which was taken out by a flying rock from a truck passing on the Dalton. As we camped in the Trail’s End parking lot with our tool kits spread out, we had some wonderful exchanges with passing folks. One elderly gentleman stopped by, said he was one of the first truckers up the Dalton, had awesome stories of being stuck on the ice, helicopter coming in with food, he had to stand on top of the cab with waters rising around him, great stuff.

Another biker stopped by, mid-30s, on a 1200GSA, this was going to be his last season in Fairbanks, he was done with it. He performs MRIs for a living, been up here for seven years, it’s too cold in the winter, the local vendors are too expensive, and heating months are 7-8 months of the year. He’s single, moving back to the lower 48 next year. Okay then. (If he’s reading this, didn’t catch his name, definitely a longer riding season here in Seattle.)

TIP: always carry safety wire. We used it to keep the fender on the bike for the rest of the trip. It rocks.

Fixed and ready to go

Fixed and ready to go

Also worth a mention of two of Fairbanks finer dining establishments…

Java da Hutt

Java da Hutt

And dinner at Geraldo’s on College Ave, excellent pizza and beer, and just 10 minutes down the street from the college.

Parking ticket at UAF

Watch where you park at UAF...bikers were getting tickets due to construction zones. James managed to get a $60 ticket down to a $3 daily parking pass.

“For a limited time only”

We headed out of Deadhorse in the morning chill, temps in the mid-40s, which the locals would call ‘balmy’ conditions. It’s all relative. The first 50 or so miles cut across the tundra on a layered gravel top, relatively hard in the tire wells, with increasing stone accumulation toward the edge of the road. Without any notice, the road turned to deeper gravel, 1-2 inches high, and the bikes became squirrelly. Jun was in the lead, I was right behind, our bikes both started to slalom. We reduced speed and plowed ahead. I looked in my side mirror, and saw everyone behind me had stopped. Someone had gone down.

Jun and I circled back. Everyone was standing when we reached the group, and were huddled around Brady’s bike. Turns out Brady got caught up in the high gravel on the edge of the road, and wasn’t quite able to get out. Brady is an experienced rider who vacations in Baja with his F650, so we knew he must have hit a bad patch and couldn’t squeeze out. Given the conditions of the road, I’m thankful more of us didn’t go down, it was a nasty surprise. Brady was up and standing, no injuries, something else to be thankful for, it was time for damage assessment on the bike.

F650 on the Dalton

All good after a tumble, no injury. Notice the S turns on the upper left showing the path.

Bike parts on the Dalton

Damage assessment: no left blinker, no left mirror, no front fender and beak

You can see more of the bike and road conditions in the southbound video, which I’ll embed at the end of this post.

Although the bike was rideable to Fairbanks, we later learned that without a front fender, rain & road spray off the front wheel would come up and hit Brady right on the visor, essentially blinding him with water and mud. So James and Brady rigged a temporary fender that worked through the brief showers we ran into on the remainder of the southbound leg.

Atigun Pass

The infamous Atigun Pass sign is on the north side of the pass

Dalton Highway just south of Atigun Pass

Dalton Highway just south of Atigun Pass

Dalton Highway run from Atigun Pass through the Brooks Range

Dalton Highway runs from Atigun Pass through the Brooks Range

We ran into Matt and Jason at the Hotspot Cafe…two brothers from the UK now living in Atlanta. They have their own ride report in production here.

Matt and Jason at Hotspot

Matt and Jason on their BBT Tour 2011

Yukon River

3 shot composite of the Yukon River

Short three minute video of the southbound ride, including the accident. Check out the skeeter swarm and James’ booties while we assess the bike.

“Terra incognita”

Deadhorse sits on the edge of the continent, in a coastal plain with gray curved roads and few road signs to guide the way. It requires tribal knowledge to get around, and most anyone you ask for directions will point the way with a finger, and you have to figure out how to get over there. To call it a town would be charitable, it is really an industrial construction site built to support the extraction of oil.

First order of business upon arrival: gas up the bikes and spare containers.

Gas station in Deadhorse

Gas station in Deadhorse: although Prudhoe Bay is the home for oil extraction, there are no refineries, so all gas for vehicles is trucked up from Fairbanks.

Prudhoe Bay is home to the largest oil in the US and North America, which means it’s also a strategic asset – access to the Arctic Ocean requires a background check with 24 hour advance notice, as you must use a guided tour for access. While this appears to be common knowledge among the locals and ADV forum, apparently lots of people continue to show up in town expecting to have immediate beach access & ocean vu.

Tip: 2011 may be the last year for guided tours, as the hosting Arctic Caribou Inn is shutting down after this year due to increasing maintenance bills and competing housing alternatives. When we were there in July, no other hospitality companies had yet committed to picking up the tour for next year. So anyone interested in dipping their toes into the Beaufort Sea in the future should research this ahead of time.

Upon arrival at the Caribou Inn, your name gets checked off on an Excel spreadsheet, you pay the $40 tour fee, view an 10 year old video in dire need of a refresh, and hop on the bus to see the production facilities, local wildlife, and finally the ocean.

Tundra transport

Tundra transport: when the tires are inflated, it can roll over someone without causing injury (!)

Oil transport

Oil transport: used to move liquids from fields to processing

Arctic fox

Arctic fox on the tundra - look closely above the lake.

Land's end

Land's end: the edge of the continent and entry to the Beaufort Sea.

Craig in the Beaufort Sea

Water temperature was 38 degrees. I lasted 10 seconds.

The five mouseketeers

The five mouseketeers: Rich, Brady, James, Jun, and Craig

We spent the night at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel, complete with excellent wifi, 3G, and an over-achieving buffet. The hotel likes to keep the carpets clean, so guests have to wear baby blue booties over street shoes to prevent grime creep. Very stylish, and disposable. James liked his booties so much he wore them on the southbound trip, as you’ll see in the next video.

Dalton grime on a 1200gs

Dalton grime on the 1200gs. It doesn't come off easily.

Posing at the General Store

Posing at the General Store.

“To infinity and beyond!”

Good news for you ride report fans, we took the ‘smell the roses’ approach up and down the Dalton, which meant overnight stays at Coldfoot in each direction. No up-and-back 500 mile days for us, we preferred to dawdle and be eaten by carnivorous mosquitos along the side of the road while we paused for photos and breaks. We timed our trip to perfectly align with the skeeter mating season so we could join their block party.

“Hey, bartender! Bloody Mary, O-positive. ” — A Bug’s Life
 

And they loved my O-positive blood. Two thumbs up for the bug hat net from Outdoors Research. No issues, of course, while bike was in motion, the fun would start about 20 seconds after a stop, and the swarm would begin.

Back to more practical matters: the ride experience on the Dalton has direct relationship with the weather. During our four days up and back, the weather pattern was typically sunny mornings with afternoon thunderstorms in the mountains. Conditions were managable, and we kept it slow in the slick wet stuff, of which there was plenty.

Here’s a quick 3 minute video showing up highlights on the way up…

Riding up the Dalton

Smooth riding on the hardened calcium chloride roadtop

The Hot Spot

Great burgers at Hot Spot

Rest stop on the Dalton

Rest stop on the Dalton

Finger Mountain rest stop

Finger Mountain rest stop

Craig at the Arctic Circle

Craig at the Arctic Circle

Brady at the Arctic Circle

Brady at the Arctic Circle

Alaska pipeline beside the Dalton

Alaska pipeline beside the Dalton

Marion Creek campground outside Coldfoot

Marion Creek campground outside Coldfoot

A few roadie insights along the way up…

  • My 1200GS needed an extra 1.5 gallons to make the 250-ish miles between Coldfoot and Deadhorse. Brady made it on a single tank on his F650.
  • Road conditions during the construction segments tended to have the worst conditions…slippery, deep muddy gunk or gravel, and typically surrounded by trunks bigger than us.
  • My GPS mount rattled off just past Atigun Pass, as the bikes were bouncing off large gravel stones and giving everyone a good vibration shake down. This was the beginning of the end for the GPS on this trip.
  • Coldfoot has an awesome all-you-can-eat buffet, as well as bar. It’s also the last stop for any alcohol going north, as it’s not allowed at all in Deadhorse. Handy to know if the skies are wet and you’re not looking forward to camping & eating in the rain.
  • After hearing so many horror stories about road conditions, we were surprised to see spanking new blacktop pavement around the Coldfoot area, it’s like an oasis for the tires, and soon disappears without rhyme or reason

“Schools out for summer”

The University of Alaska in Fairbanks serves as the unofficial staging & recovery center for riders heading to and fro Deadhorse and the Arctic Circle. School is out for summer, and the college rents out dorm rooms at inexpensive rates cheaper than a motel or B&B. Rooms come with access to free shower and laundry, and you mingle with the summer students. (more details here if interested)

UAF dorm room

UAF single room: 24hr-a-day light, no vu

UAF dorm

Staging area at the UAF dorm

bikes in the UAF parking lot

More bikes in the UAF parking lot

While futzing around and chatting in the parking lot, we hooked up with 3 solo riders to form a caravan for the ride up to Deadhorse…
• James – a long distance rider from London touring the NA continent on a 1200GSA
• Rich – retired Air Force mechanic from Oklahoma on a Concourse
• Jun – retired Mazda mechanic from San Francisco on a Kawasaki

Connecting with other riders was a real highlight of the trip, not only for the camaraderie, there’s also safety in numbers and all that. We’re were well aware that the Dalton could be hazardous, depending on conditions, and that a number of accidents had occurred already this season.

All of us were checking the weather regularly, rain was consistent in all forecasts. Then we heard from a returning rider that road conditions were in good shape, so we packed up, made hotel reservations in Deadhorse, and headed north.

James at UAF

James @ UAF: "Do you have any room available...?"

“I’m on top of the world…”

We landed in Dawson City amid overcast skies, and established camp at Gold Creek RV Park, which is the only campground downtown. A little pricey for a 15x15ft plot of gravel, such is the way for most everything far north in the Yukon, and we needed to catch up on showers, laundry, and connections back home.

Spell of the Yukon

The spell of the Yukon with a fresh coat of paint

Dawson City Hotel

Downtown Hotel in Dawson City

At this point in the trip, we had been fairly lucky with the weather – mostly dry skies with just a few hours of rain on day 2, and we were hearing from riders coming from the north that they were zipping through steady downpours. As the clouds darkened over Dawson, a steady drizzle kicked in and would continue off and on through the next day. While we were prepared for rain conditions, let’s be blunt…camping in the rain dampens the spirit and makes your tent smell. And we were hoping for great conditions for the Top of the World Highway.

Alas, it was not meant to be as you’ll see in the video, which tracks from the Dawson ferry up to the border crossing at Poker Creek.

Top of the World Highway from craig kerwien on Vimeo.

Top of the World Highway

Top of the World Highway

Craig in Alaska

The most northern highway crossing into the US

Poker Creek border crossing

Population 2?

Road conditions were slippery on the US side and along the descent into Chicken – we saw not one but TWO RVs half off the road, right wheels in the gutter, left wheels in the air. The area had received significant rain in prior weeks, and the road had just reopened due to flooding. We lunched in Chicken under a torrential downpour, and then the skies turned blue along the way to Tok and into Delta Junction where we were greeted by the Alaska Air Force…

Alaska Air Force

Alaska Air Force in formation

Delta Junction

Official terminus of the ALCAN Highway

“Thar’s gold in them thar hills”

The Klondike Highway out of Whitehorse weaved through dusty construction and short turns. We camped in Twin Lakes campground despite the bear warning…

Twin Lakes campground - bear warning

And then we noticed everyone else in camp was staying in an RV

Twin Lakes campsite

Nice view over the lake, and we were bear-free for the evening

Five Finger Rapids

Five Finger rapids on the Yukon River

Video: short snip of the Klondike leading up to Dawson City…