The temperature had dropped below 20 degrees as the sun set on Coldfoot, Alaska, and I had left the little, rustic Slate Creek Inn at Coldfoot Camp to search the night for dancing lights.
Up above the Arctic Circle in Northern Alaska, Coldfoot Camp is a small collection of buildings that is made up of a truck stop café and the Slate Creek Inn. It was once used as a bunkhouse for workers along the infamous Dalton Highway that sprawls between Fairbanks, Alaska, to the oilfields of Prudhoe Bay.
It’s the most northern truck stop and saloon in North America, though it looks nothing like the brightly-lit, sparkling truck stops in the lower 48 states. The truck stop includes two large gas stations for the truckers who haul up and down the highway made famous by the Discovery TV show Ice Road Truckers. A small mechanic’s shop and closet-sized post office cozy up next to the café/saloon.
Across the frozen, snow-packed parking lot is the Slate Creek Inn with its particle-board walls and surprisingly comfortable-as-hell beds. We had traveled as a guest of Travel Alaska during a winter adventure press trip for more than 8 hours along the deadly, dangerous highway in the dead of winter to get to the truck stop.
No, I don’t have some weird obsession with truck stops, but Coldfoot and neighboring Wiseman are more than just a simple truck stop area. They are a visceral slice of Arctic Alaskan culture. Here, you’ll find mush sled dogs and the jagged Brooks Mountain Range, very near the Gates of the Arctic National Park. Here you’ll find a man nicknamed “Mr. Alaska,” who still lives off the land and trains Special Forces to survive arctic conditions. You’ll find the most northern tree in North America, a spindly, hip-high black spruce. And on many nights, you’ll find the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights.
Visiting the northernmost truck stop and saloon in North America is a unique experience for anyone visiting Alaska and one that every adventurer should experience… but it’s not an easy trek to get here.
A Trip To The Northernmost Truck Stop And Saloon
Our adventure to the Arctic Circle and Coldfoot Camp began with the Northern Alaska Tour Company’s Arctic Circle Aurora Fly / Drive Adventure. On this particular adventure, my travel buddy Lyle and I joined a small “northbound little tour bus” for the long haul up the Dalton Highway to stay two nights at Coldfoot Camp. A small flight would return us to Fairbanks at the end of our stay, and we had signed on for the sheer audacity of traveling this infamous highway.
The tour is open from late August to late April in order to take advantage of the northern lights, but visitors can drive this highway on their own during the summer.
The Dalton Highway, also known as Alaska Highway 11, stretches 414 miles from Livengood, Alaska, to Deadhorse, near the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Most of the highway is gravel, and it was constructed in the 1970s to service the 800-mile Trans-Alaska pipeline.
In addition to the TV show Ice Road Truckers, the highway is notorious for being a rough, dangerous, and lonely trek, even on the best of days. During the winter, it’s a packed path of ice and permafrost, but the unreal landscape during winter makes the wild ride more than worth it.
Led by our guide, Tim (who was amazing and talked about the history, flora, and fauna of the highway for 8 hours straight), we also stopped at various interest points along the highway, including the Dalton Highway Sign, the Yukon River Camp (the only flush toilets along the route), and Wildwood General Store trading post, which is closed during winter.
The landscape is surreal. Heavy snow blankets the mountains, and the sky is heavy with fat gray clouds that blot out the sun. Massive 18-wheelers blow past us, kicking up snow swirls along the route, but safety comes first out here on the ice road. All truckers and drivers communicate regularly on the radio, alerting other drivers if they are approaching tricky areas, like Rollercoaster Hill or Oh Sh*t Curve. The drivers with the Northern Alaska Tour Company undergo extensive training on how to navigate the roadway, which can be deadly if you don’t know what you’re doing.
One of my favorite stops along the Dalton was in “The Enchanted Forest,” an area of black spruce trees that sit at a high point along the highway. Because of their location, they are covered in a thick layer of snow, giving them a magical fairy tale visage that seems like something out of a child’s imagination.
The highway runs parallel to the Trans-Alaska pipeline, most of which is above ground and elevated to allow wildlife to pass under.
After hours of driving and learning about the highway, we reach the Arctic Circle, where we stop to take photos, sip on hot chocolate, and switch drivers to head to Coldfoot Camp.
Pro Tip: Bring snacks and lunch if you take this tour in winter. The Yukon Camp has some pre-packaged stuff to eat and buy, but the restaurant isn’t open in winter.
Roughly an hour north of the Arctic Circle sign, we reach Coldfoot Camp in the dark and check into the little inn. Legend has it that Coldfoot got its name in 1900, when gold seekers who traveled so far to get there got cold feet and turned around. Today it serves as the northernmost truck stop in North America.
Though modest, the truck stop’s café won’t let you go hungry. I’ve never seen such generous portions of hot food served (and it’s delicious food, too). If you crave a beer or a glass of wine, then the saloon has you set. Of course, I had to have a beer in the most northern (legal) saloon in North America.
Coldfoot may be the loneliest truck stop in this hemisphere, but it also serves as a gateway to the scenic delights of the Brooks Range and all the adventures that can be found here.
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve straddles the Arctic Divide in the Brooks Range, America’s northernmost chain of mountains. The Gates of the Arctic is a huge national park, sprawling over 13,238 square miles into a vast, untouched wilderness unmarked by any roads. The only village is Anaktuvuk Pass, a Nunamiut Iñupiat settlement, though smaller Alaska Native villages nestle along its borders.
Our tour guides with Northern Alaska Tour Company drove us farther north along The Dalton on its Arctic Wildlife Safari tour to the Atigun Pass, the highest pass in Alaska that is maintained throughout the year. It straddles the Continental Divide, and it’s notoriously dangerous for truckers in winter due to its elevation of 4,822 feet with 11 to 12 percent grades.
Other activities offered in Coldfoot include snowshoe hiking, dog mushing, and a visit to Jack Reakoff, a homesteader and Alaskan survival expert in Wiseman, Alaska.
Pro Tip: The Gates of the Arctic is vast — roughly the size of Switzerland —but it’s also the wildest of the national parks in North America, having no National Park Service facilities, visitor centers or campgrounds.
Jack Reakoff of Wiseman is a bit of an Alaskan legend. He moved to Alaska as a child, when his parents decided to homestead the wild landscape. For the past 50 years, Jack has become a hero figure of sorts, living off the land and hunting bear and moose to survive. His pioneer cabin in Wiseman serves as our home base for the night as we peer up at the night sky to glimpse the colored dancing lights of the aurora borealis.
As I exited the inn that night to prepare for the trip to Wiseman, I glanced up at the sky that was dimly lit by the truck stop’s lights. I saw a smear of gray light across the sky, and my heart jumped. I had been told that sometimes the Northern Lights look like just a wispy cloud, so I took out my camera and snapped a shot.
Through the lens, that wispy cloud took on a vibrant green hue. I had found them — the northern lights. I rushed inside to announce to the other guests that the lights were out and we all marveled at the light show at the top of the world in Coldfoot. It was the only time we really saw the lights, but the hours of visiting with Jack Reakoff and listening to his stories were well worth it.
The next morning, we loaded up on small planes to return below the Arctic to Fairbanks. The icy mountains seemed bigger than life as we soared over them to return to life below the ice road and the most northern truck stop in America.
We highly recommend booking a tour and driver for this trip, especially in winter. However, the highway is a popular road trip destination during the summer, but you’ll have a rough time finding any rental car places that do not forbid taking their cars on the highway due to damage from all the gravel.
If you do wish to drive yourself in summer (also a stunning time to enjoy the landscape), you’ll need to use Arctic Outfitters, which has a fleet of SUVs designed for the highway. Each vehicle undergoes a rigorous maintenance routine and is equipped with top tires, a CB radio for remote communication, and a tire changing and maintenance kit. If you’re planning on driving all the way to Deadhorse, plan on at least three days.