My trek up Alaska’s Dalton Highway for dazzling northern lights

Mar 15, 2020

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Back in 2018, I managed to see the northern lights from the air — on board Singapore Airlines’ Boeing 787-10 delivery flight from Charleston, South Carolina, to Changi Airport via Osaka, Japan — but I itched for a chance to catch the aurora from the ground.

I’ve been wanting to experience the northern lights in Tromsø, Norway, with friends, but I was hoping to stay local for this particular solo trip, so I looked into options within the U.S. Eventually, I landed on a spot north of Fairbanks, Alaska. It required a trek up the Dalton Highway, made famous by the History Channel show “Ice Road Truckers,” which aired from 2007 through 2017.

Some of the best northern lights displays in the world can be found near a truck stop in Coldfoot, Alaska, but getting up there can be quite a hassle. That didn’t stop me, though, and fortunately all the extra effort (and cash) paid off. The northern lights can be especially elusive but my trip was a smashing success.

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Booking the tour

Although you can rent a specially outfitted car and drive yourself up the Dalton Highway, from what I read, that can be dangerous — and not especially cheap — so I decided to book an Arctic Circle Aurora Overnight Adventure through the Northern Alaska Tour Company, instead. That included a two-night stay at Coldfoot Camp, a van ride up north and a Piper Navajo flight back down to Fairbanks (FAI).

I later added a daytime Arctic Mountain Safari, including an afternoon drive through the Brooks Range for $129, plus two nights of shooting the aurora borealis in Wiseman, for $89 each. Including a $200 single supplement, plus the tour add-ons, my total came to $1,296. Fortunately, the charge coded as travel with my Chase Sapphire Reserve, netting me 3,888 Ultimate Rewards points, worth $77.76, based on TPG’s valuations.

Journey above the Arctic Circle

After a somewhat-challenging drive from Anchorage, I eventually arrived in Fairbanks, where I was to begin my tour.

I was expecting the food and beverage selection to be light up in Coldfoot, so I made a pit stop at Walmart for some provisions — along with the cheapest boots I could find. My $20 rain boots helped a bit, but I recommend bringing along appropriate winter attire, especially if you’re visiting further into the season.

The next morning, I arrived at the Northern Alaska Tour Company office on the east side of Fairbanks International Airport ahead of the scheduled 9:45 a.m. departure time.

There’s not much to see beyond a snack machine and nondescript waiting room, but I got a kick out of chatting with the front-desk attendant. Naturally, I was wondering if I’d have a decent shot at seeing the northern lights. Even though it was raining in Fairbanks, the skies were clear above Coldfoot, as evidenced by this live feed of the airport.

After a quick orientation and a chance to meet the rest of the group — most of whom were doing a day trip to the Arctic Circle (I was the only one continuing farther north) — we headed out to our bus.

It was spacious and comfortable, something which I quickly learned to appreciate because it would end up taking nearly 10 hours to get to Coldfoot. I spent most of the time on the bus, before saying goodbye to the rest of the group and continuing on in a much smaller van, where I was the only passenger.

After leaving Fairbanks, the drive quickly became more fascinating, especially whenever we were able to drive alongside the famed Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which runs the length of the state, from Prudhoe Bay in the north all the way down to Valdez, not far from Anchorage.

The landscape and conditions varied quite a bit, from hilly and dry to flat and snowy.

No matter where we stopped, it was cold — and I was visiting in mid-October.

The bathrooms weren’t much to speak of, either, though there were flushing toilets at one of the stops.

Parts of the road were paved, but there were also long stretches of dirt — it’s all ice and snow in winter, though.

A few hours in, we stopped at Yukon River Camp for lunch. It gave us an opportunity to get up close and personal with the pipeline — it really is remarkable to see.

The camp wasn’t very exciting, though I was happy to get off the road and grab some grub.

It’s also one of the few places along the highway to fuel up — at $5.50 per gallon for unleaded.

I wasn’t sure what to expect inside, but the main living/dining area was warm and well-equipped, with a variety of hot and cold items, plus dessert.

I walked the halls where I encountered real flushing toilets, and a preview of what I was likely to find once I reached Coldfoot.

After gobbling down some sandwiches and walking along the Yukon River, we made a left turn and continued north, stopping again before reaching the Arctic Circle.

About eight hours after leaving Fairbanks, we made it to the final stopping point for most of the group.

Everyone took turns snapping some pics, and we learned about the significance of this spot as well: It marks the northernmost point where you can just barely see the sun during the winter solstice, and where the midnight sun is visible in June.

After a group photo, it was time to say farewell to my new friends — they’d be heading back to Fairbanks, after a late-night stop for some (hopeful) northern lights viewing down south.

I continued north, with roughly two more hours to go until we reached Coldfoot.

The rest of the drive was uneventful, and with cloudy conditions at the southern northern-lights viewing spot, I was thrilled to be heading up north.

Life at Coldfoot Camp

Roughly 10 hours after leaving Fairbanks, I had arrived.

I wasn’t able to find much about Coldfoot online — a few photos on the camp’s sparse website — so I really wasn’t sure what to expect on the amenities front.

Turns out, that’s for good reason. The entire complex is unremarkable, but still a welcome sight for truckers and other visitors making their way up the lonely Dalton Highway.

The lodgings felt like a dated college dorm. It had been built to house workers assembling the pipeline in the 1970s and didn’t look like it had been updated since.

Until cell service arrived a couple of years ago, landline phones brought the only communication with the outside world. That isn’t the case anymore, though. An outdated sign by the telephone claims that Coldfoot is “one of the last places on earth where your cellphone does NOT work!!!.”

Meanwhile, after getting a look at the hall, I realized that Coldfoot’s accommodations would be even more “bare bones” than what I found at Yukon River Camp.

And the situation certainly didn’t improve once I found my way to the room.

As with almost everything else, the lodging had been trucked in and assembled on-site — my room likely hadn’t changed since it housed oil workers in the ’70s.

I understood that the conditions were going to be rustic — aside from the foggy water, some very light touches could go a long way to improving the aesthetic a bit, though, like wiping off some of the mold around the tray above the sink …

… and perhaps updating the artwork.

The linens and towels were clean and my room had an ensuite toilet and shower.

I wasn’t interested in hanging out in there, so I ventured across the parking lot to the Trucker’s Cafe.

Beer is strictly prohibited in the main cafe — for that, you need to walk around the corner to the Frozen Foot Saloon, which also has a TV.

Truckers have their own exclusive dining area — no Priority Pass accepted; you need to drive a semi to sit there.

The gift shop is open to everyone, though, and there’s a ton of Coldfoot-branded apparel, along with some postcards and stamps available at the main desk.

There were also some nature and aurora photos mounted on the wall. Although you can see the northern lights clearly enough from Coldfoot, I quickly learned that the best viewing spot requires an add-on, which I had already booked.

First, it was time for dinner, and a bit of work. Most of the items seemed pretty hearty, and considering I’d be eating all of my meals there for two days, I decided to start off a bit light.

Or so I thought! My large chef’s salad was gigantic and included a ton of meat for 14 bucks.

Breakfast wasn’t any lighter. My four-egg omelet included enough food to feed a small family, and also cost about 14 bucks.

The next day I decided to brave Spooky Tomato, the soup of the day.

That ran me $6, plus $9 for a delicious grilled cheese on Texas toast. Worth it.

As for connectivity, there’s satellite internet available for purchase, but it’s awfully slow. Fortunately, the local SIM card that I purchased at a GCI store in Anchorage worked without a hitch, once I arrived at Coldfoot. My Verizon service actually dropped out almost immediately after leaving Fairbanks, but Verizon partners with GCI for service in Coldfoot, so I was able to connect using my regular SIM as well.

Perhaps most important of all, I was able to use my laptop by tethering to my iPhone, which made it possible to continue producing the daily TPG newsletter.

I also borrowed an Iridium Go satellite hotspot for the trip, which allowed me to make phone calls and send text messages from my iPhone even when I didn’t have a cell signal. It worked well above the Arctic Circle but fortunately, I was able to use my regular service most of the time.

Most visitors don’t venture all the way out to Coldfoot to surf the web, though — it’s all about experiencing remote life, and, of course, seeing the northern lights.

I was able to get a much better feel for the area once the sun came out. The surrounding mountains certainly helped spruce things up a bit.

I also loved visiting the sled dogs, though they hadn’t started working for the season.

Puppies.

My guide, Tim, insisted on showing me around and even brought me over to his camp in the woods.

Tim cooks his own meals with supplies provided by the restaurant, even in the dead of winter.

As interesting as it was to explore the camp, the highlights are definitely found elsewhere along the Dalton.

The northern lights

After dinner and a nap, I set out with another guide, Dan, around 1 a.m. on the first night.

After arriving at Wiseman, Dan chopped some wood, and got a fire going to keep us warm.

I was freezing in the meantime, so I ventured inside to explore the small cabin.

Northern Alaska Tour Company bought the cabin to accommodate northern lights guests — it isn’t typical to have just one visitor, but I was all alone for the aurora adventure, too.

It almost felt like a walk-in time capsule. Check out this medication, with an expiration date of April 1956.

The real show was outside, though. It was simply breathtaking to watch.

Bands of green, blue and pink swirled around the sky — the colors were very impressive in person, but some quick adjustments on my iPhone really made them pop.

Although my visit coincided with a period of low activity, I had no trouble seeing the aurora, because I was almost directly underneath it. Be sure to check out this post for more on finding the aurora and how to photograph it.

I also returned to Wiseman during the day to chat with local residents Jack and Kristin Reakoff.

The Reakoffs own a number of buildings in Wiseman. Kristin recently converted one into a studio, where she sells her art to visitors.

Jack has a lot of experience interacting with tourists, educating them about the area and how to best photograph the northern lights.

The Reakoffs hunt their own food, too, and even sell the pelts to visitors.

My visit coincided with a hunt. The hunters bagged a moose, which was expected to last much of the winter.

I was hoping to catch the northern lights on my second night as well, but, despite clear skies at sunset, it was snowing heavily by the time 1 a.m. rolled around. Tours are nonrefundable, unfortunately, so I was still on the hook for the $89 fee.

Back to Fairbanks

After my two nights at camp, it was time to head back to civilization in Fairbanks, onboard N820FS, a twin-engine Piper Navajo. It was a scenic flight south of the Arctic Circle, but I’m glad I got to experience the drive on the journey up to Coldfoot, too.

Naturally, as an aviation geek, I was thrilled to fly in such a small plane, and filmed the takeoff, along with much of the flight.

There wasn’t a moving map, of course, but there was a guide in the seat-back pocket, giving us an idea of what we might see.

The first half of the flight consisted of snowy peaks, with the landscape getting progressively more bare as we approached Fairbanks.

As for the inflight entertainment, I spent most of the time looking out the window, and once I tired of that, I snapped a few selfies. (Hey you!)

We left Coldfoot around 3:30 p.m. and arrived in Fairbanks roughly an hour later — certainly faster than another 10-hour drive.

Overall impression

I set out to see the northern lights without leaving the United States, and I certainly accomplished my mission. I had a blast, too — and, because I certainly wasn’t expecting a five-star resort, I wasn’t disappointed by the bare-bones accommodations up at camp.

View this post on Instagram

3-second handheld iPhone 11 shot, with Night Mode (entirely point and shoot – it’s the native camera app). I’ve been getting a TON of DM questions about this shot, so I’ll address a bunch here (feel free to chime in below if there’s anything else). Also, I’m trying to get better about DMs, but it’s a pain to manage on Instagram, so post comments are best. I try to read them all though! – shot with iPhone 11 Max, but it’s the regular “wide” lens so iPhone 11 will capture an identical image, too – it’s a 3-second Night Mode exposure, entirely handheld (and with very cold, shaky hands too!) – I used the “Paris” Stories filter to soften the pic and reduce noise a bit, but no filter here – I did correct vertical perspective, adjust exposure, bring down the highlights and adjust the color balance, all in the native photos app – I’ll do a separate @thepointsguy post explaining my techniques, but it’s nothing crazy – you should be able to snap something similar with Galaxy Note 10, S10, Fold with Night Mode, and presumably the new Pixel 4 – I’m in Wiseman, AK – an incredibly remote village with 10 residents in interior Alaska – Wiseman is directly under the Aurora, so it’s often bright – just need a clear sky – the Aurora also stretches all the way across the sky here – bring a fisheye if you’re hoping to capture that – I booked a 2-night Coldfoot tour with @northern.alaska – more on that experience coming to @thepointsguy soon!

A post shared by @ZachHonig (@zachhonig) on

I did leave the tour a bit frustrated that Northern Alaska Tour Company wouldn’t issue a refund for the evening tour, even though I had asked to cancel it as soon as we encountered snow on the road. But that wasn’t a terrible loss — I was incredibly fortunate to have seen such a fantastic display the night before, especially since the rest of the bus group left empty-handed.

Regardless of where in the world you travel to see the northern lights, an aurora sighting is never a guarantee. Your best chance is to head far north in winter, though — and, considering my experience, I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Coldfoot.

All photos by Zach Honig/The Points Guy

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