DW Burnett

Alaska’s Dalton Highway On A BMW R1200GS Adventure

Chasing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and finding ADV mecca

"You cheated!" John shouted at me. Now, normally I don't take kindly to this kind of rhetoric. The thing is, John rode his BMW R1200GS from New Orleans to Fairbanks just for the privilege of taking on the final 500 miles to the top of Alaska. And I revealed that I had just flown in from California, to take a borrowed GS along the last glorious stretch. He was right about me.

Then he told me the first of many daunting stories I would hear about the Dalton Highway. There was a ­thundershower, he said, lashing him with rain and hail so violently that he pulled over. When he tried to go again, the surface of the road had become so slippery that his bike wouldn’t move. “These will be better,” he said, gesturing to the Continental TKC80 knobs on my borrowed R1200GS Adventure. John shook my hand and wished me well, but the stories from the ­legendary road kept coming—foremost, the notorious train of semitrucks that call the Haul Road home.

I’d heard tales of holes punched in windshields and side mirrors taken off by the wake of rocks kicked up behind tens of thousands of pounds. “If you don’t move over for the truckers,” one fellow said between puffs of a Marlboro Red, “they’ll just run you over.” Another local, after learning I was headed north, offered me information on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It was all pretty ominous.

Ready, I hoped, for anything the road would throw at me.

Originally built to support the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline in the mid-1970s, the James Dalton Highway is infamous, and it seems like everyone likes it that way. If you’ve watched Ice Road Truckers or World’s Most Dangerous Roads, you’ve been regaled with the brutal nature of the Dalton Highway, and you might rather drive off a pier than on the Dalton. I thought locals would roll their eyes, but to my surprise, most people I met in Alaska kept my fear alive.

At least the machine I was on seemed up for the task. BMW’s R1200GS Adventure is the flagship of the brand and one of the most well-known motorcycles in the world. When the 7.9-gallon fuel tank is full, it weighs around 600 pounds. That’s before clamping on two aluminum saddlebags and a matching top case, and filling them with my belongings. The cherry on top: 200 pounds of my city-slicker self, tender in the middle but wrapped in Gore-Tex to show the world I meant business. All in all, unlikely to get blown off the road, I thought.

The R1200GS Adventure in its intended habitat. The best way to see a machine’s true colors is to put it in the place that the brochure shows it, just to see what’s real and what’s hype.DW Burnett

In the seat of an R1200GS, I feel at home. In part because I was raised alongside many BMWs—most of them pre-1980, mind you, no ABS or fuel injection in our household. Still, the single-sided swingarm and the cylinders sticking out either side always take me back to my time on a simpler GS. The other reason I felt at ease setting out on this BMW is the same reason everyone else does: It is a tremendously nice machine. The riding position is neutral, the seat is cushy, and the windscreen is adjustable—motorcycling’s business class.

Ready, I hoped, for anything the road would throw at me. Fortunately, the first part of the journey is confidence inspiring—a gentle, paved strip of two-lane that meanders out of Fairbanks and quickly into rural Alaska. Or, what would be considered rural anywhere else. An unnatural bulge in the road now and again is the only clue of the earth doling out punishing cold. Being a self-respecting New Englander, I fear not a frost heave or two. Sun shining and thick forest stretching to the horizon, you could almost be fooled into thinking you were between towns somewhere in the great West or even the Northeast of the lower 48.

Brooks Range
Climbing the south slope of the Brooks Range. It’s brief but dramatic.DW Burnett

Around 80 miles outside Fairbanks, the road turns to gravel in what feels like a permanent way, and a speed-limit sign casually blankets the next 416 miles. It marks the beginning of the Dalton Highway proper, and it is truly R1200GS territory. Potholes, washboard, and every other imperfection in the road disappeared underneath the GS’s 19-inch front wheel. If you were to imagine floating along on decades of refinement the machine has undergone, it feels something like that. Just in front of the mammoth tank, you can see down to the Telelever front suspension with its A-arm brace reaching out to the spindly, 37mm fork frantically following the surface at 60 mph.

The sheer size of the journey set in slowly for me. As the miles rolled past, the visible land and sky seemed to grow. Crossing the Yukon River is the first major landmark heading north on the Haul Road. The bridge is huge in a modern way, nearly half a mile long and 15 or 20 stories above the water, topped with a ripped-up wooden deck that’s replaced every decade or so. The river is broad, and almost 2,000 miles long. Cruising over it on what feels like the deck of a 200-year-old ship turned out to be a good characterization of how epic and ancient Alaska feels in person.

I stopped at the Arctic Circle and met an Eastern European man with his shirt off. His English was broken, but I gathered he was amazed that it was nearly 70 degrees. For context, about 20 miles north I passed Prospect Camp, where once upon a time in 1971 it was 150 degrees colder—that’s 80 below, a U.S. record that still stands. Granted, not in mid-June. I set the cruise for some of the straight sections and the GS galloped along like a sled dog with its tongue hanging out. Working itself, droning across the tundra with rocks intermittently pinging off the skid plate, in the most innate way.

The bike loped past 275 miles on its first tank of 91, and I trundled into Coldfoot. What started as a mining outpost, Coldfoot Camp was one of 29 construction camps set up to build the Dalton Highway in the early ’70s. It then boomed to a town of hundreds of workers cycling through endless 12-hour shifts. When the road was finished, the buildings were repurposed or removed, and by the early ’80s, Coldfoot was all but empty again. Only about a dozen people call it home, but there are bunks to rent, hot food, and most crucially, gas pumps.

Alaska summer sky
The summer sky in Alaska means scheduling by the clock is key, otherwise you keep riding and forget to eat. This cockpit shot was snapped at about 10:30 p.m.DW Burnett

The next leg felt, as the kids might say, more real. As a road, the Dalton was still marvelous, but the terrain started to show signs of true nothingness. Fewer rolling hills and more goliath shards of rock sticking up like compound fractures in the greenery. A sign put a finer point on it: 240 miles with no resources. Hardly any signs of modern life at all, it turned out. Even the thin forests of conifers look like they struggle for life. I was reminded of POW images from a history textbook—the trees look like emaciated prisoners, with a special ­resolve in their pose, scraggly but strong. Just before carving through the looming, snow-sheathed Brooks Range I passed the “Farthest North Spruce.” No ­explanation needed.

General aviation
General aviation is as much a part of Alaskan lore as bears and ice. The farther north, the more runways take the place of roads—if the pilots are lucky.DW Burnett

Temperatures finally dropped, from the high 50s to mid-40s, as I rose into low clouds and my first taste of rain through the Atigun Pass. The pass is severe and majestic—jagged mountains tower over the road. It’s twisty but gentle enough for truck after truck, towing everything from massive lengths of drill bit to a mobile Halliburton command center. Down out of the pass and I was on to the North Slope, moving the same direction as the snowmelt. From the side of the road, the melt coming from the mountains is audible. Steep cliffs dump staggering amounts of water, flowing through the nooks and crags of the hills and into drainage ditches, through culverts, and into the rivers. It mixed with the wind, enveloping me in the sound of serenity, and told me to be quiet.

Ironically, sometimes the only splash of color on a stark and cold road is a memorial to the dangers of the Dalton.DW Burnett

The sun broke out again, and I basked in the odd beauty of the zebra-striped peaks shedding snow. It felt like the last beautiful thing I would see, and I was right. From there it was out onto 100-and-something miles of frozen tundra. Some motorcycle rides have a glimmer of hope that the weather will change, but the journey from Coldfoot to Deadhorse is not one of those rides. The temperature dropped. I bumped the heated grips from low to high and tried to relax my shoulders. Grasslands stretched out flatter and flatter. The one constant in the environment becomes more noticeable: the seemingly endless 4-foot-diameter pipe that follows the road. It burrows underground and snakes across rivers. Always there, almost mocking my expedition.

Deadhorse Camp
Deadhorse Camp is approximately as scenic as it sounds but a milestone nonetheless.DW Burnett

I stopped to do pushups to get a rush of blood into my fingers. As I stood up panting, I saw waves of heat shimmering off the tundra, and my jaw muscles chewed a granola bar like they had forgotten how. The thermometer on the bike reported it was around 37 degrees. Eventually the grass gave way to brittle, ivory emptiness. The road surface was coarse but still largely perfect. It is straight and flat and drifts into the horizon with a glassy mirage, an irony of a hot desert. There was fog and overcast clouds, and the road merged with the sky in an ­eerie, hypnotic way. Markers along the roadside—presumably to mark the road for snow when the drifts are many feet high—made it feel like a runway to the unknown.

BMW’s flagship GS
The style of BMW’s flagship GS has always been polarizing, never more so than now. It’s large, utilitarian, and comfortable.DW Burnett

The motorcycle, for its part, was flawless. Frankly, this class of bike is stellar, and other big ADVs could, would, and do travel this route with the same success. Hours of comfort and all of the tuneablity an adventurer could want. But the GS is special. Its competitors are so good because the GS exists. The next bike will almost always be better than the last, but there will only ever be one that was first. And this bike is better than the last. Throttle maps, ABS, and even seat height, all available to tweak. This up-spec GS now has a self-leveling trick, where it judges how much static sag the machine has and adjusts the shock preload to match.

Riding Alaska
DW Burnett

Then there were the heated grips, which I would have hated to do without. A KLR650 rider I met near Deadhorse asked me if my hands were cold. Yes, I said, but how could I possibly complain? The road kept disappearing into the north, and it kept getting colder. The survivor in all of us pushes on in these situations because when there’s a mountain of a challenge, we want to get to the summit. I didn’t expect much accommodations, but I figured I could at least look forward to not being in the wind blast. When I finally saw buildings, the bike was showing 32 degrees.

highway and the pipeline
The highway and the pipeline are etched across the landscape for hundreds of miles. One wouldn’t exist without the other.DW Burnett

Arriving in Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay was surreal. Nobody who does this trip gets any fanfare. There are no flashbulbs or champagne. Only an overwhelming sense that if it weren’t for the few steel buildings in this vast and vicious place, you would be utterly screwed. And because of that, there’s a sense of camaraderie for those you’re with. I leapfrogged with a handful of motorcyclists on Haul Road, all of whom deserve more credit than I can claim—Johns of various ilk who had earned their Dalton prize.

TFT dash
You can squeeze 300 miles out of a GS-Adventure’s tank, if you don’t mind the bright and colorful warning on the TFT dash.DW Burnett

Matt, from Idaho, solo on a new KTM twin, who got snowed and rained on for six days across Canada and was still smiling. A father on a Kawasaki KLR taking his 14-year-old son, riding a Suzuki DR-Z400, on his first trip up the Dalton from Wasilla. Pedro, who had flown from Ecuador to Los Angeles, bought a Yamaha Super Ténéré, and ridden it to Alaska. I was impressed, and put in my place. Huddled together on the crusty northern edge of our continent, it’s also hard not to have a deep respect for the people who call Prudhoe Bay home. “If you like the food, great,” smiled the mousy, aproned gal in the Deadhorse Camp canteen, “and if you don’t, lie to me.”

A moment of introspection on the road.DW Burnett

It’s more outpost than town, really, like a colony on an alien planet or Earth after nuclear winter. I kept thinking this is what it will feel like to be one of the first people on Mars. It’s unnaturally austere and blatantly unforgiving. Racks of diesel block heaters dangle in every parking lot. Every truck is either dirty or frozen. If nothing else, it’s an intense illustration of how desperate we are, as humans, for petroleum. Because shabby as it is, there’s a fantastic amount of money in Prudhoe Bay. Enough to make it worth it for BP and ConocoPhillips to fly in and out three 737s a day, five days a week. That, in turn, throws into focus the brilliance of the road. The only way a gravel trail through such enormous nothingness can exist so flawlessly is when the liquid bubbling out of the earth can support not only life, but also ­massive profit, in such a ruthless and demanding place.

Open-air Jeep
As epic as your adventure feels, you're unlikely to be the craziest traveler on the Dalton. Exhibit A: editors from Road & Track magazine roughing it in an open-air Jeep.DW Burnett

In the morning, I brushed the dusting of snow off the seat, and the GS puffed fumes into the 27-degree air. Interestingly, there is very little gas. The crude comes up from 9,000 feet below and goes straight down the pipeline. There are no refineries. It was one last dreamlike feeling—to be surrounded by a kingdom’s worth of oil rigs and drilling equipment, and still stumble around looking for gas. The analogy of summiting a mountain is a good one for the ride to Prudhoe Bay because the only way back is the very same route. The same temperatures, the same rain showers and, unless you’re feeling frisky, the same BLT. After buying a T-shirt and crunching my way out onto the still-frozen Arctic Ocean for a photo, I happily paid $35 for 6.75 gallons of fuel and pointed the bike south.