National Park Guides

Exploring the Last Frontier at Gates of the Arctic National Park

POSTED ON May 20, 2020 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Welcome to the Gates of the Arctic National Park, the northernmost national park located in Alaska’s Brooks mountain ranges. Managed by the National Park Service, this vast wilderness park covers over 8 million acres (about 34,000 km2) of pristine arctic wilderness. Its untouched beauty and diverse landscapes make it a must-visit destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers alike.

Located within the Arctic Circle and sharing borders with Kobuk Valley National Park, Noatak National Preserve, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, this remote park lies in northern Alaska’s Brooks Range. From glacier-carved valleys to rugged mountains, the Gates of the Arctic offer a stunning landscape that is home to a variety of wildlife, including bears and Dall sheep.

One of its unique features is the presence of wild rivers that meander through the park, making it a popular destination for rafting and kayaking. The North Fork of the Koyukuk River and other scenic rivers provide visitors with an unforgettable experience of traversing through this untouched wilderness.

Access to this national monument is limited, with no roads or trails leading in. However, adventurous travelers can take a scenic drive on the Dalton Highway, also known as “The Haul Road,” to get a glimpse of the park’s western Arctic region. The central Brooks Range and Noatak Wilderness can be explored by air or foot.

Join us on this journey to explore the last frontier at Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, where you’ll discover why it is regarded as one of the crown jewels of the National Park System.

History

Noatak River in autumn. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

The Gates of the Arctic National Park holds a significant place in Alaska’s national interest, as it is one of the state’s most remote national parks.

The genesis of this remote national park can be traced back to the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980. This landmark legislation not only expanded the National Park System but also recognized the significance of preserving vast, untouched wilderness areas.

The park initially covered over two million acres (about 8,000 sq km), but with subsequent expansions, it now spans over 8 million acres. It is managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and is a vital part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

The Gates of the Arctic National Park Preserve is home to age-old trails used by Native Alaskans for over ten thousand years. These trails served as important trade routes and were also used for hunting, fishing, and gathering resources. The park’s glacier-carved valleys and wild rivers meander through this vast landscape.

In the early 1900s, the Ambler Mining District was established in the western region of the park. Miners came to the area in search of gold and copper, leaving behind traces of their activity. However, due to the park’s remote location and harsh winters, mining operations were never successful.

Today, visitors can still find remnants of these mining activities while exploring the park. The North Fork of the Koyukuk River is a prime spot for fishing, and it flows through the Ambler Mining District. Its pristine waters and intact ecosystems offer visitors a glimpse of the park’s past and present.

The Gates of the Arctic National Park Preserve continue to remain virtually unchanged, providing a unique opportunity for visitors to experience true wilderness. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the NPS, Alaska Alpine Adventures, and other organizations, this national park remains protected for future generations to enjoy.

Key Facts about Gates of the Arctic National Park

An Ice Cave in Arrigetch Valley Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

  • Size: 8,472,506 acres (13,238 sq mi; 34,287 km2), making it one of the largest national parks in the United States.
  • Number of visitors: about 7,362 recreation visitors (2021)
  • Established on: December 2, 1980
  • Number of hiking trails: None designated, primitive routes only
  • Total length of hiking trails: N/A
  • Lowest point: Kobuk River at its western boundary, approximately 280 feet (85 meters) above sea level
  • Highest point: Mount Igikpak at 8,510 feet (2,594 meters) above sea level

Other Interesting Facts about Gates of the Arctic National Park

  • The park’s name comes from two prominent peaks in the park, Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain, which resemble a set of open gates when viewed from certain angles.
  • The park is home to some of the oldest known human artifacts in North America, with evidence of human occupation dating back over 13,000 years.
  • Unlike many national parks, Gates of the Arctic has no developed trail system. Visitors navigate the landscape using age-old routes, offering a true sense of exploration and requiring backcountry navigation skills. This lack of formal trails contributes to the park’s pristine and untouched nature.
  • The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge borders Gates of the Arctic National Park, creating a contiguous area of protected wilderness spanning over 30 million acres (121,405 sq km).
  • The park is a haven for diverse wildlife, including caribou, grizzly bears, wolves, and Dall sheep. The absence of significant human development allows these species to thrive in their natural habitats, contributing to the park’s ecological significance.
  • The park contains six wild and scenic rivers: the Alatna, John, Kobuk, Noatak, North Fork Koyukuk, and Tinayguk. These rivers are home to Arctic char, a cold-water fish species. These pristine waters provide crucial habitat for this species, contributing to the park’s significance in preserving intact ecosystems.
  • The park is home to both the northernmost and southernmost river valleys in Alaska, providing a diverse range of landscapes for visitors to explore.
  • In 2018, Gates of the Arctic National Park was initially designated as an International Dark Sky Park, making it one of the best places to stargaze and witness the Northern Lights. This is because of its strategic location within the Arctic Circle.
  • Gates of the Arctic is unique in being both a national park and a preserve, signifying a dual commitment to preserving the area’s natural and cultural resources. This designation allows for a balance between conservation and traditional land uses.
  • Visitors can only access the park by foot, boat, or small aircraft, making it a true backcountry experience for those who choose to visit.

Climate and Weather

Gates of the Arctic National Park in Winter

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, situated within the expansive wilderness of the Brooks Range next to Kobuk Valley National Park in northern Alaska, experiences a harsh arctic climate that significantly influences its weather patterns. As visitors embark on an exploration of this vast landscape, understanding the distinct seasons is crucial for a safe and enjoyable experience.

Spring (March to May)

In spring, the park begins to emerge from the grips of winter. However, temperatures remain cold, ranging from -10°C to 5°C (14°F to 41°F).

The landscape, still blanketed in snow, starts to thaw, revealing glacier-carved valleys and the iconic Brooks Range. This transitional period sees the return of migratory birds and the awakening of the forest within the park boundaries.

Summer (June to August)

Summer in the park is a time of endless daylight, as the sun hovers above the horizon for nearly 24 hours. Temperatures rise to a relatively milder range of 5°C to 20°C (41°F to 68°F), ushering in the brief but vibrant growing season.

Wild rivers meander through the central Arctic, and visitors can witness the spectacle of caribou migration across gravel bars. The park’s vast landscape, bathed in the endless summer light, offers a unique and awe-inspiring experience. For those seeking adventure, river crossings and exploration of the central Brooks Range are common activities during this season.

Fall (September to November)

As early September arrives, the park undergoes a dramatic transformation. The endless summer light fades, giving way to cooler temperatures ranging from -5°C to 10°C (23°F to 50°F).

The snow forest takes on vibrant hues of gold and crimson, creating a stunning backdrop for visitors. Caribou migrate southward through the Anaktuvuk Pass, providing a unique wildlife spectacle. It’s a time of change as the park prepares for the imminent winter.

Winter (December to February)

Winter in the Gates of the Arctic is characterized by extreme cold, with temperatures plummeting to -30°C to -10°C (-22°F to 14°F). The park straddles the northernmost range limit of the boreal forest, creating a serene winter wonderland.

The Aurora-lit night skies become a mesmerizing feature, offering a rare opportunity to witness the Northern Lights in their purest form. While winter exploration is challenging, those who venture into the park during this season are rewarded with a truly unique Arctic experience.

Regardless of the season, visitors to Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park Preserve will experience a breathtaking wilderness park that lies untouched by human development. From age-old trails to river crossings, this vast landscape offers endless opportunities for adventure and exploration.

Recommended Gear

A Park Ranger conducting a backcountry patrol at the Arrigetch Peaks

For visitors planning a trip to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, it’s essential to pack the right gear. As one of the largest contiguous wilderness areas in the United States, this park offers endless opportunities for adventure and exploration. From hiking through glacier-carved valleys to witnessing caribou migrations across gravel bars, there is no shortage of activities for outdoor enthusiasts.

However, due to its remote location and rugged terrain, proper gear is crucial for a safe and enjoyable experience.

Footwear and Clothing

  • Sturdy Hiking Boots: Given the challenging terrain, durable and waterproof hiking boots are essential.
  • Layered Clothing: The weather in the Gates of the Arctic can be unpredictable. Layering is key to adapting to temperature fluctuations.
  • Trekking Poles: It’s also recommended to pack lightweight trekking poles for added stability and balance.
  • Backpack: A backpack with a comfortable fit and ample storage space is crucial for carrying essential items such as water, snacks, and extra layers of clothing.
  • Warm Hiking Socks: A warm pair of hiking socks, like our heavy crew Silverlight winter socks are designed to keep your feet dry, warm and comfortable:
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Safety and Navigation

  • Bear-Resistant Containers: Bears, numbering about one bear per 15 square miles, roam the park. Carrying bear-resistant containers for food storage is crucial for both your safety and the bears’. The ideal container should withstand the strength and persistence of these powerful animals.
  • Navigation Tools: The park’s vastness and the absence of marked trails necessitate reliable navigation tools. A GPS device, map, and compass are essential. You can download the JPEG version or the PDF map of the park by following the links.

Camping Equipment

  • Quality Tent: For overnight stays, a durable and weather-resistant tent is vital.
  • Sleeping Bag and Pad: With temperatures dropping, a warm and insulated sleeping bag and pad are essential for a comfortable night’s rest.
  • Emergency shelter: In case of unexpected weather conditions or other emergencies, having a lightweight emergency shelter such as a tarp or bivy sack is crucial for survival.

Miscellaneous Essentials

  • Water Filtration System: With numerous rivers and streams, having a reliable water filtration system or purifying tablets is crucial for staying hydrated.
  • Headlamp and Batteries: Given the Aurora-lit night skies and the park’s remote nature, a reliable headlamp with extra batteries is a must.
  • Arranging Air Taxi Services: Access to the Gates of the Arctic often involves air travel. Coordinating air taxi services is essential for reaching destinations like Bettles Ranger Station or the North Fork. Check with reputable providers for seamless transportation.
  • Local Knowledge and Information: Before embarking on your adventure, gather information from reliable sources like the National Park Service and Alaska Alpine Adventures. Understanding the specific challenges, such as river crossings and wildlife encounters, ensures a safer and more enjoyable journey.
  • First aid kit: It’s always wise to carry a well-stocked first aid kit that includes basic medical supplies and any necessary personal medication.

What To Do at the Gates of the Arctic National Park Preserve

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, with its expansive wilderness and pristine landscapes, offer a myriad of activities for adventurers seeking an authentic and untamed experience.

Here’s a guide to what you can do in this remote and captivating national park.

Hiking and Backpacking

Sun on the landscape Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

Gates of the Arctic National Park, situated in the vast wilderness of northern Alaska, offers an unparalleled opportunity for hiking and backpacking enthusiasts to immerse themselves in untouched landscapes and witness the raw beauty of the Arctic.

But unlike many national parks, Gates of the Arctic does not have a formal trail system. Most visitors navigate through the wilderness using age-old routes, and reliable navigation tools are essential.

Carry a detailed topographic map, a compass, and consider a GPS device to ensure you stay on course in this expansive and unmarked terrain.

Camping

Camping in the park is an experience like no other. The park allows primitive camping, where visitors can set up camp wherever they choose, as long as it’s at least a quarter-mile from any water source.

With the absence of designated campsites and facilities, visitors must adhere to Leave No Trace principles and carry all their trash out with them.

Fishing

The park’s numerous rivers and streams offer excellent opportunities for fishing, with species such as Arctic grayling, northern pike, and shellfish present in the park’s waters.

However, before angling, make sure you obtain a fishing permit from the National Park Service and familiarize yourself with regulations to protect the park’s unique ecosystem.

Wildlife Viewing

Dall Sheep on steep hillside Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

Gates of the Arctic National Park is home to a diverse array of Alaskan wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, moose, and caribou.

While encountering these animals in their natural habitat can be an awe-inspiring experience, it’s crucial to maintain a safe distance and follow proper bear safety protocols. But remember to carry binoculars and a camera to observe these creatures in their natural habitats.

Guided Trips

For those seeking a more structured and guided experience, various companies offer wilderness trips within the park’s boundaries.

These trips can range from day hikes to extended expeditions, providing visitors with expert knowledge and support to navigate through the rugged terrain.

A complete list of guides, outfitters, and air taxis is available on the NPS website

Climbing and Wilderness Mountaineering

western Brooks Range from the air, over Gates of the Arctic National Preserve

For experienced and adventurous climbers, the Arrigetch Peaks offer challenging routes and stunning views.

However, permits are required for overnight stays in the Arrigetch area, and all visitors must adhere to Leave No Trace principles to preserve the park’s fragile environment.

Where to Stay

While there are no established campgrounds, backcountry camping is permitted. Be prepared with necessary supplies, as facilities are minimal in this wild land.

However, there are several options for lodging outside the park’s boundaries.

  • Bettles Lodge: Located in the heart of Alaska’s wilderness, Bettles Lodge offers comfortable accommodations, delicious meals, and guided tours to explore the surrounding areas.
  • Coldfoot Camp: Situated in the Brooks Range, this rustic but comfortable camp offers lodging and dining options for those exploring the northern parts of the park.
  • Kobuk: For visitors looking for a bit more luxury, Kobuk is the nearest city with numerous hotels and lodges to choose from. However, keep in mind that it’s several miles from the park’s northern entrance, so plan accordingly.
  • Fairbanks: Another option for lodging is Fairbanks, located approximately 252 miles (407 km) away from the park. With a wide range of hotels and accommodations available, it serves as an excellent base for exploring the southern parts of the park.

Visitor Facilities and Accommodations:

  • Bettles Ranger Station: The Bettles Ranger Station serves as an information center for visitors. It’s advisable to stop here for current park conditions, permits, and general guidance.

How to Get There and Getting Around

western Brooks Range from the air, over Gates of the Arctic National Preserve

Gates of the Arctic Park offers a unique challenge for visitors to reach. But here’s how to get there and navigate around.

Nearest Airports:

  • Bettles Airport (BTT): Located in Bettles, Alaska, approximately 0.5 miles (about 800 meters) south of the park, air taxi services are available from the airport to various locations within the park. This is a common entry point for visitors.
  • Fairbanks International Airport (FAI): Located in Fairbanks, Alaska, Fairbanks International Airport serves as a gateway to the park, and it’s the starting point for many visitors. From Fairbanks, you can either take a commercial flight to a nearby community or opt for an air taxi to reach the park directly.

Getting to the Park:

  • Essential for Remote Access: Due to the park’s wilderness character and lack of road access, air taxis are a primary mode of transportation. Tour Companies provide air taxi services from Fairbanks and other regional airports.
  • Destinations: Air taxis can drop you off at key locations within the park, including the North Fork and Anaktuvuk Pass.
  • Driving Option: For the adventurous road traveler, the Dalton Highway offers a unique experience. It runs parallel to the eastern boundary of the park and provides access to certain points. However, be aware that the Dalton Highway is rugged and services are limited.
  • Alternative Transportation: A float plane is the other option for reaching certain areas within the park, especially those with water bodies like rivers and lakes. This mode of transportation adds a scenic dimension to your journey.

Gates of the Arctic National Park

Navigating Within the Park:

  • Transport to Different Areas: Once in the park, air taxis can be used to travel between various locations. They are particularly useful for reaching more remote and specific spots.
  • Navigating Waterways: Given the numerous rivers like the North Fork and Middle Fork, river crossings are common. Local guides or experienced outfitters can provide assistance and advice on safely traversing these bodies of water.
  • Traditional Routes: The park preserves age-old trails, like those around Anaktuvuk Pass and the Middle Fork. Hiking these routes allows you to follow in the footsteps of those who have traversed this wilderness for generations.

Safety Considerations:

Transportation Corridor Awareness:

  • Understanding the Landscape: Recognize that air taxis and float planes serve as the primary transportation corridors, ensuring access to various regions. Be aware of flight paths and safety guidelines.

Conclusion

Nestled next to Noatak National Preserve and Kobuk Valley National Park lie the Gates of the Arctic National Park Preserve, a testament to the wild beauty and pristine landscapes that have captivated visitors for generations.

This park is a sanctuary where visitors discover intact ecosystems that have remained virtually unchanged for centuries. Its glacier-carved valleys and wild rivers meander through the vast wilderness, offering a glimpse into the untamed beauty of Alaska’s alpine terrain.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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