We just returned from visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve in Alaska. This was one of our last National Parks to visit (#60) and it was not an easy one to reach. Gates of the Arctic National Park protects 8.4 million acres. In area, this is the second largest national park in the United States (Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest), and one of last truly wild places in America. There are NO roads in or out, and NO established trails.
Gates of the Arctic National Park captures a time past; over 12,000 years of history and tradition of living off the land. Although you may seem alone there, this land continues to support subsistence activities. It also protects a functioning Arctic mountain ecosystem and the headwaters of six wild rivers. Think of rugged beauty, glacial valleys and snowcapped peaks.
Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park
Gates of the Arctic is the LEAST visited national park in the US, with just 10,000 visitors in 2019.
The only easy way to visit Gates of the Arctic is via a flight-seeing trip, but even this may not be as easy as it sounds. Bush flights require patience! Bad weather and they don’t fly.
You may find yourself in a remote community like Bettles, Alaska; walking up and down a runway to kill time as you wait hopefully for your pilot to decide it is safe to go. This could be hours or days…
The only other way to experience Gates of the Arctic requires much more effort. You can fly in and base camp, or fly in and backpack or pack/raft, but only if you are proficient in outdoor survival. Not only is this bear country, it is remote and inhospitable. Weather and water levels can change in a flash. Once that float plane drops you off on the side of a river or lake, you are ALONE.
Even if you are comfortable backpacking, you will have a very different experience in Gates of the Arctic. There you are hiking through alder thickets and spongy tundra, with grass covered tussocks with water on all sides, making each step a challenge. A six mile hike would be considered long there. You will understand when you fly over this wild country – from the air, it looks like a giant sponge with water everywhere!
A few outfitters provide guided trips for small groups. That’s what we did – a guided canoe trip down the Noatak River with Alaska Alpine Adventures. We highly recommend them! They are all about safety and have great guides that you can be confident in. They manage transportation and food, bringing in inflatable boats on the float planes and cooking up healthy meals that keep you warm inside no matter how cold the river!
Our visit to Gates of the Arctic National Park
For us, it wasn’t just about “putting a pin in the map” to say we’d been to Gates of the Arctic National Park, it was all about experiencing the park. We felt we could only do that if we spent some time out there so that’s why we signed up for the canoe trip. The other people on our trip all shared this sentiment, making for a really nice group experience.
But even with a guided trip, it wasn’t what you might call easy. First day, we had a several hour rain delay in Bettles – lots of time for the mandatory bear safety talk at the ranger station.
Once we got in the air, the flight in was gorgeous. It took us over the Brooks mountain range. All you could see in any direction were mountains, valleys, pothole lakes and winding rivers. Our destination was Pingo Lake near the headwaters of the Noatak River.
It was a bit scary when the plane dropped us off and flew away. All you hear is nothing – total solitude – and look in any direction to see nothing manmade. In our first 10 minutes we discovered discarded caribou racks and bear tracks. Fortunately we were late in the season, so we didn’t see too many of the Alaska state bird – the mosquito.
We set up camp on the beach. There was lots of evidence of bear and wolf, but thankfully we didn’t see any up close.
The next day we inflated our canoes and started what would be a 40-50 mile paddle within the National Park. The rivers are so twisty that the first day, even through we paddled about 8 miles we could still see where we came from – as the bird flies, only about 3-4 miles away.
The river was fairly calm, but COLD. Even with waders, it was hard to keep the feet warm. The current kept us moving along pretty good, so we could float along and look for wildlife – fox, marmots, arctic squirrels and lots of birds.
Each night we would pick a sandbar or gravel bar for camping. It was quiet and gorgeous.
The clouds came in and dropped snow on the peaks around us (and some frost on our tent!), giving us some spectacular views when the clouds cleared.
As we made our way down river, the valley widened out and the hills softened – changing from rocky peaks to rounded grass covered mountains. The banks also changed, in some places exposing the permafrost. We could even see the ice dripping down!
If you visit, don’t forget, it is ARCTIC… that can mean cold.
We were on the river for 6 nights in Gates of the Arctic National Park. So, now we could leave, right? NO… there’s no place for a bush plane to land. Once on the Noatak River, we had to continue to a take-out spot. That was another 4 days in the Noatak National Preserve. (More on that to follow in our next blog.)
Need Help Planning Your Visits?
If you would like to explore this or other National Park Units, but need a bit help in the planning, please give us a call at (480) 609-3978. We are happy to offer customized trip planning.