While there are 62 different national parks in the United States, the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve remains virtually unchanged from human development. With no roads, no trails, the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska is an absolute beauty, boasting rugged mountains, crisp clear rivers that meander through glacial valleys. It’s not easy to get to but it would be an adventure of a lifetime.
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is the second largest national site in the country encompassing approximately 8.5 million acres, which makes it slightly bigger than the whole of Belgium. One of the biggest attractions of this site is that there are no roads or trails. Those with a true yearning to see nature in its raw form visit this park every year for a truly woods-experience and to closely observe the intact ecosystems where people have lived with the land for millennia. The landscape of the park has a magnificent combination of rivers, glaciers, and summer lights romancing with the aurora-lit skies in winters. Except the real forces of nature, this part of the country is almost entirely unchanged and unadulterated by any human action.
A Quick History Trip
There is not much to discuss about how the park has morphed over centuries, primarily because it has been left untouched for the most part. What we do know is that nomadic people have inhabited the Brooks Range for as many as 12,500 years, surviving primarily on hunting the local reindeers and other wildlife.
However there is a lot when it comes to how this part of land came into popular view. Gates of the Arctic National Park was named so by a conservationist, Robert Marshall, who visited the area in the early 1930s. Hiking through the valley of the North Fork of the Koyukuk River in June, a month when sunlight keeps the wild land ablaze with a bright red light well into the afternoon, Marshall came upon a pair of unusually steep mountains, flanking the North Flank of the Koyukuk River. He called them the peaks Gates of the Arctic.
“No sight or sound or smell or feeling even remotely hinted of men or their creations,” Marshall would recall later. “It seemed as if time had dropped away a million years and we were back in a primordial world.” He published an account of the place in his 1933 book Arctic Village, and by the 1940s he and researcher Olaus Murie had become convinced that the Alaskan lands would be preserved and so they proposed.
Proper proposals for a national park in the Brooks Range first emerged in the 1960s, and in 1968 a National Park Service survey team recommended the establishment of a 4,100,000-acre park in the area. That same year, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall recommended to President Lyndon B. Johnson that Johnson use the Antiquities Act to proclaim a national monument in the Brooks Range and other Alaskan locations, but Johnson declined. During the 1970s the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) prompted serious examination of the disposition of lands held by the federal government. A series of bills were considered to deal with conservation land proposals authorized under ANCSA, but the legislation that would become the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) was held up in Congress in the late 1970s.
Eventually, on December 1, 1978 President Jimmy Carter used the Antiquities Act to proclaim much of the proposed new Alaskan parklands as national monuments, including Gates of the Arctic National Monument. In 1980 Congress passed ANILCA, and the monument became Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve on December 2, 1980.
As of today, a large part of the park has additional protection as the Gates of the Arctic Wilderness which covers more than 7 million acres. Covering 8.5 million acres and encompassing six wild rivers, two national natural landmarks, and hundreds of indigenous people, Gates of the Arctic National Park is as primitive as ever. Despite the harshness of the land, Koyukon Athabascan and Nunamiut and Kobuk Inupiat peoples have lived in this region for thousands of years. In fact, 1,500 residents in 10 camps still call the park home today. The wilderness area adjoins the Noatak Wilderness and together they form the largest contiguous wilderness in the United States.
Location, Geography, and Ecosystem
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve lies completely on the northern side of the Arctic Circle, a fact only intensified by the grandeur of what lies inside its boundaries. The scenic headland of the Brooks Range and the northernmost part of the Rocky Mountains Park and Preserve are both a part of this national park. This part of the park alone is four times as large as the Yellowstone National Park. The NPS website describes the park as “This is the ultimate wilderness that captured the heart and imagination of Arctic explorer Robert Marshall in the 1930s”.
More specifically, the national park lies to the west of the Dalton Highway, centered on the Brooks Range and covering the north and south slopes of the mountains. The park includes the Endicott Mountains and part of the Schwatka Mountains.
The eastern boundary of the park generally follows the Dalton Highway at a distance of a few miles, with the westernmost part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge 10 miles (16 km) farther east. Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge is near the park’s southeast boundary. Noatak National Preserve adjoins the western boundary, and the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska adjoins the northwest corner of the park. Almost the entire park is designated as wilderness, with the exception of areas around Anaktuvuk Pass. A detached portion of the park surrounds the outlying Fortress Mountain and Castle Mountain to the north of the park.
As has been mentioned earlier that there are no roads within the site, but the Dalton Highway (Alaska State Highway 11) comes within five miles of the park’s eastern boundary. However, that too requires a river crossing to reach the park from the road. The Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in nearby Coldfoot is open from late May to early September, providing information on the parks, preserves and refuges of the Brooks Range, Yukon Valley and the North Slope.
The park contains mountains such as the Arrigetch Peaks and Mount Igikpak. The park also features six Wild and Scenic Rivers, namely Alatna River, John River, Kobuk River, the North Fork of the Koyukuk River, part of the Noatak River, and Tinayguk River.
As for the wildlife in the area, grizzly bears and barren ground reindeers, also known as caribou, will be there for you to feast your eyes on. The spacious and fragile tundra of this arctic soil provides them with a natural habitat where they hunt and survive and exist in relation to the weather and temperatures of the northern end of the world. The southern flank of the park samples the boreal forest of Alaska’s interior while its north slope lies at the edge of a polar desert with a level of precipitation that mirrors those of the driest regions of the globe.
Regarding human civilizations, two distinct cultures can be found here – the Athabascan peoples of the spruce-taiga forests, and the Nunamiut Eskimos who hunt the reindeers in the high valleys. Both cultures continue traditional subsistence patterns of life in the park and preserve. Ten small communities outside the park’s boundaries are classified as “resident zone communities” and depend on park resources for food and livelihood. They are Alatna, Allakaket, Ambler, Anaktuvuk Pass, Bettles, Evansville, Hughes, Kobuk, Nuiqsut, Shungnak, and Wiseman. There are no established roads, trails, visitor facilities, or campgrounds in the park. The wildlife and the human cultures existing in tandem provide for a dreamlike escape from what you may experience in New York or another busy state in the country.
Activities at Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
Even in modern day the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is essentially untouched and remains in letter and spirit a wilderness park. No roads, no trails, and no established campsites makes it more adventurous than several other man made travelling attractions. You will have no boundaries or restrictions of any set routes and you may wander at will across 8.4 million acres of superlative natural beauty. This is a place primarily for those who come with a hunger for discovery and exploration.
However, do keep in mind that considering the undeveloped and unadulterated nature of the park, there are no established services within the park boundaries either and only limited means of communication may work properly to contact anyone for assistance. Cell phones don’t work here so make sure you are prepared and packed for the adventure trip that you are about to embark on once you get here.
One of the things that the NPS and the park management would want its visitors to have is proficiency in outdoor survival skills, and ability to be prepared to care for their own life and their partner in case an emergency arises.
What might be a good or bad thing, depending on your level of curiosity and experience is that the terrain is challenging. In addition to no established trails, the vegetation is dense, and there are tussocks, boggy ground, and frequent stream and river crossings, which can all significantly slow down your initially planned progress across the landscape. NPS website says that experienced hikers consider six miles a good day’s travel in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. “If visitors are not proficient in wilderness backcountry skills, we recommend that they contact an outfitter, guide service, or air taxi operator for assistance.”
Other Advice that Might Come in Handy
For those visitors who don’t have the time, or the backcountry skills to mount an expedition into the park, there are other options. Local air taxis provide flight-seeing trips, day trips or overnight campouts at remote locations. Imagine a day spent fishing at an alpine lake, or watching the caribou up in the northern valleys, or sitting alongside a wild river listening to the wind in the boreal forest. Air taxis will also take visitors into neighboring Kobuk Valley National Park to get their passport stamp.
Sufficiency and flexibility in travelling, movement, as well as food and water are all necessities for traveling in a remote wilderness park and this national site will be no different. You need to arrive at your jumping off point with everything you need for a safe and comfortable trip.
Bush travel requires flexibility. There are many reasons for delays going in and out of the park. You should take enough food to remain in the park several extra days. It is also a good idea to have a backup route plan with maps just in case. You might also have to fill out the voluntary Backcountry Registration Form.
Before you leave for your trip, contact the Park and Preserve for updates and advisories. Visitors in the park must practice minimum impact techniques, adhere to Leave No Trace principles, follow backcountry safety guidelines, and be aware of the fragile ecosystems and private lands within the park, recommends the National Park Service.
If you are entirely new to the area or to the exploration of wilderness, then it might also benefit you to stop by the Bettles Ranger Station, Coldfoot Arctic Interagency Visitor Center, Marion Creek Ranger Station (near Coldfoot), or Anaktuvuk Pass Ranger Station for a backcountry orientation, before you go into the backcountry.
Finally, even if you are not packing your picnic food with you, the Bear Resistant Food Containers (BRFCs) are available at the above mentioned locations. BRFCs are the easiest way to meet the mandatory food storage regulations for all overnight visitors in the Park.