Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve: The Complete Guide

Campsite in the Arrigetch Peaks
Patrick J. Endres / Getty Images
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Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

Address
101 Dunkel St, Fairbanks, AK 99701, USA
Phone +1 907-692-5494

Visiting Alaska’s rugged landscapes, in the northernmost national park in America, is a trip of a lifetime. The Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, which includes parts of the Brooks Range, is vast—it’s the second largest in the United States—but because there are no roads or established trails in the area, it’s among the least visited national parks in the country. This is as wild as it gets and the park is located completely above the Arctic Circle. If you visit here, your cellphone won’t work, you’ll need to know how to read a map, and it’s essential to be skilled in backcountry wilderness survival. Guiding services are highly recommended as are sightseeing trips with air taxis.

Wilderness advocate and adventurer, Robert Marshall, named the park after seeing the two peaks, Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain, the gates at the central Brooks Range, leading into the far north Arctic. Towering mountains, taiga, tundra, boreal forests, six national wild rivers, and a large wildlife population—caribou, grizzly and black bears, beavers, wolves, Dall’s sheep, fox, and others—make this Alaska’s definitive wilderness.

Things to Do

You’ll have to do your homework ahead of time to be prepared for time spent in this weathered landscape, full of dark star-filled skies, seemingly endless expanses of rough terrain, and possible wildlife encounters. A floatplane will take you to the shoreline and then you’re on your own unless you’ve made arrangements for an outfitter or guide. Survival skills and wilderness training are essential—this can’t be stressed enough.

Exploring the Rivers

Fishing and floating on the rivers, six of which are designed as wild rivers, are top activities inside the park. In fact, rivers have been used by humans and wildlife in this area for centuries. Fishing should only be catch-and-release, due to the delicate ecosystem, unless you eat what you catch straightaway. Since you’ll need to utilize air taxi services to get to the park, most river travel is done with inflatable canoes, rafts, pack rafts, or other lightweight, foldable watercraft. You’ll, of course, have to be an experienced paddler, completely aware of the conditions, water temperatures and levels, and presence of wildlife. The six wild and scenic rivers include Alatna River, John River, Kobuk River, Noatak River, North Fork Koyukuk River, and Tinayguk River. Learn about the National Park Services’ Wild and Scenic Rivers Program for helpful insight.

Backpacking

Experienced backpackers will love the solitude and challenging terrain as they wander through sections of the over 8 million acres of pristine backcountry and camp and fish near lakes and gravel bars. Because there are no designated trails inside the park, the terrain is difficult and requires bushwhacking through dense vegetation. Be aware that you’ll likely have several streams and rivers that you’ll have to cross, with the highest water levels in spring. Be sure to stick to game trails, rather than create your own bad-for-the-environment social trails. When this isn’t possible, hike in a spread-out formation for minimal impact when traveling in a group. You’ll want to be proficient in topographical map reading and consider bringing along a safety beacon device or GPS. Communication with your air taxi captain is essential as well as they’ll be the ones to pick you up at a designated location and time. The National Park Service has a useful list of guides and commercial visitor service providers.

Hunting

For hunting, you’ll need to be savvy regarding the State of Alaska Hunting Regulations. To protect the delicate ecosystems, sport hunting is allowed in the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve but not the Gates of the Arctic National Park. You must have all the required hunting permits, licenses and adhere to all the state rules and regulations. Secure permits and learn more at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Subsistence hunting, however, is allowed for Alaska native peoples and Alaska’s rural residents.  

Mountain Climbing

Technical mountain climbers can expect amazing views while climbing the Arrigetch Peaks, within the central Brooks Range. Float-equipped aircraft is the main way to access Arrigetch Peaks, as well as the Mount Doonerak and Mount Igikpak areas. Avoid using fixed anchors and bolts unless you contact the park for a special use permit.

Green moss on rocks in Tupik Creek
Patrick J. Endres / Getty Images

Where to Camp

There are no designated campsites at the national park and preserve. A similar thread rings true here: you must be a proficient backcountry camper to survive in the Alaskan wilderness. Arctic tundra is delicate; therefore, you’ll need to be careful of Leave No Trace principles to protect the ecosystem. Camp on the more resilient gravel bars, instead of soft mosses and grasses, being mindful of water levels.

Because you’ll be in big bear country, make sure you set up your kitchen and eating area at least 100 yards from your sleeping area and never bring odorous items (toothpaste, food, deodorant, etc.) into your tent—store items in a bear-resistant food container (BRFC). Campfires are often impractical and damaging to the environment so be prepared to cook your meals on a portable backpacking stove. Learn more about food storage and bear safety on the park’s website.

How to Get There

No roads or trails lead into the park lands. To access the park, you’ll have to fly or hike in, making arrangements ahead of time. Arrive in Fairbanks, then take a small plane, which operates daily, to one of the gateway communities: Bettles, Anaktuvuk Pass, or Coldfoot. The most common mode of transportation is an air taxi; however, you can hike in from the Dalton Highway or from the village of Anaktuvuk Pass (you will have to cross rivers and streams). When you arrive in Fairbanks, be sure to visit the Fairbanks Alaska Public Lands Information Center.

  • Bettles: This is a tiny bush village, with no road going in or out, and to reach it, you’ll have to take one of the daily flights from Fairbanks. Once there you can visit the store, post office, and park visitor center for minor needs. From Bettles, you can take an air taxi into the park.
  • Anaktuvuk Pass: To travel through Anaktuvuk Pass, you’ll first need to ask for permission from the Village Council via email. As with Bettles, there is no road that goes in or out. You can fly into this Nunamuit village on one of the daily flights from Fairbanks and then reach the park via foot from the airstrip. You’re welcome to walk through the native land, which surrounds the airstrip, however you’ll have to ask for permission should you want to camp. Visit the Nunamuit history museum, small store, and post office while there.
  • Coldfoot: From Fairbanks, drive 280 miles north on the Dalton Highway, or fly into the village. There’s an air taxi, motel, store, café, and post office in Coldfoot. Campsites and trails are available here as well. The neighboring town of Wiseman has two lodges for guests. From Coldfoot, fly or hike into the park.

Fire Safety

Wildfires do happen inside the park, even though summers are brief, and winters are long, and wildfire safety is something to be aware of. Most fires occur in the forested areas, in the lower third of the park, and are allowed to take their natural course with minimal fire suppression efforts. Be sure to follow the guidelines regarding campfires, which can change depending on several factors each year.

Arrigetch Peaks reflect in the mirror calm mountain lake, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska.
Patrick J. Endres / Getty Images

Weather & Best Time to Visit

The arctic and sub-arctic weather can change rapidly. Always bring appropriate layers and sun protection, based on the season. Be prepared for extremely cold winters, relatively mild summers, low precipitation each season, and high winds. Mid-June—September is the best time for hiking and backpacking. November—March is the best time to visit for a chance to see the aurora borealis.

Tips For Your Visit

  • The park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
  • The park is free to enter.  
  • Contact the park prior to arrival to learn about advisories and safety updates and stop in at one of the park’s visitor centers for backcountry information.
  • Submit a Backcountry Registration Form for safety.
  • Bring a hat, bug spray, and protection from mosquitoes and sun.
  • Hundreds of species of birds have been seen in the park—migratory as well as year-round. You can see—and hear—hawks, eagles, owls, warblers, gulls, sparrows, grouse, and more. You’ll have the best chance of spotting them in the early mornings and early evenings and because the sun never fully sets in the summertime, the earlier your wake up or the later you stay up, will give you the best chance.
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Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve: The Complete Guide