Even within Alaska, the Brooks Range — which extends 700 miles across the state, from the Canadian border to the Chuckchi Sea — is considered to be the ultimate wilderness. It’s crossed by just one gravel road, has just one tiny Native village within its mountainous core, and has no man-made hiking trails.
Gates of the Arctic National Park encompasses the central Brooks Range, arguably its most aesthetic and diverse section. It was established in 1980, as part of the monumental Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). At 7.5 million acres, it’s the second largest National Park and is 3.5 times larger than Yellowstone.
Why go here?
The primary appeal of Gates of the Arctic is its wilderness character, which is virtually unchanged since people of European descent first began to explore the area in the 1880’s.
Inside the park boundaries, there are no roads or dams, and the only “trails” are those made by wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, Dall sheep, moose, and most importantly the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which stands at about 225,000 animals and which migrates through the park twice each year.
For a backcountry enthusiast, Gates offers spectacular backpacking and rafting opportunities.
Where is it?
Gates of the Arctic encompasses the central Brooks Range in northern Alaska, and is entirely north of the Arctic Circle.
Fairbanks is the closest city with full services and a large airport. It’s a seven-hour drive north from Fairbanks to the town of Coldfoot, located just outside the park’s southeastern boundary.
What is the Brooks Range?
The Brooks Range extends 700 miles across northern Alaska and divides the state’s Arctic and Interior regions. It’s the northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains, and is composed mostly of sedimentary layers like limestone and shale.
Only one gravel road, the Dalton Highway (aka Haul Road), crosses the Brooks Range. And only one 350-person Native village, Anaktuvuk Pass, is located within it; about a dozen similarly sized communities are on its outskirts, mostly to the south.
The National Park Service and US Fish & Wildlife manage most of the range, as Gates of the Arctic National Park in the central Brooks, and as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the eastern third.
How do I get there?
It’s difficult and expensive to reach Gates of the Arctic. As a result, you will not encounter crowds in gateway towns, and you are unlikely to see other parties in the backcountry.
1. By vehicle
The park’s eastern boundary can be accessed from the Dalton Highway, a well maintained gravel road that primarily services the oilfields in Prudhoe Bay but that is also open to private vehicles. From Fairbanks, it’s an eight-hour drive to the first practical access point near the Chandalar Shelf.
2. By passenger plane
Wright Air Service offers regularly scheduled flights to Anaktuvuk Pass ($190 one-way). From town, hike east or west on mostly good tundra, or float south on the John River (Class III) after a 5- to 10-mile portage.
3. By bush plane
To access most of the park, it’s necessary to use a bush plane, departing from:
- Coldfoot, or,
Fairbanks has an international airport and is serviced by major carriers like United, Delta, American, and Alaska Airlines.
Coldfoot is on the Dalton Highway, seven hours north of Fairbanks. Wright Air offers daily Fairbanks-Coldfoot flights ($230 one-way).
Bettles is not on the road system. It can only be reached via Wright Air ($170 one-way).
For a list of authorized air taxi services, consult this list from NPS. In Coldfoot, try Coyote Air; in Bettles, Brooks Range Aviation.
When should I go?
The park is open year-round, but some seasons are more conducive to backcountry travel than others.
- Winter (November through March): Brutally cold, stormy, very limited daylight, and few open services.
- Spring (April and May): Cool temperatures, increasingly long days, lingering rotten snowpack.
- Late-spring (June): Mild temperatures, 24 hours of daylight, manageable bug pressure, some lingering snow at the highest elevations, generally stable weather.
- Early-summer (July through mid-August): Heavy bug pressure, the wettest months of the year.
- Late-summer (mid-August through September): Comfortable days and crisp nights, no bugs, and fall foliage; but still stormy, and competition for bush planes with hunters.
- Fall (October): Rapidly decreasing daylight, cold temperatures, not yet winter.
What backpacking routes do I recommend?
I’m wary of discussing specific routes in the park. There are many stellar options, and currently backcountry traffic is nicely dispersed.
The best travel in Gates will be found:
- Above 2,000 feet in the southern watersheds, e.g. North Fork, John, Alatna, Kobuk;
- On dry, well drained slopes;
- Adjacent to large and small rivers, on current and mature gravel bars; and,
- Along wildlife trails, particularly those made by caribou.
When planning a route, your goal should be to maximize the distance of good travel and to minimize the bad.
What should I pack?
Full treatment of this question would warrant a standalone post. In lieu of that, start with my Brooks Range gear list for June, which can be tweaked for other seasons.
Do I need a permit? And other regulations
A wilderness permit is not required in Gates of the Arctic, but NPS asks that at a Visitors Center or Ranger Station you:
- Leave an itinerary, for the sake of your safety and for visitor statistics;
- Complete a backcountry orientation.
Food must be stored overnight in an IGBC-approved canister or sack, per NPS regulations. I recommend using an Ursack Major or Major XL, which are much lighter and packable than hard-sided canisters. Refer to my buyers guide for more information.
Should I just hire a guide?
Even for competent backcountry travelers, Gates of the Arctic can be overwhelming. The logistics are complicated; the number of route options is infinite; the terrain is unlike anything in the lower 48; and multiple hazards must be managed (e.g. bears, river crossings, remoteness).
With a well developed skill set and extensive planning, private parties can successfully undertake trips in Gates of the Arctic National Park. But for those short on experience or time, a guided trip may have a better outcome.
Where can I get more information?
The National Park Service website has basic information and is marginally helpful.
For a large-scale planning map, I recommend the National Geographic Trails Illustrated #257.
Elsewhere online you will find a handful of trip reports, but none provide plug-and-play itineraries (probably intentionally). Ironically, one of the best sources for route information is Robert Marshall, who documented his exploration of this area in Alaska Wilderness. The text was written in the 1930’s, but it’s still relevant today.
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