This Arctic park contains one of Alaska’s most unique landscapes, the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes.

Kobuk Valley National Park is a 1.7-million-acre park in Arctic Alaska that occupies a broad valley where the middle section of the Kobuk River is encircled by the Baird and Waring Mountain ranges. Located 75 miles east of Kotzebue, this semi-enclosed bowl protects several unique geological features and is on the migration route of the Western Arctic caribou herd. 

Things to Do

The slow-moving Kobuk River offers extraordinary wilderness float trip opportunities through scenic boreal forests teeming with wildlife. Boaters can access Salmon River by packing their boats from high mountain airstrips to the river's headwaters. Collapsible kayaks, collapsible canoes, and packrafts are recommended for the river's slow-moving waters. Other activities include backpacking, fishing, dog sledding, wildlife viewing, and hiking. 

There are no designated hiking trails or campgrounds within the park. The best backcountry hiking can be found in the mountains, with expansive views and more solid footing than the spongy lowland tundra. Popular areas to camp and explore on foot are the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes and Onion Portage, where the Western Arctic caribou herd migrates across the Kobuk River twice a year on their annual migration.

Flightseeing is another great way to take in the park’s unique sites and wildlife. Air charter companies in Kotzebue and Bettles offer flightseeing trips over the park, including options to land in the park for some up-close exploration.

Wildlife

The Western Arctic caribou herd, the largest in Alaska at 490,000 animals, travels through the park during its migration from its calving grounds on the northern slopes of the Brooks Range to its winter grounds south of the range. This 600-mile journey is one of the last great animal migrations left in the world. Other land animals in the park include moose, wolves, grizzly bears, foxes, wolverines, and porcupines. Millions of migratory birds spend summer months in the park including arctic terns, swans, cranes, geese, and ducks.

Landscape

Kobuk Valley sits astride the transition zone between the boreal forest and the treeless Arctic tundra that extends westward to the Chukchi Sea. At its northern limit, the boreal forest is open woodland with small trees in a layer of thick tundra.

The 25-square-mile Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, Little Kobuk Sand Dunes near Onion Portage, and the Hunt River Dunes cover much of the southern Kobuk Valley. These are the largest active sand dunes found in the Arctic. Formed by the grinding action of glaciers, these wind-sculpted dunes rise as high as 100 feet and are stabilized by the area's vegetation. The dunes, accessible by a strenuous hour-long hike along Kavet Creek from the Kobuk River, lie 40 miles above the Arctic Circle, yet summer temperatures can soar to 100 degrees.

A section of the Kobuk River also runs through the park. Its bluffs, some of which stand more than 150 feet high, hold permafrost ice wedges and Ice Age mammal fossils. The Salmon River in Kobuk Valley National Park is a designated National Wild and Scenic River.

History

Kobuk Valley National Park is named after the Kobuk River valley, which runs through its center. "Kobuk" is an Inupiaq word meaning "big river."

Kobuk Valley National Park is home to the famous Onion Portage archaeological site, a National Historic Landmark and the cradle of the Arctic Woodland Culture defined by pioneering archaeologist J. Louis Giddings. At the site, Giddings and his crew found evidence of humans dating back 10,000 years, when people gathered to harvest caribou as they forded the stream. Today, local Alaska residents still feed their families with caribou from the river crossing in the fall.

The park was designated as National Park in 1980 to maintain the environmental integrity of the valley’s natural features in an undeveloped state and to protect and interpret important archaeological sites associated with Alaska Native cultures.

Facilities and Camping

There are no roads, campgrounds, or maintained trails within Kobuk Valley. Backcountry camping is permitted. Popular backpacking areas are at the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes and Onion Portage. The Northwest Arctic Heritage Center provides information on the park and is located in the town of Kotzebue.

Getting Here

There is no road access to Kobuk Valley. Most visitors access the park by air taxi from Kotzebue or Bettles. In the summer, scheduled air service is available from Anchorage to Kotzebue and Fairbanks to Bettles. In the winter, access to the park is by plane, snowmobile, or dogsled.

For more information, visit the Kobuk Valley National Park website.

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