About Utqiaġvik (Iñupiaq)
Located on the Arctic Ocean, Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow) is one of the largest Iñupiaq settlements in Alaska. It’s also the northernmost community in the United States. Its extreme location means Utqiaġvik receives 24 hour daylight from May 10 - August 2 and 24 hour darkness from November 18 – January 23.
Utqiaġvik is one of the oldest inhabited town sites in the United States, and archaeological evidence of human habitation in the area goes back to 800 AD. In the Inupiaq language, Utqiaġvik means “the place where we hunt snowy owls,” but that’s just one of the species that have lived here and provided nourishment to local people for thousands of years. Hunting and gathering is still a big part of life in Arctic Alaska, and seasonal hunts for whales, seals, walrus, caribou, and ducks remain important for both traditional and economic reasons. Today, Utqiaġvik serves as a hub community for smaller outlying villages, and its population of about 4,300 residents makes it one of Alaska’s larger villages.
Formerly known as Barrow, the official name of the village changed to Utqiaġvik in 2016 when village residents voted to change the name back to its traditional Iñupiaq name.
Getting to Utqiaġvik
Utqiaġvik is not accessible by road. The only way to get there is by plane. Alaska Airlines and other regional carriers offer regular flight service from Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Things to Do in Utqiaġvik
During the summer months, tour operators offer package tours of the area that can include viewing polar bears, photographing snowy owls, or learning about the area's traditional culture - all against a backdrop of 24 hours of daylight. Between May 10 and the sunset on August 2, the sun stays above the horizon for the longest Midnight Sun season in the state. History and Alaska Native culture are a highlight of the area, which features several sites on the National Register of Historic Places.
IÑupiat Heritage Center
The Iñupiat Heritage Center is the best place to visit to learn more about the area’s rich culture. Exhibits and artifacts tell the story of Iñupiat history, language, and culture and foster awareness, understanding, and appreciation for the Iñupiat way of life. Elders-in-residence and artists-in-residence programs are held in a traditional room where people can learn about arts, language, history, and more. The gift shop offers visitors the opportunity to purchase arts and crafts such as baleen boats, etched baleen, carved ivory, masks, parkas, and fur mittens.
Visit the Whale Bone Arch & Arctic Ocean
In Utqiaġvik, visitors find themselves on the coastline of the Arctic Ocean - a view that not many people have the chance to see. Stroll along the beach and take in the vast expanse of ocean. One of the most iconic places to take in the sight is the Whale Bone Arch, which perfectly frames this impressive Arctic Ocean view.
Known as the “Gateway to the Arctic,” the Whale Bone Arch reflects the area's traditional whaling history. The arch, which is located on the beach near The Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Station, is constructed out of a bowhead whale’s jawbone and is surrounded by traditional whaling boat frames. The arch not only provides perspective on the massive size of the animals but also provides the perfect backdrop for a photo to commemorate your trip.
Several nearby sites are on the National Register of Historic Places: the Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Station, the Will Rogers and Wiley Post Monument, and the Birnirk Archaeological Site. The Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Station was built in 1893 and is the oldest frame building in the Arctic. The iconic Whale Bone Arch beside the building is a photographer’s delight, located right on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.
The Will Rogers and Wiley Post Monument, dedicated in 1982, is located across from the airport. The six-sided monument honors pioneer Wiley Post and comedian and homespun philosopher Will Rogers who died in 1935 when their plane went down 15 miles southwest of Utqiaġvik during a flight to Siberia.
Approximately two miles north of the Utqiaġvik airfield is the Birnirk Archaeological Site. The Birnirk culture, which existed about 500 - 900 AD, is represented by a group of 16 dwelling mounds and is considered a key link between the prehistoric cultures of Alaska and Canada. The mounds reach up to 14 feet tall, with dwellings framed by driftwood and whalebones. Tools and other artifacts recovered from the site are used to compare artifacts from other sites and learn more about the Iñupiat culture in Alaska and Canada. Similar tools and artifacts have been found from the Russian Far East to northern Canada.
Nalukataq Whaling Festival
The Nalukataq whaling festival is held by the Iñupiaq people in June following a successful whaling season. The purpose of the festival is to appease the spirits of deceased whales so that they will return in the form of new whales the next season. In addition to dancing, singing, and food, the whaling festival includes a tradition familiar to some visitors — the blanket toss. While it's now conducted as entertainment, it didn’t originate that way. An Iñupiaq hunter would be tossed in the air, enabling him to see across the horizon to hunt game.
During today's celebrations, thirty or more Iñupiaq gather in a circle, holding the edges of a large skin made from walrus hides, and toss someone into the air as high as possible. The person being tossed throws gifts into the crowd and loses their turn when they lose their balance. The object: to maintain balance and return to the blanket without falling over. The event typically takes place the third week of June. Please contact your accommodations or tour operator to confirm event dates.
When spring arrives, Utqiaġvik comes to life with millions of migratory birds and thousands of bowhead and beluga whales. Throughout the spring and summer, ringed and bearded seals, walrus, and more swim in the ocean waters, and foxes and caribou can be seen on land. The road system around town offers some of the best wildlife viewing opportunities. Travelers can set off on their own or take a guided tour of the area to look out for the many animals that call the Arctic home. During some months, it can even be possible to spot polar bears in the area.
Utqiaġvik is also home to many species of birds who travel north for the extra sunlight in the summer to raise their young. The area is one of the few-known nesting spots for Steller’s and spectacled eiders. In the late fall, Ross’ Gulls from Siberia fly overhead, signifying the return of winter. In Iñupiaq, Utqiaġvik means “the place where we hunt snowy owls.” Snowy owls come to nest in the area when food is plentiful, so bring binoculars for some incredible birdwatching.
Winter activities include northern lights viewing, dog mushing, and some winter tour packages. If you time your visit right, you may get to witness the local Iñupiaq men embark on their annual whale hunt as part of their subsistence lifestyle. Hunters share whale meat and sections of skin and blubber known as muktuk with the entire community.
Utqiaġvik Weather & Daylight Hours
The majority of visitors come to Utqiaġvik in the summer, when the daylight hours are endless and the temperatures get up in the 40s. Due to the city's northern latitude, it sees more daylight hours in summer than any other city in Alaska, with non-stop daylight from March 10 to August 2. Hearty travelers do visit in the winter, when the village sees no sunlight for 67 days and temperatures regularly dip below freezing. The sun sets on November 18 and doesn't rise again until January 23.
Lodging & Dining in Utqiaġvik
There are a few places to stay in Utqiaġvik including a hotel, inns, and bed & breakfasts. Despite its remote location, Utqiaġvik offers surprisingly diverse dining options from several restaurants including Mexican food, Chinese food, Japanese food, pizza, and American.
Looking for more? Read 6 Things to Do in Utqiaġvik.
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