Bethel, located on the Kuskokwim River 40 miles from the Bering Sea and 400 air miles from Anchorage, is a commercial center and port for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, providing food, fuel, medical care, and other services for 56 surrounding villages. Home to a population of about 6,400 residents, Bethel is the largest rural community in Alaska.
About Bethel (Yup'ik: Mamterilleq)
Originally a Yup'ik settlement called "Mumtrekhlogamute," meaning “smokehouse people,” the area has been home to Yup'ik people for thousands of years. In the 1870s, a trading post was built in the town, and the Moravian Church established a mission in the area in 1884.
Bethel is 68 percent Alaska Native or part Alaska Native. Traditional Yup’ik practices and language remain predominant in the area, as do subsistence activities such as the salmon fishing, hunting game birds, and gathering berries. Bethel is a marketplace for Yup’ik ivory carvings, baskets, qaspeqs, fur hats, and other craft items. The hub community also features a 3-lane swimming pool & exercise gym, a movie theater, a farm, arts and crafts stores, a regional hospital, court building and jail, and the regional school district.
Things to do
Avid birders will be impressed by the 20-million-acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, which encircles the community of Bethel. It is the largest wildlife refuge in the country and is an important breeding ground for shorebirds, seabirds, tundra swans, emperor geese, white-fronted geese, cackling geese, black brant, and other migratory birds. The refuge is a landscape of tundra marshes, lakes, and streams that supports one of the largest concentrations of waterfowl in the world. Every spring, a spectacle can be seen as 2 million waterfowl, 750,000 geese, and 100 million shorebirds return to their habitats to nest.
Those looking to visit the refuge can charter a boat or floatplane for opportunities to get up close for wildlife observation and photography. The Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center in Bethel can help visitors connect with transportation and guides. Hiking in this marshy tundra can be difficult but you can explore the unusual terrain at Pinky's Park in town, which features a two-mile boardwalk over the tundra.
Built in the mid-1990s, the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center showcases Yup'ik, Cup'ik, Cup'ig, and De'ne Athabascan exhibits. Tribally-owned and operated, the cultural center offers free admission to the public to view its exhibits of traditional Native tools, clothing, and histotical photos. It is also home to the Public Library of Bethel and a gift shop stocked with postcards, videos, and books about the Yukon-Kuskokwin Delta. Among the many activities staged at the center are dance lessons, concerts, training classes, and the seasonal Saturday market.
Bethel comes alive during its two main festivals. The Kuskokwim 300, often regarded as one of the toughest mid-distance dog sled races in the world, is held in mid-January. The race covers 300 miles from Bethel to Aniak and back, with the winner typically clocking in at less than 19 hours. The race is celebrated all week long during "Race Week." The Cama-i Dance Festival is held the last weekend of March. The three-day dance festival is sponsored by the Bethel Council on the Arts and involves participants from other states and countries along with local dancers.
Getting to and around Bethel
With daily air service from Anchorage and the most cabs per capita in the US, Bethel is easy to get to and accessible for visitors to experience this unique community.
Learn more about Alaska Native arts & culture.