Vast, beautiful and remote, this refuge is often called America's last great wilderness
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is one of Alaska’s crowned jewels in the Far North region, and encompasses 19.6 million-acres in remote northeastern Alaska. The refuge straddles the eastern Brooks Range from the treeless Arctic Coast to the taiga of the Porcupine River Valley.
The movement to protect the area began in the 1950s out of concerned for the loss of wild places to development and the destructive potential of the atomic bomb that was displayed during World War II. Led by Olaus and Margaret Murie, conservationists launched a seven-year, hard-fought campaign to establish the Nation's first ecosystem-scale conservation area. In 1960, the Eisenhower administration established the 8.9 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Range and in 1980 it was expanded 18 million acres and renamed. Today the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge spans 19.6 million acres, equal to the size of South Carolina, including the largest area of designated Wilderness in the U.S. National Wildilfe Refuge System.
The majestic Brooks Range, with peaks and glaciers to 9,000 feet, dominates the refuge. These rugged mountains extend east to west in a band 75 miles wide, rising abruptly from a flat, tundra-covered plain. Numerous braided rivers and streams cut through this treeless expanse. South of the continental divide, rivers wind serpentine courses through broad, spruce-covered valleys dotted with lakes and sloughs.
The climate in the refuge is almost as diverse as the wildlife. Snow usually blankets the ground from September through May, but freezing temperatures can occur any month, especially north of the mountains. Summers last from June through August. Strong winds, cool temperatures, clouds and fog are typical near the coast. Blue skies, variable winds and moderate temperatures are more common inland. Areas south of the mountains have more rainfall, more extreme temperatures and lighter winds.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to some of the most diverse and spectacular wildlife in the circumpolar north. The refuge's rich pageant of wildlife includes 42 fish species, 39 land mammals, seven marine mammals, and more than 200 migratory and resident bird species that come from four continents to breed, rest or feed from April to July.
The refuge is also the most important polar bear denning area in the country and a critical calving area for the Porcupine caribou herd, the second largest at 130,000 animals. Dall sheep roam the mountains, moose and musk oxen graze the plains, and grizzly and black bear forage for food along streams, the rivers support grayling and char.
The Arctic Refuge offers a variety of wilderness opportunities and horizons to be explored. There are no roads, established trails or facilities within the refuge; preparation and self-reliance are essential due to its remote nature and extreme conditions. Most visitors bring their own food and gear, and access the Refuge by air taxi or personal airplane. Although there is no cell phone coverage, satellite phones do work in many areas. Visitors can enjoy hiking, hunting, camping, rock-climbing and river floating. Wildlife viewing, birding, berry picking and photography are also popular activities.
Other than Arctic Village located on the southern edge of the refuge, there are no villages, roads or faculties anywhere in the preserve. Most visitors, particularly those visiting the area for the first time, choose to arrive as part of a guided group. They are drawn by remote wilderness, abundant wildlife and adventure and arrive during the summer to raft, hike and camp, hunt and fish or to view wildlife.
Rafting is a popular way to travel through the refuge and rivers that are floated every summer by outfitters include the Kongakut, Sheenjek, Canning and the Hulahula. Outfitters also offer extended backpacking and birding trips in the refuge while some air taxi operators offer one-day flightseeing trips to spot caribou.
There are no fees for entrance into the refuge and permits are required only for commercial outfitters.
There are no roads into ANWR but one comes close. The Dalton Highway and ANWR touch briefly just north of Atigun Pass and occasionally visitors will hike from the road into the refuge. The vast majority of visitors arrive primary by air with most flying scheduled air service from Fairbanks to Fort Yukon, Kaktovik or Deadhorse, then chartering to a river gravel bar or tundra landing site.
The ANWR Headquarters and Information Center (800-362-4546, 907-456-0250; arctic.fws.gov) is in Fairbanks and can provide lists of air taxi operators and commercial outfitters who transport visitors and run trips in the refuge.