Light on visitors due to its remote access, this park offers sanctuary for caribou, muskoxen and more than 145 species of birds
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, one of the finest wilderness areas in the world, straddles the Arctic Divide in the Brooks Range, America's northernmost chain of mountains. Second only to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in size, Gates of the Arctic covers 13,238 square miles, sprawls 800 miles from east to west and is entirely north of the Arctic Circle. It extends from the southern foothills of the Brooks Range, across the range's ragged peaks and down onto the North Slope.
With the exception of the Dalton Highway, the park is far from any roads and is home to only one village, Anaktuvuk Pass. Eight more Native villages dot the perimeter but all have less than 400 permanent residents. In the simplest terms, Gates of the Arctic is a vast wilderness the size as Switzerland that contains no National Park Service facilities, visitor centers or campgrounds.
The park's name dates to 1929, when conservationist Robert Marshall found an unobstructed path northward to the Arctic coast of Alaska while exploring the North Fork of the Koyukuk River. Upon seeing the two mountains, Mt. Boreal and Frigid Crags, flanking the river, Marshall named the portal the “Gates of the Arctic.”
First protected as a U.S. National Monument on December 1, 1978, the area was officially designated as a national park and preserve in 1980 with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
Most of the park is a maze of glaciated valleys and gaunt, rugged mountains covered with boreal forest or treeless slopes of Arctic tundra north of the divide. Within this preserve are six Wild and Scenic Rivers, miles of valleys and tundra slopes to hike and, of course, the Gates themselves.
The park and preserve provides habitat for grizzly bears, wolves, Dall sheep, moose and wolverines. Fishing is considered superb for grayling and Arctic char in the clear streams and for lake trout in the larger, deeper lakes. The only trails in the park are those made by the Western Arctic caribou herd, the largest in Alaska and numbered at approximately 490,000.
Gates of the Arctic is a wilderness park, with no roads or trails into the park lands, so visitors must fly or hike into the park. Access to the park begins in Fairbanks, Alaska, with several small airlines that provide daily flights into the gateway communities of Bettles and Anaktuvuk Pass and flag stops to Coldfoot. The remoteness of the park attracts mostly experienced backcountry travelers for float trips, backpacking treks or base camps set up to enjoy day hiking and fishing. Many visitors join guided trips that a handful of outfitters offer in summer for rafting and hiking or in the winter for dog mushing and cross-country skiing. Either as an independent traveler or as part of guided expedition, a visit to Gates of the Arctic requires careful planning and advance reservations.
Gates of the Arctic is a trail less park and most backpackers follow the long, open valleys for extended treks or work their way to higher elevations where open tundra and sparse shrubs provide good hiking terrain. Regardless of where you hike, trekking in the Arctic is a challenge and not like following posted trails in the Lower 48.
Floatable rivers in the park include the John, the North Fork of the Koyukuk, the Tinayguk, the Alatna and the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River from Wiseman to Bettles. The headwaters for the Noatak and Kobuk Rivers are in the park and popular waterways for rafters and canoers. The waterways range from Class I to III in difficulty. Of the various rivers, the North Fork of the Koyukuk River is one of the most popular, because of the location and level of difficulty - the float begins in the shadow of the Gates and continues downstream 100 miles to Bettles through Class I and II waters. Canoes and rafts can be rented in Bettles and then floated downstream back to the village.
There are no entrance fees in Gates of the Arctic.
There are no roads to the park itself as most visitors arrive via scheduled or charter air service from Fairbanks to Anaktuvuk Pass, Bettles or Coldfoot. Bush charters are available from Bettles and Coldfoot into the park boundaries. The Dalton Highway, open year round, comes within five miles of the park, and some visitors choose to hike in from there, often beginning in Wiseman. The Arctic Interagency Visitor Center (907-678-5209), which provides information about the park, is located in Coldfoot along the Dalton Highway, 260 miles north of Fairbanks.
There is also the seasonal Anaktuvuk Pass Ranger Station (907-661-3520) and the Bettles Ranger Station and Visitor Center (907-692-5494) which is open year round. For a list of outfitters and air charter operators contact the Gates of the Arctic Headquarters (907-457-5752).