A herd of caribou walks through a river in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Alaska
Photo Credit: John Schwieder, Alamy Stock Photo

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

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 crown jewels in the Arctic 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.


ANWR 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, personal airplane, or as part of a guided tour. Although there is no cell phone coverage, satellite phones do work in many areas. Visitors can enjoy hiking, backpacking, hunting, fishing, rafting, packrafting, and canoeing. Wildlife viewing, birding, berry picking, and photography are also popular activities.

While there are no roads in ANWR, the Dalton Highway and ANWR touch briefly just north of Atigun Pass. Some visitors will hike from the road into the refuge, but the vast majority of visitors arrive by air, with most flying on scheduled air service from Fairbanks to Fort Yukon, Kaktovik, Coldfoot, or Deadhorse, and then chartering a flight to land on a river gravel bar or tundra within the refuge.

Most visitors, particularly those visiting the area for the first time, choose to arrive as part of a guided trip in the summer. They are drawn by remote wilderness, abundant wildlife, and adventure. Guided trips in ANWR are typically 6 – 10 days and focus on backpacking/hiking, rafting or packrafting, wildlife and bird photography, or a combination of those activities.

Rafting is a popular way to travel through the refuge in summer and outfitters typically lead trips down the Kongakut, Sheenjek, Canning, and Hulahula Rivers. You can also plan a custom tour if you have specific interests or schedule requirements. Tour companies will outfit you with the proper gear, and an experienced guide will lead you on an incredible and wild backcountry adventure. If you don't have time for a multi-day excursion, some air taxi operators offer one-day flightseeing trips to spot caribou.

Wildlife viewing is another big draw in ANWR. The Porcupine caribou herd, one of the largest herds in North America with about 200,000 animals, migrates through ANWR. For a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife viewing experience, join a polar bear viewing drip departing from Kaktovik on Barter Island. Tour companies offer day trips or multi-day itineraries where you’ll cruise the Arctic coastline on a boat searching for polar bears. If you’re interested in winged wildlife, ANWR is a fantastic birding destination, home to over 200 bird species.


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 around 200,000 animals. Dall sheep roam the mountains, moose and musk oxen graze the plains, and grizzly and black bears forage for food along streams and rivers home to grayling and char.


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 movement to protect the area began in the 1950s out of concern 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 Wildlife Refuge System.


Other than Arctic Village located on the southern edge of the refuge, there are no villages, roads, facilities, or campgrounds anywhere in the preserve. Backcountry hiking and camping are permitted. The Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfoot provides information about ANWR and other public lands along the Dalton Highway and the Alaska Public Land Information Center in Fairbanks provides information on public lands in the Interior and Arctic regions. 


The Dalton Highway and ANWR touch briefly just north of Atigun Pass and some 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, Coldfoot, or Deadhorse and then chartering an air taxi into the refuge. 

For more information, visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge website.

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