Alaska has 8 National Parks, I’ve profiled 4 so far. Of these, they have all been within a few hundred miles of the city of Anchorage. That makes them all pretty popular, and easy to get to for the average tourist. Now though, we will travel north, far north, about 475 miles North of Anchorage, 260 miles North West of Fairbanks, and about 85 miles North of the Arctic Circle. We are entering Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve.
The entirety of this park, all 8 million acres, lies above the Arctic Circle. This is the second largest National Park in the country, after Wrangell-St. Elias, it is also one of the least visited parks in the National Parks in the system, even less than Lake Clark. Last year, only 12,000 people managed to make it up to Gates of the Arctic. That itself actually seems like quite alot considering there are no roads into the park, no established trails, no entrance, and no civilization for miles.
Yes, the entirety of the park (except for Native lands), is back-country. Camping is allowed anywhere (except for Native lands), provided you can actually get yourself there. The most popular way in is via air taxi, which isn’t exactly cheap, especially this far north. One could enter the park via walking, but there’s no close village. The Dalton Highway runs roughly parallel to the park’s eastern border, coming within 5 miles of it in places, but one would have to cross a river to actually enter the park. That being said, you shouldn’t be squeamish about crossing a river if you’re serious about visiting Gates of the Arctic.
The defining characteristic of the park is The Brooks Range. This 700 mile long mountain range is estimated to be 126 million years old and has seen glaciers come and go over it’s lifetime. The Brooks Range is part of the northern Continental Divide, with water from the north emptying into the Arctic Ocean, and water on the south side draining into the Pacific. It’s also a divider for trees, and vegetation, southern areas have trees, in the north it gets too cold, and too dark to support all but the most hardy.
Speaking of water, there are countless rivers running through the park, 6 of which are considered Wild & Scenic, and rafting or canoeing down these rivers is one of the more popular ways people experience the park. However, if you plan on going there you must be prepared. Being above the Arctic Circle means the days are long, for a certain period of time in the summer, the sun has never set, so this takes some getting used to.
Caribou are the most populous animal in the park, but bears, both brown & black, Dall sheep and wolves are common. The density of the bear population is not as much as the lower parks, nor are the bears as large since salmon don’t make it up this far north. That doesn’t make them any less dangerous though. Humans have lived in the area for thousands of years, mainly living off the Caribou. Hunting is allowed in the Preserve, provided you have the correct permits, but off limits inside the park except for the Native peoples who still reside there.
Being in Alaska means that help isn’t a phone call away, it means you’re entirely on your own, and it can be daunting. The best times to visit the park are in the short summer, July through September. Come October it starts to get too cold, and the days start to get shorter and shorter. None of this stops people from visiting here though, (well, only 12,000 people that is). The city of Bettles Alaska, population 12, is the closest point to the park. Tourists can take flight seeing tours over the park, and even land and have lunch there if they so feel like it. However, Bettles is still above the Arctic Circle, so it has the same limitations. Plus there’s only 12 people living there, so there’s that.