The second-largest National Park is also the least visited. It’s not easy to get to, but the rewards are worth the effort ten-times over.
The absolute most important part of planning a trip to Gates Of The Arctic is accepting the fact that you’ll be improvising for the majority of the experience. The park is larger than several US states, so remote that not a single road or hiking trail exists within the park, and the vast majority of lakes, valleys and mountains are unnamed. You’ll be hiking on ground that more or less doesn’t exist in the official documents, and so researching and planning your route will be nearly impossible. John Krakauer called this a “black belt park” because it simply will push the limits of you backcountry skills. You MUST be proficient at navigating with a compass and map, as well as off-trail travel and survival (in grizzly country). Come prepared for potential emergency and carry several extra days worth of food. The only method of entry and exit for the park is by air, or hiking dozens of miles, so in the event of inclement weather or injury, you must be able to safely stay put and wait for a few days before extraction.
All that said, Gates Of The Arctic is a truly magical place - magnificent jagged peaks of exposed granite erupt from permafrost tundra. The remoteness combined with the rugged terrain, while daunting during the planning stages, creates an incredible serenity that I’ve never before experienced in all my travels. It’s not easy or inexpensive to get into the park, but the reward is worth the efforts ten times over.
Begin planning your Gates Of The Arctic trip well in advance, as there are a lot of moving pieces that need to get taken care of.
There are no roads into (or inside) Gates Of The Arctic National Park. The Dalton Highway (made famous by the TV show Ice Road Truckers), runs past the eastern border of the park, but never gets closer than a few miles from the official park boundary. Budget-conscious travelers will often park off the road and then hike into the park, but this approach only works if you have your own car. Rental car companies charge exorbitant fees if they hear you’re planning on driving the Dalton, and paying several hundred dollars per day for a car that’s parked on the side of the road isn’t exactly thrifty. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, there are buses that run from Fairbanks all the way to the coast of the Arctic Ocean and a round-trip ticket is only about $500. They run twice a week, but reservations are absolutely mandatory, or they may not pick you up. View the schedule here.
If your budget is a little more flexible and you want to get deep into the heart of the park, an air-taxi service like Coyote Air will be your best bet. Most services operate out of either Coldfoot or Bettles, so you’ll need to make arrangements to get to one of those towns (a charter flight out of Fairbanks, most likely). The real fun about flying with a backcountry pilot like Coyote Air is the freedom of exploration that it affords you. You can choose between a float plane or a bush plane, and between the scattered lakes and tundra flats you can land just about in any valley you want to. Choosing where you want to go will not prove so easy: the Arrigetch Peaks are just about the only spot in the park that are somewhat well documented. If you’re trying to go somewhere less traveled, then simply look at some USGS Topo maps and find a section that looks intriguing. I looked for a big, open valley with extremely dense topo lines surrounding it (indicating steep cliffs and big mountains).
The vast majority of the other peaks are unnamed, so even if you find a section of map that looks like fun, you’ll be hard pressed to find any information on it. Our trip was through an area known as Thunder Valley, but that name is unofficial and you won’t find any records of it on USGS or NPS websites. Talk to your pilot and guide about what you’re looking for and I guarantee they’ll have some suggestions.
I’m not going to go into the specifics here of safe and low-impact backcountry travel, nor am I going to dive into the proper precautions necessary for backpacking through Grizzly country, because you need to be proficient at those before you even begin planning your trip. This is not a place to be practicing your tent-pitching, or haphazardly experiment with how close to your tent you can cook before there’s an issue. We had several meals interrupted by bears during our trip, and thunderstorms (and even snow) rolled through with only a few minutes notice. Do your reading, and be prepared for all outcomes, and you will have the trip of a lifetime in perhaps the most gorgeous place on Planet Earth.
That said, let's talk about some generalities.
- Never eat/store food in your tent. These are not your average Alaskan bears, feasting on salmon. These bears are hungry and if you smell like food, they will want to eat that food.
- Always use the 100-meter triangle rule for cooking and food storage (the so-called BEARmuda Triangle).
- Make noise while hiking so as to alert the bears to your presence and avoid startling them.
As for the off-trail travel, simply use common sense. Try to walk/camp on durable surfaces, and avoid walking in single-file lines on the fragile tundra to help minimize your impact. Realistically the tundra is brutally difficult to walk on, so you and your camp mates are likely to choose slightly different routes anyway. Be prepared for soggy, soft bog, covered in bowling ball sized clumps of grass known as tussocks. Waterproof boots, rugged pants and gaiters are absolute musts, and trekking poles are highly encouraged.
The general rule of thumb for this park is that you'll only cover about 25% of the ground per day that you're used to covering. If you're a strong backpacker used to crushing 15-20 miles per day, count on 5 miles per day on the Tundra. Remember, you'll be planning a point-to-point or an out-and-back with an airplane extraction, so if you over-commit yourself and can't cover the ground you wanted, there's a real likelihood that you end up missing your flight home, which could be at best expensive, at worst, fatal.
Although I realize this all sounds incredibly daunting, it's actually very doable if you do your research ahead of time and go in prepared. With the proper gear and planning, you'll find your time in Gates Of The Arctic to be absolutely stunning, and you'll come home with memories from the trip of a lifetime.
For more information, visit the Fairbanks Office of the Alaska Public Lands Information Center: https://www.alaskacenters.gov/visitors-centers/fairbanks