Gates of the Arctic is a National Park and Preserve in northern Alaska, spanning 8.4 million acres of wilderness and preserving parts of the Brooks Range. Free from any roads or marked trails, visitors can explore completely intact ecosystems that remain relatively untouched by human encroachment. The entirety of the park is located north of the Arctic Circle, making it the northernmost National Park in the United States.
Backpackers may wander through the 8.4 million acres wherever their skills take them. The terrain, occupied only by Native Alaskans for thousands of years, is truly one of the last remaining untouched swaths of wilderness in the United States. It is recommended that hikers travel in groups of fewer than 10, and follow wildlife trails where possible to minimize the impact of their footsteps on the fragile ecosystem. Terrain includes wetlands, rivers and river beds, dense vegetation, rugged mountain ridges and passes, tundra and boreal forest. Climbing within the park takes place at several sites, including the areas of Mount Igikpak, Mount Doonerak and Arrigetch Peaks. Most peaks involve technical climbing. Bolts and fixed anchors are not allowed.
Numerous rivers cut through the valley floor, carved out by glaciers millions of years ago. Six of them are designated as Wild Rivers, meaning they are protected from development or any changes that would impact their wild nature. South flowing rivers within the park include the Alatna River and John River. The north fork of the Koyukuk River also flows through the park, having been joined to the north by the Tinayguk River. West flowing rivers include the Noatak and Kobuk Rivers. In addition to hiking, floating and rafting are popular recreational activities. Popular campsites include the lakeside gravel beds, and alpine lake fishing is plentiful.
Birding is a popular activity due to the vast number of migratory birds that take advantage of the sun-lit summer nights and make the park their summer destination. 145 species of birds have been observed in the Gates of the Arctic, including several species of owl, hawk, eagle and osprey, falcons and the American kestrel, the grouse and Ptarmigan, as well as songbirds such as sparrows and chickadees.
History: Archeological evidence shows that nomadic humans lived in the park as far back as 12,000 years ago, hunting caribou and other mammals for subsistence. Subsistence hunting by local residents is still permitted within the park. The first century Inupat people are directly connected to the Nunamiut people who lived in the area through the early 20th century. By 1949 the last remaining nomadic tribes banned together to create the small community of Anaktuvuk Pass, located within the park just north of the Brooks Range. Some minor evidence of mining in the preserve has been found, dating back to the Alaskan gold rush of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Originally designated as a National Monument in 1978, the area was upgraded to a higher level of protection granted by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act two years later. The name, Gates of the Arctic, dates back to early 20th century explorers and comes from the way the two mountains of Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain frame the north fork of the Koyukuk River. The first use of the name was by Bob Marshall, a wilderness activist and American forester who founded the Wilderness Society in 1935.
Due to its remote location, the park receives very few visitors annually, adding to the solitude the wilderness area provides. In 2016, just over 10,000 visitors entered Gates of the Arctic, compared with over 6 million visitors to the Grand Canyon in the same year.
Ongoing Programs and Education: The park is accessible by foot or flight only. Several small airlines provide daily flights from Fairbanks. Visitors may plan their trip with assistance of the Fairbanks Alaska Public Lands Information Center, or the Bettles Ranger Station and Visitor Center. Excellent topographic maps and wilderness survival skills are recommended, as there are no marked trails or services within the park.
Guided tours are available from third party outfitters for those who are not comfortable navigating the wild terrain on their own. Some organizations offer fly in and fly out day trips, or 1-2 night overnight trips for those who aren’t ready to spend a full two weeks or more, surviving only on what they carried in with them.
What’s Nearby: Gates of the Arctic adjoins the Noatak Wilderness, making the collective acreage the largest contiguous wilderness area in the entire United States.
Airport Road Bettles, AK 99726, Phone: 907-692-5494