Alaska Vacation Recap: Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

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This is the first trip recap of our 2017 vacation to 4 of Alaska’s national parks. Park Chasers also posted a series called “Project Alaska” on how to plan an Alaskan vacation without a travel or cruise agent. Check out today’s recap of our visit to Gates of the Arctic National Park, then see all of our other posts on Alaska’s amazing National Parks.

About Gates of the Arctic National Park

When we started planning our trip to Alaska, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve was on the top of our list of must-visit places.  North of the Arctic Circle and near the famous Brooks Mountain Range, Gates is famous for being one of the world’s last places of pristine, protected wilderness.

Here’s what you need to know about the park:

  • Gates of the Arctic is the northernmost park in the National Park Service.  It sits entirely above the Arctic Circle at 67°47′N 153°18′W. 
  • The name came from Alaska wilderness activist Bob Marshall who–when exploring the park in 1929–happened upon two mountains. Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain bordered the North Fork of the Koyukuk River in what appeared as a gate formation to Marshall.  The name carried over when the park was established in 1980.
  • At more than 8.4 million acres it is the second largest park.  It’s roughly the size of Belgium and joins the Noatak National Preserve to form the largest contiguous wilderness in the United States.
  • Gates of the Arctic is one of the least visited units in the entire National Park Service. Only 10,047 people visited the park in 2016. Consider that more than 4.2 million people stepped foot in Yellowstone National Park in the same year.
  • Traveling to Gates of the Arctic is challenging.  No paved roads exist to the park or within the park boundaries.  The closest road, the Dalton Highway comes within 7 miles of the park border but all national rental car companies in Alaska prohibit traveling on it.
Koyukuk River Valley – Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Creating an Itinerary

Chartered air travel continues to be the most popular way to visit Gates of the Arctic National Park.  The Alaska Regional Office of the National Park Service maintains a directory of commercial aviation businesses with permits to operate in national parks in this region, including Gates of the Arctic. Planning any trip to the park will require reviewing the current list (it’s updated each year with approved vendors) and contacting each flight operator about the services they offer. Not all flights and pilots travel to all areas of the park.

Knowing where you’d like to go and how long you’d like to stay is the most important information to have before you contact the pilot. Planning a chartered flight seeing tour 8-12 months in advance is not uncommon in the busy summer months in Alaska. Your pilot may also recommend allowing an extra day or two buffer in your trip plans for the unpredictable weather.

Day One

Arrived in Fairbanks (the park headquarters is located here). Set up base camp at one of the nearby campgrounds. While we stayed closer to town, The Chena River State Recreation Area is a good place to start hunting for campsites.

Visited the Alaska Public Lands Information Office and the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve headquarters in Fairbanks.  The building has interesting exhibits about the Athabaskan natives who inhabited the area, films about the park, and a large selection of maps and hiking information. Chatted with a ranger about current park conditions and collected our national park passport stamps.

The Alaska Public Lands Information Center and headquarters of Gates of the Arctic National Park is located in downtown Fairbanks.

Day Two

Up early to meet our pilot and depart on our 4 hour flight-seeing tour. For our trip we worked with Andy at Shadow Aviation in Fairbanks.  He has flown extensively throughout Gates of the Arctic National Park and has lived in Alaska for most of his life. Andy also assists biologists and rangers in conducting wildlife surveys and flight-based research throughout Alaska’s protected lands.

Thanks to Shadow Aviation for a terrific day in Gates of the Arctic National Park!

In planning our day, we relied on Andy’s extensive knowledge of the park for our tour spots.  The North Fork of the Koyukuk River and the Gates of the Arctic mountain formation are two of the most popular areas for flight-seeing in the park. We headed to this area first.

On the way, we caught views of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and heard stories about life in remote Alaskan communities like Stevens Village and Bettles. We also dropped down to get a closer look at a caribou herd in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

Caribou in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

After making several passes through the Endicott Mountains that form the Gates and spectacular views of the Koyukuk River, we flew to the southern area of the park.  Andy landed the Cessna 185 on Long Lake within Gates of the Arctic National Park, where we stopped for a nice lunch of smoked salmon, veggies and PB&J.  We couldn’t have asked for a better first day of our Alaskan vacation and trip to our 49th national park unit!

Notes

While our trip was a terrific experience, there are a few pointers we think may be helpful (or things we wished we would have known before visiting Gates of the Arctic):

  • We both wished we had ordered a topographical map of the park or had some sort of GPS tracking unit available to sketch our route.  15 days later its tough to know exactly where were in the park paired up with the photos we took.
  • For many (including us) visiting these remote parks in Alaska is also the first experience in a small aircraft.  Pack Dramamine or some other motion-sickness relief and don’t be afraid to take it.  Airsickness is the quickest way to dampen a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
  • There are several guided tour options that land at Anatuvuk Pass, one of the few ranger stations within the park.  We opted not to take one of these tours for a more personalized experience, but it’s worth doing careful research about what you most enjoy.
  • Traveling to these parks is expensive.  When you meet and talk with your pilot about what it takes to fly in Alaska you’ll understand what incredible effort (and expense) it takes.  In the meantime, expect to pay $400+ per hour, including the time your on the ground in the park.

 

One last thing about the links above: Park Chasers did not receive any compensation for writing this post. We have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that were mentioned. However some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and buy the item, Park Chasers will receive an affiliate commission that helps us keep the site running and share more about the National Parks.  As always, we only recommend products or services we use personally and believe will add value to you.

 

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