“The view from the top gave us an excellent idea of the jagged country toward which we were heading. The main Brooks Range divide was entirely covered with snow. Close at hand, only about ten miles to the north, was a precipitous pair of mountains, one on each side of the North Fork. I bestowed the name Gates of the Arctic on them.” It was the early 1930s, and Robert Marshall had found his wilderness home, a remote, uncluttered source of inspiration that would make him one of America’s greatest conservationists. The 8.5 million acres Gates of the Arctic in Alaska was the ultimate North American wilderness. Congress created the park to keep it that way on 2 December 1980.
Climb practically any ridge in the heart of the park and you’ll see a dozen glacial cirques side by side; serrated mountains that scythe the sky; and storms that snap out of dark, brooding clouds. Six National Wild and Scenic Rivers—Alatna, John, Kobuk, Noatak, North Fork Koyukuk, and Tinayguk—tumble out of high alpine valleys into forested lowlands. The park lies entirely above the Arctic Circle, straddling the Brooks Range, one of the world’s northernmost mountain chains. Along with Kobuk Valley National Park and Noatak National Preserve, Gates of the Arctic protects much of the habitat of the western arctic caribou. Grizzlies, wolves, wolverines, and foxes also roam over the severe land in search of food. Ptarmigan nibble on willow and gyrfalcons dive for ptarmigan. Shafts of cinnabar sunlight pour through the mountains at 2 a.m. in June, setting the wildland ablaze. In this mammoth mountain kingdom—the northernmost reach of the Rockies—the summer sun does not set for 30 straight days. “No sight or sound or smell or feeling even remotely hinted of men or their creations,” wrote Marshall. “It seemed as if time had dropped away a million years and we were back in a primordial world.”
HOW TO GET THERE
Bush pilots say that where the road ends, the real Alaska begins. And so it is in Gates of the Arctic. You can fly or walk in; most people fly. From Fairbanks (about 250 miles away), scheduled flights serve Anaktuvuk Pass, an Eskimo village within the park borders; Bettles/ Evansville; and Ambler, to the west. From Bettles/Evansville, Ambler, Fairbanks, or Coldfoot, you can air taxi into the park. Allow time for bad weather and delayed flights. From Anaktuvuk Pass, you can hike into the park. Or, you can drive up from Fairbanks on the unpaved Dalton Highway (a pipeline haul road that’s also open to the public) and hike to the park from several points along the road. But it’s a long, hard walk into the interior.
WHEN TO GO
Summer. It is short, but days are very long and for a while, temperatures may be relatively mild. Weather is highly unpredictable. Expect snow or rain in any month. August can be very wet, with freezing temperatures by mid-month. Mosquitoes and gnats are bad in late June and July. Fall colours peak in mid-August at high elevations, late August to early September at low elevations.
HOW TO VISIT
Allow enough time to savour the subtle beauty of this vast wilderness. A combination river-hiking trip offers the best of both. Air taxis are equipped to land on lakes and gravel bars for drop-offs and pickups. Plan carefully and bring everything you need; there are no visitor facilities in the park. This spare, harsh land is so fragile that a hiker’s step can kill lichens that take 150 years to reach full growth. Certain areas were badly damaged by the increase in visitors after Gates of the Arctic became a park.
Write or call Bettles Ranger Station before planning a trip. There are no trails in the park, but you can ask for suggestions about areas to visit, along with names of air taxis, guides, and outfitters who operate in the park. Credit: National Geographic Society.