Established on 2 December 1980, Alaska’s Kobuk Valley National is home to the largest active sand dunes in the Arctic.”Now we were alone between fringes of spruce by a clear stream where tundra went up to the sides of mountains,” wrote John McPhee in Coming into the Country. The Kobuk Valley said McPhee, “was, in all likelihood, the most isolated wilderness I would ever see.” Located entirely above the Arctic Circle, the 1,750,000 acres Kobuk Valley has fewer tourist visits than any other national park. Float a river here in late August and the only other humans you’re likely to encounter are Inupiat hunting the caribou that migrate through each year. Thirteen thousand years ago, when continental glaciers covered much of North America and a land bridge connected Alaska and Asia, Kobuk Valley was an ice-free refuge with grassy tundra similar to that found in Siberia today. Bison, mastodons, and mammoths roamed the valley, along with the humans who hunted them. Since then, the climate has shifted, and sea level has risen to flood the land bridge; many of the early mammals have disappeared. But today’s shrubby flora harbours relicts of the pre-glacial steppe, and in the cold, hard ground lie the legacies of ancient animals and peoples. Here the Kobuk Valley, cordoned off by the Baird and Waring Mountains, protects the midsection of the Kobuk River, the drainage of the Wild and Scenic Salmon River, and an array of wildlife. This is where the boreal forest reaches its northern limit, and the North American and Asiatic flyways cross. Pockets of tundra blend into birch and spruce, dwarfed by blasts of freezing air. And along the Kobuk River stretch 25 square miles of active sand dunes, where summer temperatures can climb to 100°F. Kobuk Valley National Park’s management plan encourages traditional native subsistence practices over-tourism, so no facilities or trails lie within the park.
How to Get There
Commercial planes fly daily from Anchorage to Kotzebue, where the park’s information centre is located. Planes can be chartered in Kotzebue and boats are available in neighbouring villages. Summer is the best time to visit. Days are long (from about June 3 to July 9 the sun doesn’t set), and temperatures in many places can reach into the 80s or higher. Ice breaks up on the Kobuk River in May and begins to reform by mid-October. Mid-June to late July is best for wildflowers. August can bring rain and September snow. In late August, the aspens begin to turn yellow and the tundra red, and the caribou migration begins.
How to Visit
Take a combination river-hiking trip that alternates between days out on the open water with days exploring the surrounding land. That way you can paddle to different landing points, leave your gear in the canoe, and hike unencumbered. Bring everything you need; no visitor facilities exist within the park. The Kobuk River, wide and placid, is a pleasant river to travel by canoe, kayak, or motorboat. Most people put in at Ambler and take out at Kiana, both outside the park. You can also float or paddle the Salmon, a Wild and Scenic river, but it has rougher water and is harder to reach. Hiking in most places is excellent, but the park maintains no trails or river crossings. So be sure to plan your trip carefully. While in the park, be respectful of private lands, most of which are along the Kobuk River. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are the largest active sand dunes in the Arctic and cover 30 square miles with towering sand; some dunes reach as high as 100 feet. Credit: National Geographic Society, 5 November 2009.