How to Visit the Wildest National Park in the U.S.
Gates of the Arctic in northern Alaska is one of the last truly wild national parks. There are no roads or trails, and the park boasts the stunning Brooks Range, six wild and scenic rivers, and gets fewer than 3,000 visitors a year. Our 62 Parks columnist was awestruck by her 39th stop on her quest to visit every national park in the U.S.
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62 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every U.S. national park. Avid backpacker and public-lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built out a tiny van to travel and live in, and hit the road, practicing COVID-19 best safety protocols along the way. The parks as we know them are rapidly changing, and she wanted to see them before it’s too late.
The small plane bounced, then violently lurched sideways. “It’s going to be a little bumpy coming through these clouds, but I’ll bring us in for a smooth landing,” our bush pilot assured us. To my left, through the scratched glass window, I could make out a vast valley below, speckled with birch and aspen trees exploding into vibrant yellows as autumn neared. To my right, my partner, Brian, gazed longingly at the view. I held my breath, and in what felt like mere seconds, I was standing on a gravel riverbank with only Brian, a guide, and my backpack, watching the plane fly away. It wouldn’t return for five days.
Gates of the Arctic, in northern Alaska, is one of the most pristine and remote wilderness areas in the world. Established in 1980 to protect the Brooks Range and hundreds of miles of caribou migration lands, the park remains truly wild to this day—no services, no roads, and no trails. Many Alaska Natives still live within the park’s boundaries, living a subsistence-based lifestyle sanctioned by Congress and the NPS. It’s home to six National Wild and Scenic Rivers—Noatak, John, Alatna, Tinayguk, North Fork Koyukuk, and Kobuk—and a diverse array of wildlife from grizzlies to muskox.
Getting to Gates is tricky. As one of the few parks in the country not accessible by road or commercial flight, visitors must either charter a private bush plane, join a group trip, or hike in off the Dalton Highway. Due to the pandemic, I opted for the first one and enlisted the help of Arctic Wild to plan a four-night trek into the Arrigetch Peaks.
After a strenuous two-day hike through crimson dwarf birch, spongy lichens, and anxiety-inducing tussocks, we pitched our tents at the base of the most spectacular mountains I have ever seen. The Arrigetch Peaks sprung up in every direction, looming thousands of feet above us with their imposing granite walls. In the Inupiat language, Arrigetch means “fingers of the outstretched hand,” and I could see why—in that magnificent valley, I felt held in the palm of some otherworldly force.
The three of us set off for the Aquarius Valley on the morning of the third day, hoping to take advantage of the good weather and check out a trio of strikingly blue alpine lakes. My stomach leapt into my throat as I hopped over a pile of bear scat and continued onto a steep boulder field, climbing breathlessly from stone to stone.
When we crested the enormous gully of rocks, we were met with a body of crystal-clear cerulean water, lined with crumbling charcoal cliffs. Pops of marigold and rust-colored tundra plants clung to the pebbled shore. The silence was tremendous. It was as though our party had been teleported onto some far-off planet and we were the only sentient creatures.
I was awestruck by the landscape. In the wake of so much beauty, I had never felt so tiny, yet at the same time, something deep and miraculous began to tingle inside my chest. Along with that smallness was a profound sense of inner spaciousness. Somehow, the two seemed to exist symbiotically.
Maybe, at the end of the day, this is nature’s most important job: to rile up our atoms and blast us full of life.
62 Parks Traveler Gates of the Arctic Info
Size: 8.4 million acres
Location: Northern Alaska (closest town: Bettles)
Created in: 1978 (national monument), 1980 (national park)
Best For: Backpacking, wildlife viewing, river rafting, flight seeing, northern lights
When to Go: Summer (37 to 61 degrees) and September (25 to 39 degrees) are the best months for hiking, backpacking, and river trips.
Where to Stay: I didn’t have the pleasure of staying the night, but Bettles Lodge is a wonderful, locally run basecamp for travelers looking to see the park without tenting it. They can also help arrange flightseeing and backcountry tours.
Mini Adventure: Go on a single day flight-seeing tour. On a normal year, both Brooks Range Aviation and Coyote Air offer chartered trips into Gates of the Arctic with at least one stop to land, hike around, and take pictures. Both will fly you through the majestic Arrigetch Peaks for an extra fee.
Mega Adventure: Spend a few days in the backcountry. Whether you’re looking to pack raft, canoe, or backpack, Arctic Wild offers a handful of scheduled trips each year for adventure lovers of all skill levels. Their most popular? Combination rafting and hiking trips, on which you can enjoy the beauty of the Arctic without having to schlep all your gear.