Gates of the Arctic National Park, Arctic Circle
This is our favorite national park, and we barely made it past the outer boundary. The National Park Service calls Gates its ‘crowning jewel’ and ‘the last true wilderness,’ and for good reason. There are no roads into the park, and the closest the Dalton Highway comes is 5 miles from the outer boundary. There are no trails either, so you’re on your own to make your own way hiking and exploring. The park is part tundra (i.e. above the tree line of the arctic), partially below the tree line, and entirely well above the Arctic Circle on the Northern Slope of the arctic.
I felt like a displaced being on a foreign world most of the time. The feeling is similar to the one I get in really remote places in the American southwest, which is probably why Alaska and the southwest are my two favorite areas in the US. We arrived during a freak late August blizzard, so day 1 had little-to-no visibility, which added to the aura. Day 2 didn’t have a cloud in the sky, and was the first bluebird day we had in 4 weeks. It was stunning. We could see for miles since there were no trees and we were in a giant valley between various mountain ranges. There are a bunch of pull offs and free camping areas, but you should expect to see no one else while you’re in the park (and few to no others while on its boundaries), so you need to be comfortable with being extremely isolated, remote, and surrounded by nothing but pure, unaltered wilderness.
Location / Driving near Gates of the Arctic – The southern boundary of the park begins near Coldfoot, and ends basically where we camped (about 100 miles north of Coldfoot). It only took us 4.5-5 hours to drive to Coldfoot from Fairbanks, and under 2 hours to make it from Coldfoot to the upper boundary. Coldfoot is about 250 miles from Fairbanks, and the upper boundary of the park is around 100 miles north of Coldfoot (Prudhoe Bay is about 250 miles north of Coldfoot). Although the Dalton is 75% dirt / gravel, and there are potholes, it’s not nearly as treacherous as people make it out to be (or it used to be). We went 60 mph most of the time, and were just cognizant of potholes.
How to Explore Gates of the Arctic – It’s really important to set your expectations about this park properly before attempting to explore it. Unlike many National Parks, which we’ve essentially turned into nature theme parks (Yellowstone), do not expect to ‘spend a few days seeing the top sites in the park.’ Unless you’re in this park for months, you’ll hardly see any of it. This park is about the experience of being isolated in remote wilderness in one of the last true frontiers on earth. It’s not about ‘getting your national park stamp’ and taking selfies at the key viewpoints, or hurrying up the most popular trails to ‘summit’ various peaks. You have to be ready to be happy and satisfied with whatever you do or do not see. If you only see the outskirts of the park (like we did), be happy with that. If you make it 15 miles in, be happy with it. If you make it a few miles, but are stopped by weather or a river that’s abnormally high and have to turn back, accept it for what it is. You have no control here, and no way of knowing what weather the next day will bring (unless you have a satellite phone). So you have to be prepared to accept things for what they are. I found it to be a lot like exploring as a kid. We only hiked 10-13 miles, but we spent lots of time climbing around near rivers, exploring streams, scrambling up walls, and re-routing after a path we were taking came to an insurmountable obstacle. It felt more like ‘play’ than hiking usually does, which was a unique experience.
Cell Service in Gates of the Arctic – There is no cell service. If anything goes wrong from right outside Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, you won’t be able to call for help. So, bring an extra tire(s) and an extra gas can, medicine/supplies, and all the food and drinks you need.
Gas near Gates of the Arctic – Outside of Fairbanks, gas is only available in Coldfoot and Prudhoe Bay. The gas station in Coldfoot seems to be open 24 hours and holidays (we were there Labor Day). We did not need to use our extra gas can.
Groceries / Food near Gates of the Arctic – There are no groceries available in Coldfoot. There may be some in Prudhoe Bay, but we didn’t make it there, so I’m not sure. Buy food in Fairbanks before you head out. There is a small café in Coldfoot that has basic food and some candy / snakes for sale. We didn’t eat there because we had lots of our own food.
Booze / Bars near Gates of the Arctic – One of us thinks beer was for sale at the gas station / restaurant, and the other doesn’t think it was for sale. Regardless, the selection was very limited so be sure to BYOB. I suggest some hot toddy mix. It was our staple during our long weekend.
Milepost for Gates of the Arctic – This guide is pretty invaluable for the Dalton. It has mile by mile notes and info, which is critical when you lose service for days at a time and are trying to figure out which areas / pull-offs to check out, or how far you are from something.
Camping in Gates of the Arctic – There are a number of pull-outs where you can camp (all are discussed in Milepost, but I’ve listed a few here). We stayed at a free BLM campground near Galbraith Lake. It was absolutely pristine. The only sound we heard all day/night was the sound of the river in the distance. You have a perfect surround view of white mountains and tundra (If there’s snow, but I’m sure it’s equally as beautiful without snow). There were vault toilets and fire rings (but don’t expect to gather wood because there isn’t any to gather).
River Crossings in Gates of the Arctic – You do need to cross various rivers of varying speed and depth to make it into the park. There was one close to us that we attempted to cross without getting wet, and ended up giving up on, and following it toward the park instead. This works as well. Just realize that you will need to cross. The best thing to do is take your shoes off and walk across the shallow ones you cross first. I believe some are pretty high and deep, so be ready to turn back, and try not to be too disappointed if you have to turn back before you like… Remember, if you get in trouble out here, no one is coming to find you (or not for a long time at least).
Weather in Gates of the Arctic – Weather is really unpredictable here. It was in the 30s when we were there, and there was a freak blizzard. That seems to be rare for the region since signs said it only gets 20” of precipitation each year (It got 5” while we were there). Allegedly, it’s about as dry as Arizona… August is the rainiest and wettest month, followed by July. Next year, we’re aiming to arrive in June, which is a drier month. It never was much above 30 degrees while we were there (although the sun warmed us tremendously on the second day), but it sometimes reaches 60 degrees. Just be prepared for arctic temperatures and rain. I wore my ski pants and ski gear (because it’s waterproof) most of the time and was really comfortable.
Bears & Wildlife in Gates of the Arctic – The only wildlife we saw was an arctic fox, and a bear on the drive out. However, I would have one bear spray per person, and carry that with you (we only had one with us), just to be safe. Again, if something goes wrong, there’s no help coming for you, and you have a long drive back out, so you need to be well prepared.
Antibiotics / Meds for Gates of the Arctic – Another thing I plan to do next year is get penicillin, cipro, and maybe a steroid to take with us. This way, if anyone gets sick or hurt while hiking, we hopefully can keep the person well enough to make it out of the wilderness and through the long drive back to Fairbanks for medical help. I got a pretty bad case of strep throat the week before we went, which really drove home the need of being prepared for unpredictable, intense sickness. The hiker that Into the Wild is based on died only 20 miles into a trail (he was 20 miles away from a small town outside Denali). He just got so sick that he couldn’t make the hike back, or the river crossing he needed to do. This isn’t to scare everyone because if you’re prepared, you’ll be fine, but you do need to be ready for things that may go wrong. Even common illnesses or injuries can be dangerous when you have a multi-day hike back plus 6-10 hour drive to even make it to help. So, bringing preemptive meds is smart.