Musk ox in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge National Park

Visiting Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

ICTMN Staff
7/1/11

The largest protected wilderness in the United States, Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is a 19.3 million–acre expanse of roadless terrain roughly the size of South Carolina. Fifty years ago this past December the vast, diverse region was established as a preserve to protect the wildlife, wilderness, and the Native peoples that have called this land of eight ecozones home. For a visual reference to what happens when you leave undisturbed a region as wild and ecologically abundant as this, you will not do any better than the annual herd of 200,000 porcupine caribou finishing their 400-mile annual march from the Yukon to the coastal plains of the ANWR. National Geographic described how from a single vantage point along the Kongakut River, you can witness tens of thousands of caribou contending with attacking grizzly bears, swooping eagles and a strong current threatening to wash away the calves.

The Arctic refuge has been home to Native peoples for thousands of years, including the Inupiat and Gwich’in Indians. There might not be a more diverse natural habitat in the world, as the refuge spans five different ecological regions: the lagoons, beaches and salt marshes of its costal marine areas; coastal plain tundra; alpine tundra of the Brooks Range; forest tundra south of the mountains; and the boreal forest that contains tall spruce, birch and aspen trees. The entire area is north of the Arctic Circle and a mere 1,300 miles south of the North Pole, engendering a land of permafrost and frozen soil. The headwaters of the refuge’s Sheenjek River, located within the Romanzof Mountains, is considered perhaps the most remote spot in the United States.

You may be think this sounds like an inhospitable place for people to travel, but that’s not the case. So long as you plan well in advance, ANWR is one of the best places in North America to backcountry camp, hike, and experience the awesome spectacle of nature left untouched. First-time visitors to ANWR are encouraged to join a guided tour, but it is open to people looking to light out on their own or in their own group. There are day hikes to the Atigun Gorge, guided tours of polar bear viewing, hunting, birding and river adventures. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a good source of information on permits; travel to, from, and within ANWR; guides and keeping your footprint in this pristine wilderness to an absolute minimum.

It is crucial for visitors to keep their imprint low to keep ANWR a paradise for serious nature lovers. Teaming with wildlife, the arctic and subarctic ecosystems include gray wolves, wolverines, lynx, polar bears, caribou, muskoxen, black and brown bears, tundra swans, snow geese, Arctic graylings and Dolly Vardens. There are no recreational developments, no bridges, no signs and no roads.

Visitors to ANWR can not only take in the incredible natural beauty of the region but also the indigenous communities that have called this place home for centuries. The city of Kaktovik lies in the extreme north of the park on the Beaufort Sea, home to the Kaktovikmiut. Kaktovik does not cater to tourists (this fact alone is what brings many intrepid travelers to its snowy shores), and the Kaktovikmiut Natives are only open to travelers so long as you’re willing to purchase rooms in advance (there are no hotels or public campgrounds). There are seasonal locations where you can camp, but it requires speaking to the local residents for appropriate camping locations. Other indigenous communities are near the refuge, including Arctic Village and Venetie to the south, both of which include members of the Gwich’in Indian Tribe. Old Crow Village, home of the Vuntut Gwitchin, is due east of ANWR, in Yukon.

With the attendant risks of traveling in a territory that was protected to retain its wild nature, ANWR is a destination that has to be taken seriously. For more information, visit Arctic.FWS.gov/visinfo.htm to help plan your trip.

Notable Mentions

Glacier National Park, Montana - The Blackfeet used to control vast areas of the modern day park, as did the Salish and Kootenai Indians. NPS.gov/glac.

Canyon de Chelley, Arizona - One of the longest continuously inhabited areas in North America, it's home to a community of Navajo. NPS.gov/cach.

Everglades National Park, Florida - American Indians traversed this wild wetland and utilized its abundant resources.  NPS.gov/ever.

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