May 15th, 2012 by Carl
Well, it’s well and truly spring here in Alaska, and the summer/fall hiking season right around the corner. So for anyone heading north this summer, this page might be of interest to you. Gates of the Arctic National Park is one of the less visited national parks in the state, which makes it a great place to explore and “get away”. Miles upon miles of mountain wilderness, boreal forest and alpine tundra make it a diverse and fascinating hiking region.
At the same time, it’s also a challenging expedition. Logistics for getting there, getting ‘in’ to the park, hiking across muskeg, dealing with mosquitoes, bears, rivers, and trailess terrain can be intimidating. So let’s look at a few options you might want to consider.
Getting to Gates of the Arctic
You’re options for hiking in Gates of the Arctic National Park, for most folks, start with Fairbanks. You want to head north, either up the Dalton highway (Haul Rd), or fly. If you fly, my recommendation is to fly directly to Bettles; you can catch a regularly scheduled charter flight, so it’s not super-expensive like a charter flight can be. If you take the Dalton, either ride up to Coldfoot/Wiseman, or stop at Prospect Creek (maybe 75 miles south of Coldfoot). You can fly from Prospect Creek landing strip in to Bettles (schedule with your air taxi well before leaving Fairbanks, you can’t schedule this on arrival,as there is no one there). If you go all the way up to Coldfoot, you can hook up with an air taxi service there and fly in to the backcountry.
There is a Park Service Visitor Center there in Coldfoot where you can get some more information; but don’t expect to get a lot of trail beta there. Gather that well before you start your trip. Typically, the folks in the VC aren’t going to be able to offer you a lot of hiking information for Gates of the Arctic National Park. You’ll need to check in though, and either pick up or show them your Bear Resistant Food Canister (BRFCs are requisite for hiking/backpacking in Gates of the Arctic National Park).
Another option is to simply start hiking west from the road. The best bet for this is to head a little further north, up near Wiseman, or even further on up toward Atigan Pass. It’s arduous going, but can save you the cost of a charter flight.
So where to go in Gates of the Arctic
One popular area is the Arrigetch Peaks area. Awesome, awesome scenery. But my first ever hiking trip in Gates was right around the North Fork of the Koyukuk River, through the “Gates” themselves. Frigid Crags and Mt. Boreal. Explorer Bob Marshall named these two mountains “Gates of the Arctic” in 1929 when he explored the Central Brooks Range area. Both of these 2 regions offer some great hiking trips. But really, the park is your oyster. I don’t want to point anyone to a particular region, because part of the fun is finding your own hike. The options here are endless, so put your nose in a couple of maps and see what looks doable. Then, talk to a backcountry ranger as you start planning and see what they say about the hiking trip you’re planning. Or, drop me a noteand I’ll be glad to offer you my thoughts on the itinerary.
How long for a hiking trip in Gates of the Arctic
Gates of the Arctic National Park is enormous; 8,472,506 acres, or 13,238 sq. miles. Thought not all “designated wilderness”, virtually every square inch of the park constitutes what we call ‘wilderness’. It’s big, broad country, mountains looping over more mountains, rivers crawling their way through the landscape, and no maintained trails. So you’re on your own. My advice, is to allow double what you think you’ll need to cover the ground you’re planning on hiking. If you think it’s a 5 day hike from Point A to Point B, allow 10. The hiking is invariably more arduous than you think it will be, and if it’s not, you’ll never run out of options for sidehikes and dayhikes along the way. You won’t be bored hiking up here.
I recommend a minimum of one week, simply because it’s so expensive and time-consuming to get here, you may as well give yourself time to enjoy it. A 3-4 day hike here isn’t a cost-effective choice, in my opinion. You want to allow a day either side of your trip for delays with your air taxi, etc.
Backcountry travel options in Gates of the Arctic
If you can, bring a packraft. A great benefit to a trip in a place with so many miles of rivers. if not, consider basecamping and hiking, or a combination of backpacking and basecamping along the way; i.e., spend 2 or 3 nights per campsite and do some hiking off the side valleys and ridges along the way. That’s a better choice than simply trying to go direct from A -> B, I think.
Preparing for your hiking trip
Be prepared for river crossings. Be prepared for bugs. Be prepared for bears. Be prepared for snow. Be prepared for +90 deg F weather. Be prepared to get lost. Be prepared for some tough hiking. Bushwhacking is a challenge, and you’ll likely run into muskeg, willow, dwarf birch and alder along the way, all of which will slow you down. Way down. Be prepared for steep ascents and descents. Be prepared to turn around. Be prepared to expect what you might never expect. Hiking in a wilderness like Gates of the Arctic National Park will very probably bring you all that, and a whole, whole lot more. You’ll love it.
I would consider hiking poles just mandatory for this kind of terrain, for pretty much everyone. You’ll likely be hiking over some very diverse terrain, from moraine and boulder fields, talus and scree, muskeg, tundra, spruce forest, up steep mountains, sidehilling steep mountains, etc, and there’s simply no substitute for extra balance. Just go ahead and bring yourself some hiking poles. Also, good rain gear; you may get lucky and have awesome weather your whole trip, but you may also hike through 10 days of rain. So bring a solid tent, cook shelter, rain gear and pack cover. Most of this stuff is pretty standard, and you may want to look over the gear category posts for more and more specific information. Here’s my 2010 backpacking gear list, for example.
Remember, you’re on your own out here. So caution first, each and every time. Prevention is the best ‘fix it’ you’ll find out here, so travel carefully. Even with the latest and greatest sat phone and communications technology, there’s a very real possibility that any assistance may be days away; weather still rules #1 in Alaska. So be careful, carry a solid basic Life Support system, first aid kid, and know how to use it.
This wilderness is a rarely traveled region, and though it’s a harsh environment, it’s also very fragile. your impact will easily be noticed, So keep your group size small, your gear light, and follow the best “Leave No Trace” practices you can.
Enjoy hiking in Gates of the Arctic