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An Overlander’s Guide to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve 

 September 11, 2023

By  Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

Gates of the Arctic National ParkGates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve encompasses over 8 million acres of Alaska’s remote Brooks Range, bounded by no roads and accessible only by air or on foot.

This rugged wilderness of glaciated mountains, arctic tundra, and boreal forest offers complete solitude, stunning scenic beauty, and chances to view wildlife like caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and grizzlies in their natural setting.

For the dedicated overlander seeking a true backcountry adventure, Gates of the Arctic National Park presents a rewarding but challenging destination.

Without any marked trails or easy access points, trips here require careful advance planning, self-reliance, and a willingness to fly or hike into roadless terrain.

Those properly equipped and prepared, however, will be rewarded with the overlanding experience of a lifetime.

This guide provides essential information for overlanders seeking to explore Gates of the Arctic National Park on their own terms.

With tips on accessing the park, recommended routes, camps and gear, best practices for minimum impact, and more, our aim is to prepare overlanders to safely immerse themselves in the sweeping wilderness of America’s northernmost national park.

For those ready for a remote adventure, Gates of the Arctic offers an unparalleled Alaskan overlanding experience.

When to Visit Gates of the Arctic National Park

Gates of the Arctic National Park BackcountryGates of the Arctic sees dramatic seasonal shifts that greatly impact accessibility and conditions within the park. Carefully timing your visit is crucial for a safe and enjoyable overlanding experience. Following are my recommendations:

Summer (June through early September)

The summer months offer the best opportunity for exploring Gates of the Arctic. Daytime highs average 60-70°F, with cooler temperatures at night. From early June onward, overlanders can experience near 24 hours of daylight to hike or paddle extended distances.

It’s vital to be prepared for extreme cold, snow, and river ice well into July, especially at higher elevations and in shaded valleys. Pack ample insulating and waterproof layers, and consult with local experts before attempting early season pass crossings.

Mosquitoes and other biting insects peak in July, so bring effective repellents and nets.

Fall (Mid-September through October)

Fall brings stunning gold and crimson colors to Gates of the Arctic’s tundra and forests, along with increased chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Day length rapidly decreases starting in August, limiting travel, but temperatures remain relatively mild.

By late September, expect freezing conditions overnight and travel-impeding snow accumulations. Mind the growing urgency to complete trips and evacuate before winter storms set in.

Winter (November through May)

The Arctic winter promises frigid temperatures plunging to -40°F, months of darkness, and heavy snowfall. Travel becomes extremely dangerous and demanding.

That said, winter camping and expeditions in Gates of the Arctic offer perhaps the ultimate overlanding experience. Seek local guidance, pack extreme cold weather gear, and plan redundant emergency contingencies before attempting any winter activities here.

Shoulder Seasons (April, May and November)

These shoulder season months bring a mix of winter and summer conditions. Travel is difficult due to lingering snow and ice, but increased daylight enables more coverage.

Overlanders aiming for solitude or wildlife viewing may relish the minimal crowds, but buckling down for harsh and unpredictable weather is a must. Do your research and prep for extremes ranging from blizzards to freezing rain before setting out.

Getting to Gates of the Arctic National Park

Gates of the Arctic National Park and PreserveWith no roads leading into Gates of the Arctic, visiting overlanders must fly or hike into the park’s rugged interior. The starting point for most trips is Fairbanks International Airport, home to the largest regional airport. From there, small aircraft transport visitors to remote villages and trailheads on the park’s outskirts.

By Air

Many overlanders opt to charter air taxis from gateway communities to access optimal spots deep within Gates of the Arctic. Key flight services options include:

  • Warbelow’s Air Ventures from Fairbanks to Bettles and Anaktuvuk Pass. They also offer flightseeing tours of the Brooks Range.
  • Wright Air Service provides charters to Anaktuvuk Pass from Fairbanks or Coldfoot.
  • Coldfoot-based Coyote Air offers charter flights to remote landing strips like Arrigetch Creek.
  • Brooks Range Aviation has a fleet of aircraft to support adventures and transport gear deep into Gates of the Arctic backcountry.

By Foot

For overlanders looking to walk into Gates of the Arctic on their own steam, several trailheads offer access:

  • The rugged John River Trail starts 40 miles north of Bettles off the Dalton Highway. Hikers can trek over mountain passes straight into the park interior.
  • From Coldfoot, the 60-mile Arrigetch Creek Trail leads through boreal forest to access the high peaks of the Arrigetch region.
  • The Anaktuvuk Pass provides a gateway to foot routes across the central Brooks Range to areas like the North Fork Koyukuk River.

No matter how you access this roadless wilderness, be sure to file backcountry travel plans, carry proper maps and gear, and remain flexible for the fickle conditions of the Alaskan bush.

Planning Your Overland Adventure

Gates of the Arctic National Park Mountain RangeAs mentioned previously, overlanding to Gates of the Arctic isn’t possible due to its remote wilderness location. However, overlanders can still embark on an incredible overland adventure in the surrounding areas that are accessible by vehicles. Just remember that careful planning and preparation is key to a safe and sustainable trip.

Choosing Access Points

Consider which access points best align with your overlanding goals. The Dalton Highway near Coldfoot enables overlanders to drive north along the rugged haul road before venturing into the backcountry on foot. Flying into more remote villages like Anaktuvuk Pass or Bettles limits vehicle transport but opens up more direct wilderness access.

Securing Permits

Research permits required for camping, transport, recreation, and other activities around Gates of the Arctic. Bureau of Land Management lands require free short-term camping permits, while state and native corporation lands may have their own access policies. Be sure to file flight plans and detailed itineraries before venturing into the park’s air-accessible interior.

Dialing in Gear and Supplies

Pack proper provisions and gear for the conditions. Lightweight backpacking equipment will be essential for hikes within the park after arriving at air access points. For overlanding portions, have a reliable high-clearance vehicle outfitted with roof top tents, cooking supplies, repair equipment, traction aids, and other key provisions organized through on-board storage.

Emergency Planning

Detail emergency action plans accounting for the area’s remoteness. Carry a satellite communicator like a Garmin inReach to access help from beyond the limited radio range. Identify evacuation routes and shelter locations. Share detailed itineraries with trusted contacts who can coordinate assistance if you fail to check in.

With careful prep work and route planning using the available frontcountry access points, overlanders can stage incredible adventures around and within America’s northernmost national park, while protecting its fragile wilderness character.

Exploring Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

Gates of the Arctic National Park MountainsideOnce equipped and ready, a wealth of spectacular sights and activities await overlanders adventuring in and around Gates of the Arctic. Here are some of the highlights:

Scenic Drives and Views

While overlanding by vehicle is limited to the areas surrounding the park, the scenic vistas accessible are simply breathtaking. The drive north along the Dalton Highway offers non-stop panoramas of the Brooks Range’s sawtooth peaks.

Stop at the Arctic Circle or Coldfoot Camp to take in the views. Flightseeing tours provide aerial perspectives of the park’s towering granite spires and massive glaciers.

Hiking the Backcountry

Step into the wilderness by embarking on rugged cross-country hikes once inside the park. Even short hikes around base camps like Arrigetch Creek open up spectacular valley views.

Multi-day treks across high mountain passes let overlanders immerse themselves deep in the solitude of this roadless terrain. Just be sure to brush up on orientation and survival skills first.

Wildlife Viewing

Gates of the Arctic National Park WildlifeKeep eyes peeled for unique arctic species while exploring the tundra and boreal forests.

Herds of caribou roam valleys and ridges. Wolves and foxes patrol the landscapes. Dall sheep cling impossibly to steep mountainsides. And lumbering grizzly bears hunt and forage across the broad wilderness.

Remember to give these wild residents adequate space and respect.

Backpacking to Backcountry Camps

With proper gear and preparation, overnights in the park’s remote reaches offer the ultimate adventure. Plan minimum-impact camps near sights like the Arrigetch Peaks or the headwaters of the Noatak River.

Fall asleep under the glow of a midnight sun in summer or the dancing Northern Lights in winter. Just be ready to be fully self-reliant in this roadless backcountry.

Fishing: Reeling in Arctic Char

Angles can battle hard-fighting trout and arctic char in the park’s pristine waters. Consult with local guides to target fish like grayling in creeks cascading from the glaciated heights.

Be sure to acquire proper fishing licenses, respect seasons and limits, and follow strict catch-and-release regulations when on public lands.

Photography: Capturing Natural Beauty

Gates of the Arctic serves up boundless potential for landscape and nature photography. Capture the intricate tapestry of wildflowers blooming across the tundra each summer.

Frame the glowing reds and golds of autumn colors spreading through valleys. And snap the rivers and waterfalls that slice through ancient peaks still carved by eons of glacial movement. This park provides a lifetime’s worth of spectacular subjects.

Stargazing in Gates of the Arctic National Park

Northern Lights at Gates of the Arctic National ParkThe phenomenal darkness of Gates of the Arctic’s night skies opens up breathtaking stargazing opportunities. Far from any light pollution, overlanders can gaze upon the cosmos in awe.

As summer’s midnight sun dips behind the jagged horizon, the endless arctic twilight gives way to vistas filled with millions of glittering stars across the Milky Way. And throughout the year, sightings of the magical Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights – provide the ultimate cosmic display as they dance in curtains of green, purple, and red hues overhead.

For overlanders spending nights in this wilderness, the stellar show overhead in Gates of the Arctic is unrivaled.

With mindful preparation and respect for regulations, this remote slice of Alaska promises adventure, solitude, and memories to cherish for all who venture into its sweeping wilderness.

Safety Tips and Considerations

While exploring Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, safety should always be your top priority. Here are some important safety tips and considerations:

  • Be prepared for extreme weather conditions. The Arctic climate can be harsh and unpredictable. Dress in layers, bring appropriate gear for cold temperatures, and be prepared for rain, snow, and high winds.
  • Wildlife encounters are possible in the park. Keep a safe distance from animals, do not approach or feed them, and store your food securely to avoid attracting wildlife.
  • Leave no trace. Practice responsible camping and follow the principles of Leave No Trace to minimize your impact on the environment. Pack out all trash and dispose of waste properly.
  • Be aware of river crossings. If you encounter rivers or streams during your overland journey, assess the water conditions and depth before crossing. Consider using a packraft or other watercraft for safe river crossings.

Stay informed about current park conditions and any alerts or warnings issued by the National Park Service. Check the park’s website or contact the visitor centers for the latest information.

Conclusion

For overlanders seeking the ultimate wilderness adventure, few places in America’s public lands system compare to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. The sheer raw beauty, isolation, and boundless opportunities for exploration in this remote corner of Alaska are unmatched.

Yet venturing into and through this wild landscape requires diligent preparation, backcountry skills, and respect for the extreme conditions and fragile environment. While vehicles can only access the park’s outskirts, dedicated overlanders willing to fly or hike into the rugged interior will find journeys of a lifetime.

Each river forged, mountain climbed, and vast tundra valley traversed promises once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The freedom to chart your own course and operate on nature’s terms hearkens back to the essence of overlanding.

And the adventures shared with fellow explorers, whether human or wildlife, will spark treasured memories long after leaving the Arctic’s gate.

Yet it’s important to tread lightly, leave no trace, and protect Gates of the Arctic for future generations ready to answer the call of the wild. With sound preparation and ethics, the park will continue offering life-changing adventures into America’s last great and untouched wilderness for years to come.

For those ready to embrace the challenge, Gates of the Arctic presents the adventure of a lifetime.

Have you visited Gates of the Arctic National Park? If so, what did I miss in this overlander’s guide?

Share your thoughts in the comment section below. Thanks for your input! It is greatly appreciated!

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland


Dark Sky Overland is an overland lifestyle brand that was created to support the various trips I take to National Parks and other designated Dark Sky Parks within the United States. It was also born out of a strong desire to simplify life after my wife of over 24 years passed away from a three year battle with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). You can learn more about my story at https://darkskyoverland.com/about/.

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

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