Climb almost any ridge in Gates of the Arctic National Park and you will find yourself gazing upon range after range of unbelievably jagged peaks that slice into a sky filled with brooding clouds. Separated by these serrated mountains are lovely forested valleys cut by meandering rivers. This is a haunting, timeless land, where you feel deeply the call of nature and know the possibility that the valley beyond the next ridge is a place where no person has ever walked before.
The park lies entirely above the Arctic Circle and includes the heart of the awesome Brooks Range, one of the world's northernmost mountain systems. Six hundred miles long, the great range was a mighty barrier to travel until construction of the oil pipeline and the accompanying Dalton Highway.
The vast territory of this national park -- the second largest and the farthest north -- embraces parts of two very different worlds. The southern slopes of the mountains are covered with scraggly black spruce forests, called taiga, which is Russian for "land of little sticks." These spunky trees struggle for survival in river valleys at the earth's northernmost limit for trees.
From the northern flanks of the mountains is mile after mile of treeless arctic tundra. This is a vast region of startling and unexpected contrasts. For nine months of the year, the great arctic plain is one of the most hostile places on earth. The wind blows incessantly, and the temperature sometimes drops to 80 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) in the perpetual night of an Arctic winter.
Then suddenly in mid-June, with the sun above the horizon for 24 hours each day, the tundra comes alive with wildflowers. Almost everywhere, grasses and sedges, along with white reindeer moss, carpet the ground. Willows grow in jumbles where the land is soggy from the melting snow of the late arctic spring.
Along with the Noatak National Preserve, Gates of the Arctic preserves much of the habitat of the western arctic caribou. These large deer with magnificent antlers spend their summers on the tundra, where they bear their young. With the coming of winter, the caribou migrate in herds numbering in the thousands to feeding grounds hundreds of miles to the south. Also roaming the severe landscape in search of food are brown bears, wolves, wolverines, and foxes.
Today, visitors to the park find it as primitive as ever, a place where it is still possible to sit beneath a tree that never before sheltered a human being. Although hiking is a rewarding experience in the alpine regions of the park, rivers that have been followed for centuries by Eskimos and caribou still provide the major travel routes through Gates of the Arctic.
Gates of the Arctic National Park Photo Opportunities
The park is filled with range after range of jagged peaks, some of which enclose forested valleys or picturesque lakes that seem lost in time. Because of the awesome scenery, opportunities for snapshots abound at Gates of the Arctic. Here are some visitor favorites:
- Gates of the Arctic: Lying between Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain, the two peaks that comprise Gates of the Arctic are unusually steep.
- Alatna River: Alatna River has given many visitors a stunning tour of the park. The river runs gently down from the treeless Arctic Divide in the northwest corner of the park through lovely tundra to a confluence with the Koyukuk River in a spectacular forested valley.
- Arrigetch Peaks: The Arrigetch Peaks, which are reached via a float plane trip to Circle Lake, are west of Bettles. These smooth and steep granite peaks lure many mountain and rock climbers. To the north are lovely mountain lakes, a scattering of diminutive cottonwoods, and a vast wilderness of pale-green tundra, which turns all shades of red, yellow, and orange in the fall.
- The Kobuk River: The Kobuk, an excellent float river, was the site of a minor gold rush at the turn of the last century. It courses south and west from its headwaters in the Endicott Mountains and Walker Lake, passing through two scenic canyons.
This remote area was brought to the attention of the U.S. government by conservationist Robert Marshall, who explored the park in the 1930s. To read about Marshall's foray and the subsequent establishment of Gates of the Arctic as a national park, go to the next page.