Kobuk Valley National Park

cloudsKobuk Valley National Park is so remote there are no visitor facilities in the park at all. Kobuk Valley National Park is so remote that you have to bring your own sign to get the iconic national park sign photo. Kobuk Valley National Park is so remote a visit definitely requires planning. Basically the only ways to access this park are by small plane or boat on the Kobuk River. At 1,750,000 acres, Kobuk is the ninth largest national park and one of the least visited.

Located 35 miles above the Arctic Circle, Kobuk calls to mind images of snow and ice but a summertime visit proves that preconception very wrong. In the Kobuk Valley, the boreal forest gives way to the tundra. The Kobuk River bisects the park with the Baird Mountains to the north and the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes to the south. Kobuk is home to many animals, including grizzly bears, wolves, foxes, moose, Dall’s sheep and the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, the largest herd in America.

flying back to Kotzebue near Kotzebue

In researching for the trip, it quickly became apparent that a trip to this park located entirely north of the Arctic Circle would be an adventure. It is remote and wild with no roads, no specific entrances or campgrounds. Everything we read emphasized that you are completely on your own in this park and you need to be prepared to be self-sufficient. The ever-present “weather-permitting” applies to every step of the way.

We flew to Kotzebue, Alaska, a small native village on the Chukchi Sea. This village is located on a small peninsula so landing there involves water on pretty much all sides. In Kotzebue, the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center houses a museum as well as the National Park service administrative center. The Nullaġvik Hotel served as our base during our stay and we were presented with certificates stating that we had journeyed north of the Arctic Circle.

Kotzebue Nullagvik Hotel

The site of Kotzebue, or Qikiktagruk (as it is called in Iñupiaq), has been occupied by Iñupiat Eskimos for at least 9000 years and is believed to be the oldest settlement in both North and South America. “Qikiktagruk” was the hub of ancient Arctic trading routes long before European contact due to its coastal location near a number of rivers.

As this was part of a more extensive trip, we were not prepared to backpack and camp so Tom arranged for an air taxi to take us into the park, drop us off for a few hours of hiking and then return to pick us up. Of course, here again the “weather-permitting” applies.

dunes2 Great Kobuk Sand Dunes

The night before our flight into the park I did not sleep well. I kept having visions of being out there completely by ourselves with no communication whatsoever and bears or caribou appearing. Thoughts of our bear spray having a range of about eight feet, weather stranding us there for days, and any number of unknowns did not make for a restful night. (Understand that I’m usually the one who can sleep through anything.) Tom had put together a very small survival kit to carry in his backpack and of course we had rain gear, gps, first aid kit, snacks, water, etc. so the chance of anything really bad happening was actually quite unlikely.

landed on the dunes and he's off

When the pilot handed us a fold-out wooden national park sign to take with us, we knew we were in for a different experience. He landed on the sand dunes, dropped us off and took off to continue on a flightseeing tour with another passenger. As the plane disappeared over the horizon, we set the sign out and took the picture, shouldered our backpacks and set out for a hike on the dunes.

your own sign sign

Somehow it seems very strange to be hiking on sand dunes and know you are north of the Arctic circle. These dunes soar up to two hundred feet high and the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes cover 25 square miles. Great Kobuk Sand Dunes constitute the largest active sand dunes found in the Arctic.

dune grass Kovet Creek

Kovet Creek acts as a dividing line between the dunes and the forest and tundra. The dunes were formed from the windblown outwash of melting glaciers and a special combination of topography and eastern and northern winds keep the dunes moving and inhospitable to vegetation. We saw some tracks but no animals.

tracks Kovet Creek2

As afternoon clouds began to form and move closer and closer, the “weather-permitting” warning came to mind and we were quite happy to see our plane in the distance.

more clouds he's back

He set down again on the dunes and we scrambled aboard for the flight back to Kotzebue. It was definitely a day to remember.

clouds gathering