Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Overview

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge protects the most spectacular array of arctic plants, wildlife, and land forms in the world. Designed to embrace the range of the great Porcupine caribou herd, the Arctic is also home to free-roaming herds of muskox, Dall sheep, packs of wolves, and such solitary species as wolverines and polar and grizzly bears. Why this concentration? Well, even though the refuge is immense, the habitats are actually extremely compressed. The highest mountain lies just 50 miles from the sea coast. In between range the lower peaks, glacial valleys, foothills, and the fabled coastal plain.

The coastal plain comprises the smallest part of the refuge, but it is biologically the most important. This narrow strip of tundra measuring 15 to 40 miles wide is the birthing ground of not only caribou but also polar bears, grizzlies, Artic wolves, and the highly-endangered, shaggy muskox.

The Brooks Range serves as the backbone of the refuge. This range is the northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountain chain. It stretches for 600 miles in length by 200 miles in width across the entire Alaskan Arctic.

It might seem that with all this richness, the ecosystem is resilient. But that is far from the case. Winter on the refuge is long and severe; summer is brief and intense. Snow usually covers the ground at least nine months of the year. It may take 300 years for a white spruce at treeline to reach a diameter of five inches. Surprisingly, two-foot willow shrubs may be 50 to 100 years old.

Raft the Canning River
A trip down one of the refuge's rivers is perhaps the best way to sample its diverse habitats and inhabitants. The Canning River is possibly the most popular trip in the refuge. The Canning River is a swift river that passes through four mountain ranges on its way to the Arctic Ocean. A typical journey takes ten days. Along the way there are plenty of opportunities to stop and observe stunning wildlife.

Hike the Brooks Range
The Brooks Range can safely be called a trackless wilderness. It can't safely be called safe. Its isolation, the severity of the weather, and the ruggedness of the landscape means that hiking here is life on the edge. The mountains are characterized by steep rock pinnacles and broad glacial valleys. Valley-to-valley access is provided at low passes. To hike these reaches, you need honed orientation skills and solid wilderness survival experience. What you get in return is the hiking trip of a lifetime.

More on hiking in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Revel in the Wildlife
The Arctic offers a rich pageant of wildlife including 140 bird species. It protects a large portion of the migration routes of the Porcupine caribou herd (180,000 animals)—one of the two largest herds in Alaska. The caribou migrate more than a thousand miles, from wintering grounds south of the Brooks Range to calving grounds on the northern coastal plain of the refuge and the Yukon Territory. Any trip to the refuge is sure to provide hundreds of "wow" experiences.

Published: 6 Oct 2008 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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