Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve Overview

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Gates of the Arctic National Park
Gates of the Arctic National Park (Rich Reid_National Geogrpaphic_Getty)
Gates of the Arctic National Park

Established: 1980
Acreage: 8,472,506
Average Yearly Visitors: 4,800
Location: Central Brooks Range, northern Alaska

Contact Details
Gates of the Arctic National Park
National Park Service (Fairbanks Headquarters)
201 First Ave.
Fairbanks, AK 99701
Phone: 907-457-5752
E-mail: GAAR_Visitor_Information@nps.gov

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You know you must be heading somewhere incredible when you have to pass through stone gates thousands of feet high to get there—and the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve lives up to its impressive entryway.

The park's dramatic name was coined by legendary wilderness advocate and early far-north explorer Robert Marshall, who described two peaks, Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain, as massive gates opening into a region of mystery from Alaska's central Brooks Range into the arctic regions of the far north.

As any trip to the park will attest, Marshall wasn't simply exercising poetic license. The gates lead to a labyrinth of glaciated valleys and forbidding, snowcapped peaks and innumerable rivers running rampant through a landscape populated by caribou, sheep, wolves, and brown bears.

Wind, water, ice, and plate tectonics all played a part in sculpting the park's extremely varied landscape. Southerly foothills run smack into rows of mountains averaging 4,000 feet, some of which climax in peaks soaring to more than 7,000 feet high. At the Arctic Divide, the story is played out in reverse, culminating in tundra plain that stretches to the Arctic Ocean.

This is wilderness and recreation nirvana for the hardcore, where the backcountry backpacking, river running, mountaineering, and dogsledding is out-of-this-world.

Wander the Wilderness
Allowing that space is critical to a wilderness—space for animals to roam and for people to wander—Gates of the Arctic offers visitors an unparalleled wilderness experience. The park embraces more than 8.2 million total acres, approximately 7.2 million acres of which are designated as wilderness areas. Another essential wild element is the dominance of nature, and here again Gates of the Arctic scores high. In contrast to Denali National Park's six-digit annual visitation number, GAAR averages only 4,000 recreational visits per year. In such a wild place as GAAR—and with no established trails to speak of—backpackers may pass through these arctic gates with the feeling of being the first humans ever to set foot there.

More on hiking in Gates of the Arctic NP

Fish Arctic Waters
The fish populations in arctic waters, although seemingly abundant, have very low growth rates and productivity—thus they are highly susceptible to overfishing. At the same time, many fish in this park have never seen a fly. Gates of the Arctic's Kobuk River offers world-record angling for sheefish, whose fighting ability and resemblance to saltwater tarpon have earned them the nickname "tarpon of the north." The Kobuk and Koyukuk rivers are major chum salmon spawning streams; sheefish also spawn in the Kobuk. Arctic grayling is found in most of the park's permanent watercourses, as well as those lakes that have an outlet stream. In general, anglers will find a large variety of fish in Gates of the Arctic—lake trout, arctic char, northernpike, whitefish, salmon, long-nosed sucker, burbot, nine-spined stickleback, and slimy sculpin—as well as 24 hours of daylight to catch them in during summer months.

More on fishing in Gates of the Arctic NP

See the Arctic Landscape
The Continental Divide begins its life as the Rocky Mountains in the Lower 48 and arcs north through Canada to become Alaska's Brooks Range. This Arctic Divide sets the stage for Gates of the Arctic's delicate balance of tundra, boreal forest, coastal plains, and mountains. South of the Brooks Range—which receives more rain and warmer temperatures—grows the taiga forest (Russian for "land of little sticks"). To the north, tundra—i.e., rolling treeless plains—covers the landscape. Treeline hovers at 1,000 feet, leaving most mountainsides barren of vegetation. In this semi-arid, arctic region, short growing seasons prevent rapid growth. Some plant species grow at a rate of just one inch per every 200 years; a four-inch tree trunk may represent over three hundred years of growth.

Paddle a Wild and Remote River
Gates of the Arctic offers dozens of navigable waterways and half a dozen National Wild and Scenic Rivers—both wild whitewater and scenic flatwater trips provide a way to explore the wilderness without impacting it too much. Because canoes and kayaks are more difficult to fly in, many visitors choose to hit the river by raft—the level of difficulty ranges from easy floats to Class IV and V rapids. All paddlers should be aware of weather conditions and water levels while traveling through this remote wilderness. The 83-mile, wild and scenic Alatna River offers a relaxing cruise along the snowcapped Brooks Range and hardwood forest, and is also the migration route for arctic caribou. The North Fork of the Koyukuk River runs 102 miles between glacial valleys and rugged peaks—including the Endicott Mountains, Frigid Crags, and Boreal Mountain—and provides a challenging whitewater excursion along the south flank of the Arctic Divide.

More on paddling in Gates of the Arctic NP

Find Arctic Birds and Wildlife
Although its animals are spread very thinly across the park, Gates of the Arctic hosts a wide variety of birds and wildlife. One hundred and thirty-three species of birds—such as eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, jaegers, and the northern shrike—have been spotted in the park and preserve. Arctic peregrine falcons, only recently removed from the endangered species list, also nest in the area. One of the park’s 36 species of mammals, wolves, occur throughout GAAR and travel in packs or family groups as they hunt. Caribou range over the entire western arctic region, while moose are most common in the forested regions south of the Brooks Range; they often move to alpine habitats during the summer. Brown bear populations concentrate along major streams and rivers within the park; these barren ground grizzlies are normally found in open alpine or tundra habitats.

More on birding and wildlife in Gates of the Arctic NP


Published: 22 Oct 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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