Best Base Camps

Bush Plane Camping (Alaska)
  |  Gorp.com
Base Camp Coordinates
Home Base: Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
Location: North of the Arctic Circle, accessible from the tiny settlement of Bettles (year-round population: about 30), where there is an airstrip and a lodge. Daily charter flights to Bettles leave from Fairbanks.
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Bush Plane Camping (Alaska)
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is one of the largest units in the national park system, with one of the smallest annual number of visitors. Only about 800 to 1,000 people venture into the park in any given year, with the average visitor staying for a whopping ten or 11 days. And why not, when it's so hard to reach and there's so much to see.

For highly experienced adventurers, a bush plane drop-off into the park and a week or more of ultimate wilderness camping can be a lifetime highlight, on par with trekking the Himalayas or climbing Kilimanjaro. Just the plane ride itself is magnificent, as you float over the precipitous walls of the Brooks Range, one of the most dramatically serrated and forbidding ranges in the world, with one after another of seemingly unclimbable peaks piercing the sky.

Choosing the best site to drop into is almost impossible. To a large extent, you can personalize your trip to do exactly what you want to do, although conditions vary greatly with the season and might force a change in plans. The National Park Service (907-692-5494 in Bettles, Alaska; www.nps.gov/gaar) can provide up-to-date info and recommend bush pilots who know the area and current conditions. While permits are not required, rangers suggest that you attend an information session on leave-no-trace camping and leave an itinerary and emergency contact information with them.

Two terrific drop-off areas are the Gates Bar, on the eastern side of the park. This gravel bed is just beneath the eponymous Gates of the Arctic at the North Fork of the Koyakuk River. Another great base camp is Circle Lake, near the Arrigetch Peaks in the west-central part of the park. After chilling by Circle Lake for a few days, you can then raft or canoe the Alatna River for a prearranged pick-up at Help Me Jack Lake (rent equipment in Bettles). If you don't have the skills to do this yourself, guides are also available.

Wildlife viewing is almost a given—from grizzly bears right down to the Alaska state bird, the mosquito. Regarding the former, proper food storage precautions must be taken for your safety and that of the bears. Canisters are recommended. Of the latter, take plenty of bug spray and avoid early July. According to locals, the best balance of good wildlife viewing (moose and caribou) and tolerable insects is late July through mid-August. Hunting and fishing both require permits, and shutterbugs should bring twice as much film (or twice as many memory cards) as they think they need.


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