Kobuk Valley National Park

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Kobuk Valley is not your ordinary national park. You'll find no roads, no snack shacks, and no parking facilities within the park. Trails don't exist, neither do campgrounds. Not even Kobuk Valley's park headquarters is in Kobuk Valley; it's in Kotzebue, Alaska, an airplane ride away. Daunting as these limitations sound (as well they should), there is no limit to the untouched beauty and peace you will find there.

As the park's southernmost border lies 26 miles above the Arctic Circle, it goes without saying that Kobuk's few visitors aren't your average tourists. They tend to be skilled backcountry explorers familiar with surviving high winds, rain, and snow—and that's in the summer months. Winter visits are recommended only to outdoorspeople experienced in arctic camping and survival techniques. No trip should be undertaken without consulting the park's ranger staff (among their recommended essentials: a signal mirror and smoke flares).

That said, the Kobuk Valley is a remarkable place to experience. Nestled between the Baird Mountains to the north and the Waring Mountains to the south, it is full of geological anomalies and unusual plant life, relics from the days when Asia and North America were one. The valley and surrounding terrain will facilitate almost any outdoor activity. You can backpack, boat, camp, fish, observe wildlife, and stargaze under a sky like no other you have seen. No matter where you roam, your footsteps will likely be the first to tread this virgin territory.

Backpack Arctic Sand Dunes
The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes lie 40 miles above the Arctic Circle, yet summer temperatures there can soar to 100 degrees Fahrenheit! One of Alaska's true oddities, in some places, the sand stands 100 feet high. The three clusters of dunes within the park—the Great Kobuk, the Little Kobuk, and the Hunt River Sand Dunes—cover 25 square miles and constitute the largest active sand dunes within arctic latitudes.

Cavort with Caribou
Amigaiksivik—the Eskimo word for August—is the best month to visit Kobuk Valley for many reasons. Unquestionably, the greatest of these are the caribou. Imagine anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 of these magnificent animals and their newborns, headed south from their summer birthing grounds to wait out the winter in warmer climes. Known as the "nomads of the north," the caribou continually wander 140,000 square miles of northwest Alaska and make this same journey across the Kobuk River every year.

Fish with the Locals
Kobuk Valley is home to world-class fishing, the best of which occurs from July to September when the fish are running. Twenty-five fish species occur within the park, including three of the five species of pacific salmon: chum, king, and pink. Among the park's many rivers, the Kobuk is by far the most easily accessible. Rangers warn: "Expect that you will have to give up your fishing hole to a bear at some time during your trip." Best to accept defeat gracefully.

Paddle the Kobuk
From its origin in Walker Lake to its outlet in Kotzebue Sound, the Kobuk River is completely navigable. It is a paddler's dream, a connected series of small lakes, with low riverbanks and endless, breathtaking scenery for miles on both sides. You may encounter anything from Native fishermen to fossils embedded in rocks lining the river, and will have ample views of a variety of terrain: mountains, tundra, dunes, and marshes. Five-, seven-, and nine-day trips are all feasible within park boundaries.

Camp at an Ancient Crossroads
Onion Portage has been a shortcut for Native fishermen and hunters for thousands of years. Just off the Kobuk River near the eastern border of the park, Onion Portage has more than 70 distinct stratified cultural layers that document 12,500 years of human encampments, making it one of the most important archaeological sites in North America. Although it falls within the borders of the park, Onion Portage is owned by local tribes and is still used as a major caribou hunting site. It is best to set up camp across the river or several hundred yards away, paddling the site or hiking alongside it by day.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 9 Aug 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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