National Park Getaway: Kobuk Valley National Park

By Lindsey Newhall, Park Ranger, Kobuk Valley National Park
Group of caribou crossing sand dunes
Caribou trekking across the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes is one of the many unique wildlife sighting visitors encounter at this remote national park.

NPS Photo / Susan A. Schmidt

No one visits Kobuk Valley National Park because it’s easy. A remote park in Alaska north of the Arctic Circle, Kobuk Valley rewards those intrepid enough to venture there. It’s the wonder and promise of true wilderness that draws you to Kobuk Valley. It’s the fish-filled, meandering Kobuk River and its tributaries, the lifeblood of the park. It’s the rich botanical diversity—the park is home to its own wildflower, the Kobuk locoweed, found nowhere else in the world. It’s the thrill of knowing you’ve visited one of the most distant, undeveloped national parks. It’s the rooted connection you feel when you crest a hill and see the same views as those who came 9,000 years before you.

But how do you set foot in a national park with no roads and no signs? One way is by air from a nearby city, like Kotzebue, where the park’s visitor center is located. You book your tickets in advance, having been warned flights are often delayed due to weather. Your flight leaves only an hour later than expected. Lucky you, the pilot says, and you climb into a seat directly behind the pilot, confident you won’t experience air sickness this time. From the sky, you scan the banks of the braided rivers for wildlife and spot a moose and her calf amid the spruce. The wild lands stretch to the horizon in every direction. Has the world always been this big?
Wing tip of a plane flying over green mountains
Part of the adventure is flying into the park on small airplanes offering stunning aerial views along the way.

NPS Photo / Tyler Teuscher

The small four-seater plane touches down on fields of sand, a smoother landing than you expect. The pilot cuts the engine and snaps open your door. You gingerly step down onto the solid earth. Sand cushions your feet and rolls into the distance, the dunes broken far away by spruce-studded forest. Maybe this is how you first arrive in Kobuk Valley National Park, and at one of its most iconic locations: the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes.

Relics of the last ice age, these dunes are 25 square miles of towering sand, an area larger than the island of Manhattan, and appear otherworldly when seen in the Arctic. The soft ground bears witness to the diversity of life in this harsh environment. On the fringes of the dunes, where lichen, willow, and spruce encroach, your footprints may align with those of moose, wolves, and bears. Each spring and autumn, the dunes are awash in caribou tracks, evidence of the annual migration of the mighty Western Arctic Caribou Herd, a quarter million strong.
Purple-colored kobuk locoweed flowers
The kobuk locoweed, Oxytropsis kobukensis, is found only in Kobuk Valley National Park.

NPS Photo

Maybe you don’t fly into the park. Maybe you travel by the Kobuk River, tracing a route first traveled by humans thousands of years ago. Onion Portage, a designated National Historic Landmark on the Kobuk River, has been a gathering place for the harvesting of caribou for hundreds of generations. The tradition continues today, with local Alaskan residents still feeding their families with caribou harvested at the river crossings.

There are no developed facilities in Kobuk Valley National Park—a discouragement for some, but an unequivocal temptation for those looking for true Alaskan wilderness. No matter your level of outdoor survival skills, summer adventures abound: boating, camping, backpacking, flightseeing, wildlife-viewing, photography, and fishing. Commercial businesses provide flights.

For those looking to experience a different side of Alaskan wilderness, the long Arctic winter brings both considerable challenges and great beauty to the land. Those with advanced Arctic winter survival skills and their own equipment can enjoy snow machining, skiing, and even dog mushing. Contact the park and start planning your adventure!

Last updated: September 18, 2017