National Park Getaway: Noatak National Preserve

By Nicole Shepherd, Education Specialist, Western Arctic National Parklands

Green northern lights span a starry sky over a yellow tent with the silhouette of mountains in the background
Northern lights are visible at night from September through April.

NPS / Boris Koeten

If you are seeking true adventure, look no further than the remote, scenic landscapes of Noatak National Preserve, where the wildlife outnumber human visitors. Although the Arctic carries a reputation for harsh, unlivable conditions, the preserve is actually bustling with life. Since prehistoric times, unique plants and animals have made this place home. This ecosystem has been richly connected with Inupiaq culture for nearly as long, allowing people to subsist from the land for thousands of years. In summer, the midnight sun shines all night long. And in winter, the northern lights dance across starry dark skies.

At nearly 250,000 individuals, the Western Arctic Caribou Herd migrates through the preserve grazing on lichen and other tundra plants. Grizzly bears spend their summers gorging themselves on sweet berries and fatty salmon. Migratory birds make their way from all continents to the ponds and forests of Noatak National Preserve each summer to mate and enjoy the bountiful tundra. In contrast, the hearty raven weathers the harsh winter winds to survive here year-round. A variety of other mammals and birds are also uniquely adapted to this environment including foxes, wolves, musk oxen, ptarmigan, snow shoe hare, moose, Dall sheep, wolverine, marten, and voles.

A group of caribou stand side by side next to the Noatak River on a gravel bar.
During the fall, caribou migrate south through Noatak National Preserve crossing the many mountains and rivers along the way.

NPS / Mike Thompson

All species—animals, plants, and humans alike—seem to be drawn to the life-giving Noatak River and its watershed. This Wild and Scenic River flows for 425 undisturbed miles through sprawling mountain landscapes. With its tributaries, it is the largest river basin in America that is still virtually unaffected by human activities. Here you can experience a river in its rawest form. Those experienced in the backcountry enjoy float trips along the Noatak, sometimes lasting months. Hiking to the peaks of nearby mountains offers a break from the boat, a chance to stretch your legs, and epic views. Some don’t even bother with the boat at all and backpack across the endless ridges. Anglers are able to cast to their heart’s content, catching Dolly Varden, grayling, and salmon.

Although Noatak National Preserve draws adventurers from across the globe, those most connected to this land have deep roots. The Inupiaq people have lived in this region and used its resources for thousands of years. Local subsistence users and the National Park Service work closely with each other to ensure a mutual respect for nature so that future generations can continue to use and enjoy the plentiful resources. Visiting this rich cultural landscape is a chance to experience a piece of the living history of the Inupiaq people firsthand.

A person sits in a canoe paddling along a river forward as snow falls, creating a layer of white on all the gear packed in the boat
Even in August, unexpected weather conditions, such as snow, can make travel difficult.

NPS / Darren Doderer

Logistics and unexpected weather can make visiting Noatak National Preserve difficult, but with plenty of planning and a flexible mindset, a trip here is the adventure of a lifetime. All journeys to the preserve begin with a bush pilot carrying you to your destination as you stare out the window in awe of the vast and wild scenery. Don’t forget to bring your camera! Itis unsafe to fly small planes in bad weather conditions, so itis a good idea to allow a few extra days in your travel plans. While the stunning Noatak wilderness is very inviting, it is important to consider all the safety concerns that come with travel in the backcountry.

Make sure to include a stop at the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center, located in Kotzebue. The museum and visitor center provide an opportunity for you to learn more about the Inupiaq culture, wildlife, and geology of the region. Here, a ranger can answer your questions and provide valuable information about the backcountry to help ensure your safety in this remote environment.

Last updated: May 1, 2020