Kobuk Valley National Park Wilderness Character Narrative

Fall in the Kobuk Valley tundra.
The Kobuk Valley tundra in fall color.

Note: This narrative describes the wilderness character of all lands in Kobuk Valley National Park designated and eligible as wilderness. This approach is in accordance with NPS policy to manage lands eligible for wilderness designation, as wilderness, and with the mandate to preserve their wilderness character.

Located in the heart of Northwest Alaska, the landscape of the Kobuk Valley Wilderness and National Park (Kobuk Valley) is constantly in flux. Rivers flow in meandering curves, carving deep channels into glacial and alluvial deposits. Sand dunes reshape their silhouettes as wind undulates across their ridges. In this landscape, cycles of change span the scale of minutes to millennia – salmon return to their spawning grounds after years at sea; tendrils of black spruce roots reach down into the crystalline sand, stabilizing ancient dunes; and in the arctic summer, the sun skims the horizon but never sets, until ice and snow freeze the land in an icy grip of winter darkness each year. As a display of these cycles, Kobuk Valley is a sanctuary for wilderness values and wildlife; a place for life in the arctic to play out as it has for millennia.

The Iñupiat have lived here for thousands of years and are an indelible part of this landscape. Kobuk Valley is a rich homeland with the biannual migration of caribou, profusion of salmon and whitefish in the rivers, and an abundance of plant life growing on the river terraces. The Iñupiat Ilitqusiat – that which makes us who we are – defines values of humility, respect for nature, and cooperation; values which live on in this landscape as the law of the land. Here, wilderness helps bridge the values and land ethic of Native Alaskans and those of people from around the world.

A map of the wilderness designations in Kobuk Valley National Park.
A map of wilderness areas designated in Kobuk Valley National Park.

Kobuk Valley straddles the Kobuk River midway in its descent from the Western Brooks Range. Lively clearwater tributaries, including the Salmon, Akillik, Hunt, Kaliguricheark, Tutuksuk, and Kallarichuk rivers, flow from the Baird Mountains which enclose the north side of the park and wilderness. The Baird’s jagged peaks are acutely remote with few visitors besides Dall’s sheep and migrating caribou. In the south, the Kobuk River slowly meanders across the lowlands and acts as a primary travel route between local villages, and provides access to traditional fishing and hunting camps. Sand dunes tower above the surrounding river terraces, some standing 100 feet tall, in stark contrast to the surrounding riparian environment. The southern portion of Kobuk Valley is comparatively accessible – a gentler landscape with rolling hills and wide river deltas, and the Waring Mountains resting on the southern horizon. Seamlessly flowing into one another, the diverse terrains of Kobuk Valley encapsulate the rich variety of ecological communities present across the Western Brooks Range Mountains.

Kobuk Valley is part of a 17 million acre contiguous expanse of arctic and subarctic wildlands preserved as wilderness, bordered by the Noatak and Gates of the Arctic Wildernesses to the north and the Selawik Wilderness to the south. Still, the future of Kobuk Valley is uncertain. Imminent threats from climate change, developing technologies, changing use patterns, and potential regional developments make preserving the wilderness character of Kobuk Valley challenging; effective stewardship requires coordination between land managers and local users, and a land ethic of respect and humility by all.

Wilderness Character

Following are elements of wilderness character.

Kobuk Valley National Park

Last updated: July 10, 2023