Lying north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska, Gates of the Arctic is situated in the central Brooks Range—the northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains. The park is 200 air miles north of Fairbanks. Gates of the Arctic is composed of the national park (7,523,897 acres) and two units that make up the national preserve—the Eastern Unit (Itkillik) and the Western Unit (Kobuk River), together containing 948,608 acres. Altogether, the park and preserve is nearly 200 miles long and 130 miles wide, including both the north and south slopes of the Brooks Range. With adjacent Kobuk Valley National Park and Noatak National Preserve, these lands form one of the largest protected parkland areas in the world.
The Arrigetch Peaks and Walker Lake, both within Gates of the Arctic, were designated national natural landmarks in 1968, prior to establishment of the park. National natural landmarks are selected for their outstanding condition, illustrative value, rarity, diversity, or value to science and education. The Arrigetch Peaks wererecognized as being a landmark to the Nunamiut (Iñupiat) people. The areas illustrate several phases of alpine glacier activities and reveal abrupt transitions from metamorphic to granitic rock. Walker Lake is a striking and scenic example of the geological and biological relationships of a mountain lake at the northern limit of forest growth. It is typical of the glacial lakes formed in rock basins or behind moraine dams along the Brooks Range. A full range of northern boreal forest and alpine ecological communities thrive in the area.
Alaska's Ultimate Wilderness
Few landmarks bear names on topographic maps here. The park name came from wilderness advocate Robert Marshall, who traveled the North Fork Koyukuk country frequently from 1929 to 1939. Marshall called two peaks, Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain, the gates from Alaska's central Brooks Range into the far north Arctic. Wind, water, temperature, and glacial and tectonic actions sculpted wildly varied landscapes in this east-west trending part of the Rocky Mountains. Southerly foothills step into waves of mountains rising to elevations of 4,000 feet that culminate in limestone or granite peaks over 7,000 feet in elevation. Then the ranks reverse at the Arctic Divide: Tundra stretches to the Arctic Ocean. Six national wild rivers - Alatna, John, Kobuk, Noatak, North Fork Koyukuk, and Tinayguk - and other waterways cross the park. Many people seek remote wilderness and solitude here. A primary goal of park management is to protect these opportunities.
People have been a part of the ecosystem here for over 13,000 years. Nomadic hunters and gatherers traveled between the mountains' forested southern slopes and the Arctic Coast. Now their descendants depend on and use park and preserve resources. A Nunamiut Inupiat village, Anaktuvuk Pass, lies inside the park. Winter is long, and summer is active. Plants and animals move through life cycles quickly before winter sets in.
From November to March, most activity ceases while -20ºF to -50ºF temperatures persist. The dry interior climate sees little snow, but what falls stays to wrap land and rivers in ice and silence. As the low-riding sun starts its warming ascent in March, dogsledders come out. Backpackers and river runners arrive in mid-June, as the rivers become free of ice. No trails or visitor services exist in the park. You must be self-sufficient.
Created to ensure the arctic environment's integrity, the park contains major parts of the range and habitat of the Western Arctic Caribou Herd. Grizzly and black bear, wolf, moose, Dall's sheep, wolverine, muskox, and fox also live here. At spring breakup the few resident bird species are joined by migratory species from Europe, South America, Asia tropical archipelagos, and the contiguous United States. Wildlife is varied but widely dispersed - because large areas are needed to sustain life in the Arctic. Wildlife sightings may be greatly affected by your party size, travel patterns, and the weather.
Sparse black-spruce forests called taiga dot north-facing slopes and poorly drained lowland. Boreal forests of white spruce, aspen, and birch typically are found on south-facing slopes. Near tree line, the shrub-thicket community of dwarf and resin birch, alder, and willow appears. Heath, moss, and fragile lichen make up the understory. Alpine tundra communities occur in mountainous areas and along well-drained, rocky ridges. Alder thickets and tussocks in valleys and on slopes often impede hiking in the Arctic. Backpackers often only make five miles per day. Take your time and don't try to squeeze a 21-day arctic trip into a 14-day "Lower 48" trip.
The 1980 legislation creating the park and the preserve protected 8.4 million acres. The area is to be managed to maintain its wild and undeveloped character, including opportunities to experience solitude and environmental integrity, and for wilderness recreation. Fish and wildlife, arctic habitats, cultural resources, and traditional subsistence uses are also protected. With Noatak National Preserve and Kobuk Valley National Park, Gates of the Arctic comprises one of the world's largest parkland areas.
Last updated: April 10, 2023