What Is Gates of the Arctic?

Rainbow over Noatak River and dwarf fireweed in foreground

NPS/Penny Knuckles

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 (8,472,505 acres total) is composed of the national park (7,523,897 acres, of which 7,167,192 acres are designated wilderness) and two units that make up the national preserve—the Eastern Unit (Itkillik) and the Western Unit (Kobuk River), containing 948,608 acres combined. 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 park is characterized by rugged peaks, glaciated arctic valleys, wild and scenic rivers, and many lakes. Foothills become waves of mountain peaks rising to elevations of 4,000 feet, with the tallest limestone and granite ridges reaching over 7,000 feet. Summers are short with long days, while during the short days of winter, temperatures can plunge to -50 degrees Fahrenheit (°F). The landscape is covered by sparse black spruce forests (called taiga), boreal forest, and arctic tundra. The park contains major portions of the range and habitat of the Western Arctic caribou herd. Moose, Dall sheep, wolverines, wolves, and grizzly and black bears also inhabit the land. Although the landscape appears virtually untouched by contemporary civilization, people have lived here for at least 12,000 years and the park is blanketed with numerous archeological and historic sites. Gates of the Arctic is important for subsistence activities by local residents, who harvest fish, wildlife, and vegetation in the park. One Nunamiut (Iñupiat) village, Anaktuvuk Pass, lies within the park. The Koyukon Athabascan Indians also rely on park resources for subsistence activities.

Beginning in 1929, the forester and wilderness advocate Robert Marshall began trekking in the central Brooks Range and named Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain flanking the north fork of the Koyukuk River. Marshall dubbed these twin peaks “the Gates of the Arctic.” Marshall’s experiences in northern Alaska shaped his wilderness philosophy, and his writings inspired generations of wilderness activists. His ideas were later codified in the 1964 Wilderness Act, and his descriptions of the Brooks Range inspired studies that resulted in establishment of the area as Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

Today, visitors come to the park to seek remote wilderness and solitude and must rely on the knowledge, skills, and equipment they bring with them. Gates of the Arctic National Park is the nation’s second-largest NPS wilderness area. The park is internationally renowned as quintessential wilderness. No trails, signs, or permanent visitor facilities exist within the park, and no roads provide access to the park, yet Alaska Native people have called the land home for over ten thousand years. Even though most of the park’s eastern boundary is within 5 miles of the Dalton Highway, the relatively few visitors who venture into the park often spend days or weeks before encountering another person.

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve was established on December 2, 1980, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA; Public Law 96-487; 16 United States Code [USC] section 410hh[4][a]), and is part of the national park system. In establishing this national park system unit, ANILCA designated Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. The primary difference between the preserve and the national park is that sport hunting and trapping are allowed in the preserve, but not in the park. (Subsistence use, including hunting and trapping, are allowed in both the park and preserve.) Although mostly federal lands, there are state-owned, city-owned, and private lands within the park and preserve. These private parcels include Native allotments and other small tracts and Alaska Native corporation lands.

Section 701(2) of ANILCA designated approximately 7,052,000 acres of the park as wilderness. Due to changes in land status conditions, a land exchange, and map refinements, this figure changed to approximately 7,154,000 acres.

In addition to designating wilderness, section 601 of ANILCA designated six wild and scenic rivers in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System:

  • Alatna River − drains the central Brooks Range

  • John River − flows south from Anaktuvuk Pass through Alaska’s Brooks Range to the Koyukuk River just below Bettles/Evansville

  • Kobuk River − flows from its headwaters in the Endicott Mountains and Walker Lake, through a broad valley on the southernmost reaches of the Brooks Range, passing through one of the largest continuous forested areas in the park

  • Noatak River − drains the largest mountain-ringed river basin in the United States, which is still virtually unaffected by human activities (the entire Noatak River drainage of the headwaters, which are in Gates of the Arctic, is internationally recognized as a biosphere reserve in the United Nation’s “Man in the Biosphere” program)

  • North Fork of the Koyukuk River – flows from the south flank on the Arctic Divide through broad, glacially carved valleys in the rugged Endicott Mountains of the central Brooks Range

  • Tinayguk River − is the largest tributary of the North Fork of the Koyukuk

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.

Black and white image of Hidden Valley reflection on a small lake in the Brooks Range

NPS/Cadence Cook

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.

Historic photo of Alaska Natives using dogs and sleds to transport caribou hides in the Brooks Range

Archive photo

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: November 3, 2023

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