Insider's Guide to Kobuk Valley National Park

Wetlands along the Kobuk River.
Wetlands along the Kobuk River. NPS / Neal Herbert
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The ruggedly beautiful and extremely remote Kobuk Valley National Park is located in northwestern Alaska, 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was designated as a national park in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

The park is bisected by the Kobuk River, a gradual flow that spreads for 61 miles across the landscape. To the north of the river stretch the peaks of the Baird Mountains, while to the south are the 25-square-mile Great Kobuk Sand Dunes—the largest active sand dunes in the Arctic. Nearly half a million caribou migrate through the park twice a year as they head north in the spring and south in the fall.

Classic Adventures

Kobuk Valley sand dunes.
Kobuk Valley sand dunes. NPS / Neal Herbert

While there are no developed facilities in Kobuk Valley National Park, the pristine backcountry creates an amazing space for hiking, backpacking, backcountry camping and dog sledding, and in the summer, flightseeing, wildlife watching, fishing, boating and once-in-a-lifetime photography opportunities.

More extreme winter activities like snow machining, skiing and dog mushing are possible for those who have personal equipment, as well as ample Arctic winter survival skills.

Secrets of the Park

Close up of the sand dunes.
Close up of the sand dunes. Western Arctic National Parks

Kobuk’s big secrets are its sand dunes, created by the grinding of ancient glaciers and carried to the valley by wind and water. The southern portion of the Kobuk Valley is mostly covered by dunes, including the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes and the smaller Little Kobuk Sand Dunes and Hunt River Sand Dunes, which stay stabilized by vegetation. On the slopes of the Great Dunes is the Kobuk Locoweed, a flowering herb.

The area has rich history of human and animal life. Along with nearly half a million caribou that migrate through biannually, Onion Portage is a National Historic Landmark on the Kobuk River where people gathered for 9,000 years to harvest caribou as they made their way across the water.

In the summer, other wildlife includes bears, foxes and wolfs, along with geese, loons, ducks, and swans in the rivers and lakes.

Immerse Yourself

The Kobuk River.
The Kobuk River. NPS / Neal Herbert

Winter access into the park is always by plane, dogs, or snowmachine, so unless you have a dog team or winter-worthy machine, plan on flying in for your snowy adventure. Commercial businesses do provide flights in good weather, but once you arrive, you have to have your own equipment and gear. The are currently no rentals or guided operations in running dogs or snow machining, and for any winter trip it is vital to have advanced knowledge of cold weather survival.

If you don’t want to dive into the isolation of Kobuk Vally, community programs for kids and adults are available through the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue. Topics include history of the park, as well as local research news, workshops and children’s activities. The schedule varies, but visitors can call 907-422-3890 to get up-to-date info. Additionally, the Arctic Circle Film Series is every Wednesday night at 7 p.m., hosted by the heritage center.

Kobuk Valley visitors are encouraged to take a photo with the park’s “mobile park sign” at their favorite place in the park, and then make a video postcard to commemorate their experience.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

  • Kobuk Valley National Park is remote and wild, with no roads, entrance gates or campgrounds. It’s open year round, all day and all night, and visitors can enjoy the park any time by backpacking, boating or flightseeing.

  • The Northwest Arctic Heritage Center is the park’s visitor center. It is open year round, but hours vary by season. Call 907-442-3890 to confirm hours for a specific date. The center is located in Kotzebue, Alaska. From Kotzebue, visitors will charter an air taxi to transport them into the actual national park which is open all day, every day of the year.

  • Snow, rain and freezing temperatures may occur any time of the year in and around the park, so always bring waterproof gear for wet and cold weather, and always keep warm and dry layers accessible.

  • To get to the park, you have to fly on a series of airplanes. Make travel arrangements well ahead, and work in time for bad weather days. You can start from Anchorage or Fairbanks, Alaska. From Anchorage, fly to Kotzebue on a commercial jet, then hire an air taxi in Kotzebue for an overflight or drop off/pick up in the park. From Fairbanks, fly with a scheduled air service to Bettles, then hire an air taxi in Bettles for an overflight or a drop off/pick up in the park.

  • Organized recreational groups need to get a permit from the Chief Ranger at the park. Call the park at 907-442-3890 for more information.

  • Plan to bring everything you need, like proper outdoor gear, medications, speciality foods, etc. Basic groceries are available in Kotzebue anytime, but don’t expect many other services. Inside the park, there are no services of any kind.

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