Trekking In Gates of the Arctic, Where Time Stops

Cross 70 miles of one of Alaska's loneliest wilderness areas to peek into North America's past.
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Cross 70 miles of one of Alaska's loneliest wilderness areas to peek into North America's past.
gates of the arctic national park

Choose your own adventure in Gates of the Arctic. A good bet: Arrigetch Creek in the park's southwestern corner. (Photo by Patrick Endres)

When I hoist myself onto the plate of blue and silver ice, I’m startled to see a caribou skeleton. It’s almost perfectly intact, its antlers pointing upward to the ragged, 6,000-foot peaks of the Brooks Range around us. The toe of the mile-long glacier is littered with animal remains: Caribou ribcages and backbones, legs with tattered hooves, and the feathers and skeletons of ravens dot the ice as if they’ve simply dropped out of the sky.

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is like a 13,000-square-mile walk-in deep freezer—the door of which swings open for visitors just a few months out of the year. There are no permits to apply for, no roads to putter down in an RV, no campgrounds, no official trails, and, for all intents and purposes, nobody else. In most respects, America’s second-largest national park is as quiet and wild as it was in the Pleistocene era, before humans set foot in North America.

This makes it difficult to plan a trip there because information is so scant. But my crew of four was eager to explore the unnamed mountains, tundra valleys, green lakes, and limestone canyons that propel Gates of the Arctic atop most adventurers’ hit lists, so we spent eight months studying maps and soliciting advice from anyone we could find who’d been before. We ultimately pieced together a 70-mile traverse from Atigun Pass to Anaktuvuk Pass, a route that would bisect some of the most remote—and dramatic—terrain in the central Brooks Range.

But we end up abandoning our daily mileage targets almost immediately. Above the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t set in midsummer, so the days merge together. We begin hiking on Gates of the Arctic time—walking when the weather is good and dozing in our tents when it isn’t. Even the seasons seem unfixed here: We stumble through wet tussocks in a cool drizzle, cross ravines full of riotous wildflower blooms, then walk below scorching slopes of black shale that radiate heat.

By the time we cross the bone-covered glacier, we have no concept of time. We pitch our tents on a rocky pass near a lake ringed with primordial green algae, and a fan of coral fossils nearby reminds me that this place used be the bottom of a warm sea. The bones that pepper the glacier below could be 10 years old or a thousand. We’ve only been walking for five days, but it feels like forever.

Do It

Fly into Fairbanks, then take the Dalton Highway Express shuttle ($172 per person each way) toward Prudhoe Bay. To replicate the writer’s trek, request a drop-off near 68.254167, -149.420000 on the Dalton Highway and a pick-up near 68.145278, -151.725556 in Anaktuvuk Pass.

Season

July to early September