Standing in a desert, sand blowing off the tops of the dunes in the frozen breeze. Alaska is the last place you would expect to see a desert. Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk National Parks are not like any other parks. To get to there you need to take a charter flight from Kotzebue, a town which is a 500 mile flight from Anchorage.
These parks are so remote that there are no roads, or any infrastructure. The only way to experience them is either by backpacking with an expert guide, or doing a one day charter flight excursion.
This is how we did it;
Starting from Wrangell St. Elias we drove for 5 hours to Anchorage. We stayed the night in Anchorage and in the morning, flew to Kotzebue out of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport with Alaska Airlines. The flight was only about an hour and a half and the view from the plane was fantastic! We flew right over Denali and could see the peak of the mountain stretching far above the clouds.
We landed in Kotzebue around midday and were greeted with chilled wind and freezing rain, but a beautiful view of the ocean. The Visitor’s Center is in town, so if you plan to get your National Park passport stamp, get a backpacking permit, or charter a flight, you should be sure to stop in, because there are no opportunities to do this once you enter the parks. We took a taxi from the airport to Sue’s Bed and Breakfast where we stayed for our entire trip. Kotzebue is so far north that it is cut off from a lot of the luxuries we don’t even realize we have. The internet access is very limited and it can be very expensive to use.
The lack of internet really only made things more interested, we had to find our pilot in person, and as quickly as possible.
It was still early so we decided to start exploring in town, sightseeing and looking for a pilot. Kotzebue is only about four miles from end to end so finding what we were looking for was not too hard. There are a couple of charter services in town near the airport and we found a great pilot with Golden Eagle Outfitters who agreed to take us out the next day. They offer all kinds of opportunities to venture into remote areas for camping, fishing, and exploring.
With business taken care of, we decided to get something to drink. Alcohol is very restricted in this community and even though we were only there three days, we were required to purchase a liquor license. In the more isolated communities in Alaska, supplies have to be brought in, usually by plane. Shopping is limited to what they happen to have left in the store until the next shipment comes in. The limited access makes everything more expensive and can add a lot of restrictions.
The next morning we were ready and excited to visit the parks! Unfortunately the weather did not reflect our excitement, clouds were hanging low and grey in the sky and bursts of frozen rain made flying impossible. The parks are only accessible in warmer months and bad weather ruin your plans. It is important to plan around the weather. Unless the weather cleared, the plane to Anchorage would leave us behind. The charter had already cost us around $2100 and with the prices of hotels in Alaska, we waited anxiously for a break in the clouds.
We got our chance just in time. The clouds parted and we had a window of opportunity. Desperate not to loose any time, we rushed to the airport and with my heart beating like a drum, prepared to take off before the weather turned. I had never been on a small plane before, we strapped in and the pilot started the engine. All of my fear evaporated the moment the plane left the ground as we looked over an unimaginably vast, beautiful terrain teeming with more life and color I thought was possible in such a harsh climate.
The tundra-like landscape crisscrossed with streams that look like the lines on the palm of a hand, like the ground was one living, breathing organism. We flew for probably 40 minutes then landed in the Kobuk Sand Dunes. It was very strange to see this chunk of desert, with nothing but trees, streams, and life in every other direction as far as I could see.
We took some great photos and got back in the plane to head for our final destination.
We flew into the mountain range about 20 minutes looking down onto the peaks of monstrous mountains and reached the Gates of the Arctic.
The pilot landed the plane on a bed of smooth river rocks between two icy blue rivers with the clearest, most pristine water I have ever seen. By now the weather was perfect, a few puffy clouds dotting an almost clear sky, we explored and took photos. This was the farthest north either of us had ever been, it was amazing to be so close to the Arctic Circle and see how much life and beauty there is even here, in the most isolated and farthest northern park.
We made it back to Kotzebue in the late afternoon and got ready to go back to Anchorage the next day. After this chapter of our adventure, we felt ready for anything! Every park in Alaska is so different and we couldn’t wait to see what the next one would have for us.
If you love the parks as much as we do or maybe you are thinking about visiting them, please check out our article A Plan to Visit Alaska’s Parks and join us next time on our adventure to Kenai Fjords National Park!