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Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park: The Expert Travel Guide

Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park is no easy feat. After arriving via bushplane/air taxi, this female hiker is walking below a mountain across a rocky river bar.

There is no place on Earth quite like Gates of the Arctic National Park. It’s challenging to get to, ruggedly remote, and extremely rewarding. Anyone who plans on visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park should be prepared. Using this travel guide from The Parks Expert, you’ll be ready for the adventure of a lifetime.

When our rocky bush plane landed in Anaktuvuk Pass, I remember thinking the place was similar to my home near Denali National Park. After a few miles of walking, I realized how vastly incorrect I was.

As one of the more remote national parks in the United States, this place is one of the most unique spots I’ve ever trekked. It’s famous for having no roads and no trails, making it difficult to visit. It’s not one of those national parks you happily stumble upon. You have to desperately want to visit.

Here’s everything you need to know about planning a trip to Gates of the Arctic National Park, including some stories from the time I spent 6 days in its boundaries, realizing just how small and insignificant I truly am.

This post was updated on March 31, 2020. This page may contain affiliate links.

Gates of the Arctic National Park Map

A cropped map of Gates of the Arctic National Park

Click the map above to enlarge it. This is the official map provided by the National Park Service.

For a more detailed map, which I highly recommend if you’re planning a backpacking trip into the park, check out the Trails Illustrated map from National Geographic.

Fun Facts About Gates of the Arctic National Park

  • The park was established on December 1, 1978, as a National Monument before President Jimmy Carter upgraded it to a National Park as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980.
  • Like many other national parks in Alaska, within Gates of the Arctic you can find private inholdings and Native Corporation Land. It’s important to be respectful of this as you travel through the park.
  • People have been a part of Gates of the Arctic’s history for more than 13,000 years.
  • It is the second-largest national park (after Wrangell-St. Elias) and encompasses 8.4 million acres of land.
  • The park’s headquarters is in Bettles, a small village outside the park boundaries. You can also find park rangers at the ranger station in Anaktuvuk Pass or the Morris-Thompson Cultural Center in downtown Fairbanks.
  • Together with the Noatak Wilderness, Gates of the Arctic is part of the largest contiguous Wilderness area in the country.
  • As of 2019, Gates of the Arctic is the least-visited national park in America. The park receives around 10-11,000 visitors per year. Compare this to Grand Canyon National Park and its 6 million visitors!

A swampy pond below green hills.

Why is Gates of the Arctic a National Park?

According to the official website, Gates of the Arctic was established in 1980, “to preserve the vast, wild, undeveloped character and environmental integrity of Alaska’s central Brooks Range and to provide opportunities for wilderness recreation and traditional subsistence uses.”

Specifically, Section 201 of ANILCA states that the park shall be managed for the following purposes, among others:

  • To maintain the wild and undeveloped character of the area, including opportunities for visitors to experience solitude, and the natural environmental integrity and scenic beauty of the mountains, forelands, rivers, lakes, and other natural features;
  • to provide continued opportunities, including reasonable access, for mountain climbing, mountaineering, and other wilderness recreational activities;
  • and to protect habitat for and the populations of fish and wildlife, including, but not limited to, caribou, grizzly bears, Dall sheep, moose, wolves, and raptorial birds.
  • Subsistence uses by local residents shall be permitted in the park, where such uses are traditional, in accordance with the provisions of title VIII.”

Best Time for Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park

In winter, everything essentially halts. Snow machines won’t start in the frigid cold. Many animals have migrated to escape the freezing temperatures. While winter in Alaska has its own charms and advantages, if you’re hoping to backpack in Gates of the Arctic National Park, summer is your best, if not your only, option.

A chart describing the average weather (including temperature and precipitation) in Gates of the Arctic National Park

Gates of the Arctic National Park Weather

The weather in Gates of the Arctic, and Alaska as a whole, is entirely unpredictable. You can check forecasts all you want, but it will be a huge challenge to plan for if that’s your only tool.

The best thing you can do is prepare for every outcome. I visited in July. We experienced days where the heat was nearly unbearable; never did I think I would wish for a pair of shorts in the arctic! Yet, when we landed, we were hit with freezing cold, sideways rain straight out of Forrest Gump’s Vietnam War tales. On our last day, we were hit by a surprise storm that included thunder and lightning, weather that is incredibly rare in the arctic. You simply never know, and you should plan for every type of weather to occur, just in case.

Two small waterfalls cascading down a brown and white rock face toward green grassy tundra

Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park in Winter

Unless you’re seriously prepared to endure the harsh winter weather, I wouldn’t plan on visiting this park in winter.

While the park doesn’t receive much snow, the snow that does fall will not melt until warmer temperatures arrive. This could be as late as May or June. Frigid temperatures frequently fall to -40 making the outside nearly intolerable. If a winter visit is something you’re hoping to do, do not take your trip lightly.

Above the Arctic Circle, there are also days where the sun will not rise above the horizon, resulting in extreme darkness for multiple weeks.

Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park in Summer

A white wolf stares at the person wielding the camera, visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park

Summer is when Gates receives most of its visitation, and it’s easy to understand why. Summer is when flowers are blooming, the wildlife is abundant, rivers are refreshing, and hiking isn’t such a chore.

Accessibility is also not as much of an issue in the summer. You can easily charter a plane, take a small commercial flight from Fairbanks, or drive the Dalton Highway to get as close as you can to the border.

You’ll also have endless daylight in the summer, especially near Summer Solstice, when the sun will not leave the sky.

Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park in Spring, or Fall

Spring and fall are still challenging times to visit Alaska. While temperatures could be cooler, you never know how much (or how little) snow will be present. Fall is also a primary hunting season for local, rural subsistence users.

How to Get to Gates of the Arctic National Park

A female hiker standing in a field of green plants and purple dwarf fireweed. There are mountains behind her.

While there are no roads leading into the park, it is still accessible. There are three options for accessing and visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park: water, air, or land.

Via multiple rivers, most notably the Noatak, Koyukuk, or Kobuk Rivers, you can float into the park (and out again) on a packraft. Many tour companies offer packages for guided packrafting trips if this method of wilderness exploration is new to you. Most likely, you will still need to fly at the beginning or end of your trip.

Flying in is the most popular way to reach the park. You can either charter a plane/air taxi and pilot to take you to a specific area of the park you’re hoping to explore or you can take a commercial flight from Fairbanks. We flew with Wright Air from Fairbanks to Anaktuvuk Pass, a village within the park, and began our journey there.

Lastly, you could access the park on foot. The easiest way to walk into the park would be to start at the Dalton Highway and park your car along the road. This primitive dirt road takes vehicles, mostly large trucks, all the way to Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean, following the Alyeska Pipeline to Prudhoe Bay. While the road won’t cross into the park, at its closest point you’ll be about four miles from the park boundary. Entering the park this way can require a river crossing (depending on where you choose to start), so prepare accordingly. The Dalton Highway is extremely remote – bring extra gasoline and spare tires, along with anything else you think your car could need to make the trip.

How Much Does Gates of the Arctic National Park Cost?

A small creek runs over gray rocks toward green hills.

The park itself does not cost any money to enter. What will cost you is your travel. No matter how you choose to enter the park, airfare, gasoline, and possibly rental car fees can cost you. Most rental car companies in Alaska do not allow you to take their vehicles on dirt roads, so if you’re hoping to drive the Dalton Highway in a rental, make sure you clear it with the company first.

America the Beautiful Passes

If you’re visiting other national parks in the country (Denali National Park is the only one in Alaska that charges an entrance fee), the smartest thing to do is purchase an America the Beautiful Pass. Annual passes cost $80 and will admit everyone in the vehicle at most national parks around the country. It will pay for itself if you visit three national parks within 12 months.

If you’re currently serving in the United States military, have volunteered for a national park, are in fourth grade, or have a permanent disability, you may be eligible for one of the free passes issued by the National Park Service. Lastly, there is an annual pass for seniors 62 and older for $20. Seniors are also able to purchase a lifetime pass for $80.

How Much Time Should I Spend Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park?

A small brown building with a red roof. This serves at the visitor center for Gates of the Arctic National Park in Anaktuvuk Pass.

I would plan for multiple days in the park. The only feasible day trip option is Anaktuvuk Pass, which isn’t the most scenic area. While you’ll learn a lot about the park in the Ranger Station or the museum, if you want to truly see the park, you’ll want to spend days exploring its Wilderness.

One Day Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park

You could fly into Anaktuvuk Pass (Bettles is not technically in the park) if you only have one day. From here, it’s only a short walk to reach points in the park where you cannot see the village. This will help you feel like you’re having a more remote experience. Ideally, you’ll have a few days to explore the area and see what the park is all about.

Multiple Days Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park

Backpacking and packrafting are the two most popular activities in Gates of the Arctic. For a large national park that is so vast, packrafting is an optimal way to see as much as possible in just a few days. 

If you’re backpacking, prepare for river crossings and remote wilderness off-trail trekking. Thankfully, the alpine tundra makes for relatively easy walking.

Remember, if you’re spending the night in the park’s wilderness, you’re required to have a bear-resistant food container and you should file a trip plan with a park ranger. You can file your trip plan in Anaktuvuk Pass, Bettles, or Fairbanks.

A female hiker poses at Ernie Pass while visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park

Places to Stay Near Gates of the Arctic National Park

There are only a couple of lodging options in Anaktuvuk Pass and Bettles. Along the Dalton Highway, you can also find sporadic lodging in Coldfoot and Deadhorse. The easiest way to spend the night within the park is to camp.

Backpacking in Gates of the Arctic National Park

While the park does not have campgrounds, wilderness camping is relatively easy in Gates of the Arctic. The tundra makes for excellent, flat, soft surfaces to sleep on. Furthermore, while there are no established trails in the park, ATV trails from Anaktuvuk Pass will lead you along the Anaktuvuk River to some spots used by the Native peoples. If you’re in Gates of the Arctic and you see a spot that has been impacted by overnight campers, it’s best to stay there so you’re not creating an impact elsewhere. This helps keep the remote wilderness character intact.

Don’t forget to grab your bear-resistant food container and file your trip report! I’d also highly recommend reading the park’s official backcountry planning guide. Lastly, remember to view your airline’s rules on fuel and bear spray transport.

When visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park, it's important to pack all scented items in bear-resistant food containers. Here, one is pictured on a grassy tundra landscape above a river winding through the mountains.

What to Pack for Gates of the Arctic National Park

For more information on what to pack, check out my posts on packing for a trip to Alaska and my favorite outdoor gear.

A collection of items you should pack for a trip to any national park, especially if you plan on hiking.

    • A Re-usable Water Bottle and filter: Literally, the most important thing to have on any trip in Alaska (and, really, anywhere).
    • Moisture-wicking Layers: You’ll want short- and long-sleeve shirts to wear underneath your jacket. In the summer, you may also want a tank top. Choose polyester over cotton.
    • Jacket: I always have a packable down with me on trips. I also love this new jacket I got a few months ago, as it’s very light yet warm. Synthetic is a good alternative to down if you’re worried about rain or snow.
    • Hiking Pants or Shorts: My favorite hiking pants can be found here. As a taller woman, I also love Columbia’s pants because they offer long sizes. I never thought I would want shorts in the arctic, but with the exponentially changing climate, you may want some pants that can zip-off into shorts.
    • Hat: In the arctic, you’ll probably want both a winter hat and a summer hat.
    • Gloves or MittensGloves are critical, even when visiting in the summer.
    • Wool Socks: Smartwool is my favorite brand for wool socks. Make sure to get wool so your feet stay warm and dry.
    • Camera: I had my small, but trustworthy, Canon Powershot SX620 and a GoPro with me on my most recent trip to Gates of the Arctic.
    • Hiking Boots: I love my Keens, and will never choose another brand for my everyday boots. In winter, I choose a much warmer pair of Solomon boots.
    • BackpackThe pack you see me hauling is my favorite Amber 70 from Gregory.
    • Map and Compass: The Trails Illustrated map provides a great overview, but it’s important to have better maps with you in the wilderness. Visit the Morris-Thompson Cultural Center in downtown Fairbanks or the USGS store on the University of Alaska-Fairbanks campus to purchase USGS quadrangle maps.
    • Gaiters: Keep that water and mud out of your shoes as much as possible!

Gates of the Arctic National Park Hikes

A female hiker framed by caribou antlers resting in the green tundra. She is walking toward mountains shrouded in clouds.

While there are no maintained trails in the park, here’s a secret: there are ATV trails from Anaktuvuk Pass that lead to the Anaktuvuk River and Gates of the Arctic Wilderness. Because these trails get extremely muddy and swampy, it’s sometimes easier to traverse than the trail-less tundra. Walk the road from Anaktuvuk Pass toward the landfill and you’ll see various ATV trails begin. These will peter out eventually, so it’s still important to have a map and compass for wayfinding. 

Where to Stamp Your National Parks Passport Book

National Parks Passport books

Source: Eastern National

Don’t have a national parks passport book? Purchase one here and start collecting your stamps! Or, buy your own notebook or stamp some postcards – the stamps are free for you to use on whatever you please.

NOTE: Do not stamp your country-issued passport with these! This could render them invalidated.

Anaktuvuk Pass Ranger Station

Blue passport stamp from visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park

Bettles Ranger Station

Blue passport stamp from visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park

Coldfoot Interagency Visitor Center

Blue passport stamp from visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park

Morris Thompson Cultural Center in Fairbanks

Blue passport stamp from visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park

Pin Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park: The Expert Guide

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