Welcome to the three-part series of Alaska’s National Parks, 2nd edition. This summer I explored four more of Alaska’s eight National Parks: Gates of the Arctic, Kobuk Valley, Wrangell St. Elias, and Glacier Bay. This was a much-anticipated trip, with lots of excursions and flights planned. We were traveling to all of these parks via airplanes (commercial and charter), and because of this, I felt like I was holding my breath the entire time. Leading up to this trip I had heard so many horror stories of cancelled flights/excursions, and I was just hoping we wouldn’t have to deal with any of that!
The trip started out with us flying to Anchorage, which would be our home base during the first part of our trip. Luckily, I have a friend who lives in Anchorage who was gracious enough to host us for a few nights—as well as lend us his car for 2 days, which was incredibly generous! We were so thankful. We had an awesome first 24 hours in Anchorage with gorgeous weather- we walked around one of my favorite places, Potter Marsh.
After our first night in Anchorage, we were off to Kotzebue. Maybe you already know this, or maybe you’re like me and had no idea, but Kotzebue is located above the Arctic Circle. Thirty miles above the arctic circle to be exact. With that being said, there’s not much to do in Kotzebue… except for serving as one of the popular gateway towns to two very remote national parks- Gates of the Arctic & Kobuk Valley National Parks.
We booked our trip to Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley through Golden Eagle Outfitters. This company recommends booking 3 days of buffer around your actual flight day to the park, in case of inclement weather, delays, or cancellations. Because these two parks are so remote, often times weather prevents the planes taking off/landing in the parks.
When we landed in Kotzebue, the weather was beautiful- sunny & blue skies. Unfortunately, the previous days had been rainy and completely cloud covered, meaning multiple flights had been cancelled the past few days. Since they were catching up on flights, we were told we probably wouldn’t get out on a flight until Sunday (two days later). We were a little bummed about this, as there’s not much to do in such a remote town in Alaska, but we were obviously still grateful to be there and having these experiences in the first place. Kotzebue only has one hotel, with other lodging accommodations mainly through AirBnBs. After we landed, we walked from the airport to our AirBnB and checked in with our hosts. After our host pointed out the restaurant and grocery store from her porch, we headed out to walk around. We ate dinner at Little Louie’s, and then picked up a few staples from the grocery store. Once we got back, we talked with our lovely AirBnB hosts (truly hard to express how amazing they were), and agreed to dinner and authentic Native Alaskan adventures the following night.
The next day we killed some time by sleeping in, walking along the waterfront and watching the seals play, and then eventually walking back through town to our AirBnB. In the evening, we had fresh salmon for dinner with a side of Muktuk. Muktuk is a traditional food of the peoples of the Arctic, and it consists of whale skin and blubber- sounds appetizing, right? 😉. They would literally eat this to stay alive in the winter months. It’s not something I’ll probably eat ever again, but I’m glad I tried it once. After dinner, we went out for our own native experience. We learned how to salmon fish with a gillnet! This was an incredible experience; one I’ll likely never forget. We learned how to pull the net in, get the salmon out of the net, carry and rinse them off in the water, and even how properly fillet (sort of lol). These unexpected, spontaneous activities are some of my favorite memories. I doubt I’ll be able to ever eat salmon again without thinking back on this cool experience.
Finally, Sunday came along and we got the call from Golden Eagle for our 1 pm flight departure! We walked to the airport and waited to board our flight with fellow “parkies.” We learned this term is used to describe people trying to go to all the National Parks. Like us, most of them only had a few parks remaining! After a bit, all 8 of us boarded our flightseeing tour to two of the most remote parks in the United States. Our whole trip lasted about 4.5 hours, with about 20 minutes on the ground in each park for pictures.
Gates of the Arctic was up first. On our way to Gates, we also flew over Noatak National Preserve, which was so beautiful! I guess I didn’t really know what to expect when flying/landing in Gates of the Arctic, but I was completely blown away. It was honestly the most amazing experience. The jagged peaks and mountains, glacial blue waters, untouched land- it was all unbelievable. Pictures of course don’t do it justice. Gates of the Arctic is the northernmost national park in the United States, with the whole park being situated entirely north of the Arctic Circle. It’s the ultimate North American wilderness!!
Like I mentioned previously, we spent about 20 ish minutes on the ground before flying on to Kobuk Valley National Park. Many locals refer to Kobuk Valley National Park as “The Sand Dunes.” Which now makes sense, because this park has the most northern sand dunes in North America. The dunes were formed by the grinding of ancient glaciers, and they continue to grow by approximately 1 inch per year. Unlike Gates of the Arctic, Kobuk Valley has been home to humans for as long as there have been people on this continent. Some of America’s very first inhabitants called Kobuk Valley their home, and lived among some very big game, including the woolly mammoth.
After our time in Kobuk Valley, we headed back to Kotzebue. Our last night included some more salmon fishing and fillet mastering. Our flight back to Anchorage left Monday afternoon. When reflecting back on the first four days of our trip, they were truly unique. The pace was so much slower compared to most of our other trips, but I think we found value in that. However, once we were back in Anchorage, it was full speed ahead! 😉