Kobuk Valley National Park

Location: Northwest Alaska

Park Tally: 38/59

Orientation: Kobuk Valley is one of the most remote national parks in the country. Located in the Arctic Circle of northwest Alaska, Kobuk Valley is only accessible by plane or boat in the summer, and by snowmobile in the winter months. Despite its isolation, Kobuk Valley National Park boasts an array of outdoor activities, including backpacking, fishing, hiking, boating, dog sled trips and flight seeing tours. Be sure to come prepared as the park has no developed facilities, roads, or maintained trails.

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Most iconic view: The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are the most well-known feature in the park. You might be thinking “sand dunes in the Arctic Circle?!” It’s true! At 25 square miles, the dunes are North America’s largest arctic dunefield. Visitors can experience this unique location via wheeled aircraft that land directly on the sand, or via float plane on the Kobuk River. The latter option involves backpacking two miles across tundra to the dunes and significant orientating skills. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are a popular destination for hiking, camping and day tripping.

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Accessible activity: You don’t need to go on a backpacking trip to experience the beauty of Kobuk Valley National Park. We opted to take a day-trip out to the park with Bettles Air Service (through Bettles Lodge). We landed via float plane along the Kobuk River, allowing us to take in the sights from air and land. From the air we spotted numerous brown bears, moose and caribou. Our pilot, Kevin, was very knowledgeable on the area and was able to answer our questions about the local wildlife, land and culture.

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For the adventurous: Backpacking in Kobuk Valley is the perfect activity for those wanting a “bigger” adventure. There are various outfitters in the area that can provide air taxis, trip planning, gear and guiding services. Be sure to check in with the park service for information on backcountry permits and relevant leave no trace advice.

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Best photo opportunities: Caribou migration in the fall is a wonderful time to visit Kobuk Valley for photography. During this time around half a million caribou head south for the winter months, allowing eager photographers to capture the unique event.

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Quick facts

  • Kobuk Valley was originally designated as a National Monument in 1978, and later became a National Park in 1980.
  • The first known inhabitants of the Kobuk Valley area, the Paleo-Arctic people, were thought to live 12,500+ years ago.
  • Today, the Inupiat people are native to Kobuk Valley, where they hunt the caribou and otherwise continue to practice a subsistence life style. In the Inupiat language ‘Kobuk’ means ‘big river’.
  • The Kobuk River Valley has been an important caribou migration crossing for 10,000+ years. There are as many as 490,000 caribou in the Western Arctic herd.
  • Locals are the only people still allowed to hunt in Kobuk Valley National Park.
  • Other wildlife found in Kobuk Valley National Park include moose, brown bear, black bear, lynx, wolf, red fox, wolverine, mink, marten, dall sheep, beaver, river otter, hare, porcupine and muskrat. There are also numerous species of fish found within the park.
  • Due to its northern location, the sun does not set in Kobuk Valley between July 3rd and July 9th each year. Then during the winter solstice, the sun is only visible for a total of an hour and a half.
  • In 2016, Kobuk Valley National Park had approximately 15,500 visitors, making it one of the least visited national parks in the country.

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