If you are looking for a unique and remote landscape in Alaska, Kobuk Valley National Park fulfills both requirements. The Great Kobuk, Little Kobuk and Hunt River Sand Dunes offer a desert environment perfect for hiking, camping, even fat biking. The park is also home to one of the oldest archeological sites in Alaska, Onion Portage, along the Kobuk River. Lucky visitors may see some of the roughly 200,000 caribou that crisscross the park on their annual migration.
What to Do
If you are looking for a basecamp hiking trip, head to the dunes. Any of the dunes will do, but the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are the largest (25 square miles) and offer multiple good camping locations adjacent to water sources on the edge of the sand. Once you have your camp set, head out in any direction looking for wildlife, tracks in the sand and beautiful views of the western reaches of the Brooks Range looming beyond the desert in the foreground.
There is enough hiking in the dunes to fill a couple of days’ time. Ahnewetut Creek, which bisects the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes makes a picturesque oasis in the middle of the desert. Also of interest is the unique combination of sand and spruce trees as the boreal forest encroaches on the edges of the dunes. Wildlife, including bears, wolves, caribou and moose are often seen at the edge of the dunes or crossing the open sand.
If you head to the dunes, remember your head net and your water filter. The mosquitos will be out in full force in July and the biting flies can be terrible in late August. Streams along the dunes are slow moving and giardia has been reported.
Rafting is also possible in Kobuk Valley National Park; a portion of the Kobuk River flows through the area. Most rafters put in at Walker Lake in Gates of the Arctic National Park. There are two canyons on the river with up to Class IV rapids. After exiting the canyons, the water becomes flat, winding Class I floating. Boaters can take out at the villages of Kobuk, Shugnak or Ambler, or they can continue downriver into the National Park, past the historic site, Onion Portage, and the sand dunes.
At its closest, the Kobuk River passes 1.25 miles away from the northwest corner of the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. It would be a shame to pass so close to the dunes and not get out of the boat and see them, but be prepared for truly unpleasant hiking to get from the river to the dunes – that short distance is a brushy, swampy mess.
How to Get There
Accessing the Dunes is easiest from Kotzebue. There are daily direct flights from Fairbanks and Anchorage to Kotzebue. From there an air taxi, such as Golden Eagle Outfitters or Arctic Backcountry Flying Service, who can deliver you right onto the dunes.
If you plan on rafting, those trips often begin from the small community of Bettles. Fly from Fairbanks to Bettles on Warblelows Air or Wright Air Service. From there schedule a ride with a local air taxi to take you to the popular put-in, Walker Lake.