For those who love traveling through Alaska’s backcountry, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is one of the premier destinations for wilderness adventures. Home to the greatest variety of protected plant and animal life within the Arctic Circle, the Arctic Refuge offers up unparalleled wildlife viewing opportunities. It also offers unlimited backpacking routes and fun, remote whitewater.
How to get there?
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the United States’ largest Wildlife Refuge, is situated in the northeast corner of Alaska. Most visitors to the Arctic Refuge begin their trips in Fairbanks. From there you can (1) drive the Dalton Highway north to the westernmost edge of the refuge or (2) fly on a scheduled flight to one of the adjacent communities or (3) charter a bush plane to drop you off on one of the many air strips within the Refuge.
1) DRIVE - The Dalton Highway bends closest to the Arctic Refuge between Atigun Pass and Atigun Gorge. There are many options for day hikes or backpacking trips into the refuge from here. Atigun Gorge also delivers fun whitewater for rafts, kayaks and packrafts.
2) FLY - The two Alaska Native communities directly adjacent to the Arctic Refuge are Kaktovik, located on Barter Island to the north, and Arctic Village, to the south. Additionally, the small community of Coldfoot is located along the Dalton Highway a short distance southwest of ANWR. There are regular scheduled flights to each of these villages with Wright Air Service, Warbelows Air and/or RavnAir. Walking or boating into the refuge from any of these communities is possible, but challenging, which is why many visitors opt to charter flights into the refuge’s interior.
3) CHARTER - Coyote Air, Yukon Air and Wright Air Service’s Charter branch all fly to remote air strips within the Arctic Refuge. There are dozens of air strips within ANWR, talk to an air taxi to find the right one for your adventure.
What is there to do in the Refuge?
Rafting – Rivers to the north of the continental divide include the Kongakut, Hulahula, Jago, Okpilak, Aichilik, Canning, Marsh Fork, Atigun and Saganavirtok Rivers. Generally, these rivers flow north toward the Beaufort Sea. Rivers on the south side include: North, Middle and East Forks of the Chandalar, Wind, Junjik, Sheenjek and Colleen Rivers. The water ranges in difficulty from flat Class I to challenging Class IV canyons. There are one or more primitive air strips along each of the most popular rafting rivers in the Arctic Refuge.
Backpacking – The Arctic Refuge boasts almost unlimited options for backpacking. Although you may find yourself traveling well-worn animal trails, there are no maintained trails within the Refuge. Traveling through this area takes advanced backcountry travel and route-finding abilities. Backpackers are rewarded for their efforts with incredible views, wildlife interactions and solitude – other parties are rarely seen on a backpacking trip to the Arctic Refuge.
Packrafting – This hybrid of rafting and backpacking allows visitors to experience the best the refuge has to offer on foot and by boat. Packrafts enable access to rivers without adjacent air strips. These smaller boats allow river runners to paddle the upper portions of river which are inaccessible to larger rafts.
Basecamp Hiking – If neither rafting or carrying a heavy pack sounds appealing, basecamp hiking might be more your style. Finding a suitable basecamp location necessitates accessing the refuge by small aircraft. Basecamps are often set up adjacent to an air strip, so your wilderness experience may be punctuated by the arrival and departure of aircraft. To minimize impact at these often-used air strips, pack out all trash, including human waste.
Hunting & Fishing – The Arctic Refuge is a popular hunting destination in late-summer, early-fall. Species taken include Dall’s Sheep, Caribou, Moose, Brown and Black Bear. Few people travel to the refuge exclusively to fish, but while there, many rafters, hikers and hunters enjoy fishing for Arctic Grayling and Dolly Varden.
Why choose to go to the Refuge?
With so many destinations in Alaska to choose from, why would someone choose to go to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Most visitors are drawn to the refuge for the chance to see its diverse wildlife. Of particular appeal is the Porcupine Caribou herd of nearly 200,000 animals. This herd calves on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge and travels through ANWR’s mountains on their annual migration of up to 3000 miles.
Another appeal of the Arctic Refuge is the relative ease of travel. While many locations in Alaska are blocked by impenetrable vegetation, the Arctic Refuge, especially its northern side, is free of shrubbery by Alaskan standards. This makes for especially nice walking for hikers, backpackers and hunters.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has taken center stage in modern conservation debates and the news due to its unique ecology – there is no better way to form your own opinions than seeing this landscape yourself.