Kobuk Valley & Gates of the Arctic: Logistics & a Video
As you might have read when we wrote an overview of the eight Alaska parks, we struggled a bit with how to visit Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic, two of the most remote and inaccessible parks with the least amount of facilities.
Because of the nature and speed of our visit to Alaska, we decided to combine our visit to the parks into one flightseeing tour from the small Alaskan native town of Kotzebue. Because visting Alaska is complicated, and visiting Kotzebue is even more complicated, I thought I’d lay out a few key logistics of visiting these two parks in this fashion.
Getting to Kotzebue
We were advised to block off two to three days in Kotzebue to ensure that the tour could take off when the weather was working with us. We arrived on a regularly scheduled Alaskan Airlines flight (we also signed up for their credit card and used sign-up miles to fully cover the fares. More of our flight-hacking tips here.) from Anchorage around 11:30 on a Tuesday, and our departing flight would take off on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. That allowed us to take the tour on Tuesday afternoon, all day Wednesday, or Thursday morning. We didn’t want to risk the weather ruining our tour, so we were conservative with our scheduling.
We could not find an option for a flightseeing tour of Kobuk Valley that left from Anchorage. There are, however, a few options for visiting Gates of the Arctic this way. We suggest doing your research far ahead of time.
Staying in Kotzebue
Kotzebue is an experience in itself. The town of about 3,000 people is the largest in Alaska’s northwest borough. Its location with easy access to sea and vast untouched land lends itself to subsistence hunting and gathering, a practice that is still very much intact today.
If you plan to visit Kotzebue, be aware of a few budget-related issues:
- Lodging is pricey. There are four hotels and bed and breakfasts in the town, and the cheapest we found was Bibber’s BNB for $165 per night. We went with this option after speaking to a ranger who told us camping in the area is more or less unavailable. All of the land is privately owned, and the road only stretches so far out of town.
- Food choices include restaurants or two grocery stores. These are also very expensive. We were able to bring all the food we needed for three days and cook it at the BNB’s full kitchen. This was a perfect and affordable setup for us.
Getting around in Kotzebue is easy. Everything, including the airport, is within walking distance.
The Flightseeing Tour
We contacted a few flight charters located in Kotzebue and the best option we heard was from a company called Golden Eagle Outfitters. They fly all over northern Alaska, offering flightseeing, drop-off/pick-ups, one-way flights, and more. We were able to communicate with their owner, Jared, easily throughout the planning process.
When we landed in Kotzebue, the weather was clear and perfect. We beelined straight for Golden Eagle, and within 15 minutes we were off. Of course, our flight technically began with a climb into the teensy three-seater bush plane, our first (but not last) of the trip. Jared was our pilot, and although he wasn’t able to talk over the bush plane noise, we still enjoyed gazing out the windows at the quickly-changing terrain beneath us.
First, we stopped at the Kobuk Valley sand dunes, which is such a weird thing to see in the middle of northern Alaska. We snapped a few pictures, looked around, and chatted with Jared about the area. A half hour later, we hopped back into the plane to continue on to Gates of the Arctic.
The views in between these two parks were the best part of the trip. We dipped into a valley where the mountains towered over us in all directions. We landed on a gravel bar at the Ambler River (just inside the park in the southwest corner) and took in the scene around us: a teal-blue river, a strip of gravel, mountains, and not a soul for a hundred miles. That was the most profound part: feeling the weight of remoteness.
After a half hour by the Ambler River, it was back to Kotzebue, across a new strip of scenery. Three and a half hours after we took off, we were back in Kotzebue, two more parks under our belt.
The trip was a blur of beautiful views, but we did what we set out to do: stand inside each national park, touching the ground and feeling its pulse. We didn’t have the experience of backpacking, or hiking to a view, or kayaking along the water, like we do in other parks, but we did get to see the park from a unique and gorgeous vantage point: the air.
If you are planning on a trip to visit Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic, let us know. We’d love to give you first person advice! Even if you’ll never go to Kotzebue or the parks, go there virtually: