Getting into Gates of the Arctic NP is not an easy thing. Most people access the northern most National Park by chartering a plane and flying in. This can be pretty expensive – some of the flights we looked at were asking 3000 dollars! It was out of our price range for sure. SO, we had to figure out how we would get into the park boundary for cheap.
The park’s eastern most boundary borders the Dalton Highway. This highway goes north from Fairbanks and has a gnarly reputation. A lot of the 414-mile road is unfinished, riddled with potholes, massive frost heaves, and lots and lots of mud. Along with this, there are only two gas stations the entire way up. We had to be sure that our secondary gas tank was working before we set off. Of course, when I tried to get everything going, we ran into problems. The filler neck for the fuel tank wasn’t taking any fuel – and on top of that – our secondary fuel pump was working “intermittently”. We took care of the problems, and set off a day later.
The first few miles of our Dalton Highway experience belong in a movie. Within five miles, we saw a mangled car, a pickup truck that looked like it had rolled 100 times, and an RV (eerily similar to ours) being hauled out on a tow truck. We knew we were in for it!
We took it mellow – very mellow. At our first fuel stop, we topped off the tanks. At this pump, gas cost us 5.50 a gallon. Yikes.
The park boundary boarders the road about halfway up the Dalton Highway. We knew that we were only going to have one day in the park, so we decided that we would add in a trip to the Arctic Ocean. We stopped for a picture at the Arctic Circle and then kept on going. It literally never got dark, so it was easy to keep driving.
We passed Coldfoot, and kept on going. A little while later, we passed the spot where we planned to hike into Gates of the Arctic and then, you guessed it, kept on going! After two full days of driving, we made it to Prudhoe bay – the furthest north you can drive your vehicle in North America!
Before we even set off on the journey, we decided that we would swim in the Arctic Ocean. I mean, you have to, right? It is the ultimate initiation to the polar bear club. So we did. Check out the video at the end of the blog for full documentation.
There are two reasons for the Haul Road (Dalton Highway) – a route for the massive 18-wheelers to bring in supplies to the oil field, and for access to the oil pipeline. The pipeline paralleled our road for almost the whole journey.
By the way, I just about lost my mind when we saw the musk ox. I thought these things were unbelievable. They just lumbered around with their fuzzy-carpet capes and ate grass. I just never imagined I would see an animal like this. I loved it.
The nice thing about the Dalton Highway is that we could camp pretty much wherever we wanted – and it was all beautiful.
The North Slope is untamed. From the -80 degree temperatures in the winter, to the boggy marshy lands in the summer, only the rugged can survive here. This aspect I both simultaneously admired and abhorred. I loved being “in the wild”. There is something that gives me thrill of experiencing the harsh untamed northland. But, the frost heaves and washboard in the unmaintainable road made me want to pull my hair out.
Every once in awhile we would see roads like this. At first glance, you may think that Madison tried to capture the beauty of the sunset… but you would be dead wrong. She just wanted to show the world that GOOD ROADS do exist on the Dalton Highway!
After our dip in the Arctic Ocean, we turned around and went south. We found a few old mining roads on the USGS map that looked like they would take us pretty close to the park boundary. We turned off the Dalton on one of these roads, and hoped that there would be a place for us to park the RV for a night.
Luckily there was a place, and we were able to get our gear together and head off into the park! From where we parked, we calculated that it would be about two miles in. We had to hike around the lake and though the valley.
It looks like it is nice easy hiking, right? WRONG. Hiking in Gates of the Arctic was one of the hardest places I have had to hike. There are these things called tussock mounds that are trying to kill your knees and ankles every step you take. The tussocks are tough bulges of grass that roll and give when you step on them. It makes for a treacherous walk with a heavy pack on.
On top of navigating the tussocks, there was no trail. There is no park sign to give you directions. It is pure, unadulterated wilderness. I had downloaded a few USGS topographical maps to make sure that we were in the park. These came in handy to find the best route in as well.
The map makes me laugh because it says “foot trail” where we set out to walk, but there really was no such thing. In parts, there were clearings that maybe showed people had walked there before, but it was not a trail by even the crudest of standards. Madison and I bet that the resident bears were the most common walkers of this foot trail (we said that as a joke, but their poop was everywhere too prove it).
We set up camp and tried to sleep in the midnight sun. Madison had a harder time sleeping in the light than I did. She also claims she was hearing bears all night. When in reality, I woke up when something (I won’t say it was a bear – even though it probably was) was walking and grunting just outside the tent. When I looked over to see if Madison was hearing what I was, she was sound asleep. Whatever was out there, walked away, so I rolled over and went back to bed.
We got up and got going in the late morning, and the sky literally hadn’t changed at all from when we went to bed.
The mosquitos on the hike out were ruthless. They seemed desperate. We were the only human blood they had probably ever had, and they knew that it wasn’t going to come around again any time soon. (Special sign thanks goes to Jen Groves for coming in clutch when we realized there wouldn’t be a sign to take a photo with)
Our time in Gates of the Arctic was short. This park was more about the journey, than the destination. We had a great time getting there. We even had a few side adventures along the way. Even though we were only there for one night and we didn’t see any of the “must sees” of the park, it feels oddly complete to me. I came away with a rich experience and that is all I can ask for. For sure there is more to explore, there always will be! Perhaps we can come back with our children and float a river or make an epic trek across the Brooks Range. But, all of that is later. For now, we’ll venture onward to our next park!