This Is What It’s Like to Camp in Alaska’s Great Kobuk Sand Dunes Above the Arctic Circle

When I heard about the sand dunes in an unexpected place like Alaska’s Kobuk Valley National Park, north of the Arctic Circle, I knew I wanted to see them in person.

And not just a quick visit – I wanted to spend some quality time there. So I booked a small group trip and camped in the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes for two days and nights.

tents sand

Kobuk Valley is one of only seven U.S. national parks with sand dunes. Nobody expects to see a sand dune in Alaska, so there’s an added layer of novelty about coming here.

What was it like to camp in a remote section of one of America’s most remote parks? Read on to learn about how we handled food, tents, bathrooms, daily camp activities, and the threat of wildlife!

Logistics of Camping in the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes

Sleeping

camping kobuk sand dunes

Our bush plane landed in the eastern edge of the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, along a creek. We set up our tents on a dune overlooking the creek, right where the forest meets the sand.

You may assume it was freezing here since the dunes are located above the Arctic Circle, but that’s not the case. In July, when I visited, it can get quite hot. The temperature was in the upper 70s F both days we were here.

Fortunately, the sand wasn’t too loose. It was packed down enough that it was easy to get our tent stakes deep into the sand, so that our tents were solidly anchored.

great kobuk camping

I have heard stories, though, of folks who didn’t anchor their tents sufficiently and returned from a hike to find their tent rolling down the hill when the winds picked up.

Cooking and Eating

Our group had what was essentially a “kitchen tent.” All of the cooking and eating took place there. Since Kobuk Valley does have bears and other predators, it was important to keep all food smells in one place, away from our sleeping area.

The food was actually really good. The guide brought a cooler and propane stove, so we were able to enjoy meats and cheeses daily, plus meals like pasta with sausage and broccoli, quinoa chili, and pancakes and bacon.

We brought a water filter and collected water from the nearby creek everyday.

kitchen tent camping
Our kitchen tent while camping in the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes.

Bathroom

We had to dig a trench for a group bathroom down the hill from our campsite, in the woods. It was a bit of a walk to get down there, but that was necessary for privacy.

The mosquitoes were bad throughout camp, to the point that we had to wear had nets to keep them away. But they were especially bad in the bathroom.

We got used to using the bathroom as quickly as possible and getting out there to keep the bugs off our backsides.

Avoiding Bears

Grizzly bears don’t wander around the sand dunes much, because there’s nothing for them there. But bears do live in the forest near the dunes, so we had to take precautions.

In fact, we saw grizzly tracks in the sand near the edge of the forest.

grizzly footprints

To minimize risk, we kept all food and toiletries in the kitchen tent overnight, so that nothing with any appealing smells would be in our tents. The guide also carried a weapon as a last resort.

Day Activities in the Dunes

Hiking in the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes

Kobuk Valley is one of the least-visited parks in the country. As there are no established trails in the dunes, it was up to us to decide where we wanted to hike.

The only risk of hiking in the dunes is getting lost, since after you walk a couple miles and make a few turns, you can lose your sense of direction.

hiking kobuk valley

Of course, if that ever happened, it would be possible to simply re-trace your steps and follow your footprints back to where you started. So it wasn’t a real risk.

And we could use nearby mountain peaks as landmarks in the distance.

We hiked both days, going a few miles each time. We also had the freedom to wander off on our own, which was cool, as it felt like I truly was disconnected from society being out in these massive dunes on my own.

great kobuk sand dunes

Animal Tracks, Bones, and Scat

We didn’t encounter any wildlife, aside from some birds. But we saw tracks and scat all over the place. Besides those grizzly footprints, we saw lots of caribou tracks and one set of what appeared to be old wolf tracks.

The good thing about a sand dune is that footprints in the sand can last a very long time!

In addition, we saw wolf and caribou scat, and tons of caribou bones. Thousands of caribou migrate through this area in the spring and fall, and evidence of their presence is everywhere.

We encountered caribou horns, skulls, jaws, ribs, vertebrae, and other unspecified bones.

caribou fur bone
Caribou fur and bones in the forest near the sand dunes.

There was even one site in the forest with several bones scattered around, and chunks of fur on the ground, with wolf scat nearby. That caribou was obviously torn apart by wolves. It was fascinating to see!

Hanging Out Around Camp

Most of the free time was spent socializing, relaxing, reading, and just soaking in the atmosphere.

It was pretty sweet to wake up to this view!

tent view

While we were in a very remote part of the world, we did see bush planes fly overhead several times a day.

On a couple occasions, they landed near us in the dunes, bringing tourists on day trips who came just to walk around on the dunes for a few minutes and fly right back.

So while we were pretty far from civilization, we didn’t have total solitude.

bush plane
Here comes another bush plane!

How the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes Formed

If you’re curious about how the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes formed, see this page from the National Park Service.

Essentially, glaciers in the area ground the rocks into pebbles and sand, which the winds brought together in Kobuk Valley, a sheltered area free of ice.

Today, the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes cover an area of about 25 square miles, though they used to be closer to 300 square miles.

Vegetation continues to creep into the edges of the dunes and reclaim the land. Eventually, it’s likely the dunes will be gone, covered by forest, which will remove one of the park‘s most unique features.

For more related content, see my complete guide to Kobuk Valley NP, including information about guided tours, options for getting there, cost projections, and park photos.

Also read my tale of backcountry camping in Denali National Park, my guide to taking an Alaska road trip, an Alaska photo essay, and a collection of fun facts about Alaska.

Would you ever consider camping in the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes?

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