Imagine one of the most remote parks in the world. A park that lies entirely north of the Arctic Circle, with 24-hour summer daylight. A park with no roads or trails or airport, which can only be reached by river or bush plane. A park with a massive annual caribou migration and a huge section of sand dunes, in addition to tundra and boreal forest.
That’s the unique environment that Kobuk Valley National Park in Alaska provides!
Kobuk Valley NP is one of the least-visited parks in the country, yet most folks who learn about its unique wonders are intrigued.
Coming here can be difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. The reward is relative solitude in a place that few humans get to see.
Since I’m trying to visit all 63 U.S. national parks, I made the trek to Kobuk Valley National Park this summer, and I loved hiking in the dunes, seeing the tracks of grizzly bears, wolves, and caribou.
Thinking about making a trip to Kobuk Valley NP yourself? Let’s discuss the reasons that folks visit the park, the best way to get here, and other frequently asked questions about Kobuk Valley.
I’ll share notes and tips from my own experience, and provide a list of guided tour companies and small airlines that can take you there.
Kobuk Valley National Park Map
Here’s the official NPS park map for Kobuk Valley. You’ll notice it’s not as detailed as most park maps, because there aren’t any roads or trails to highlight.
You can see seasonal ranger stations at Kallarichuk and Onion Portage, on either end of the Kobuk River, the main artery through the heart of the valley.
You can also note a handful of rivers flowing into the Kobuk, and the two large sections of sand dunes in the south of the park.
Basic Info About Kobuk Valley National Park
Location: Western Alaska, just above the Arctic Circle
Established: December 2, 1980
Size: 1,750,716 acres (ranks 9 out of 63 national parks)
Annual Visitors: 16,925 (ranks 61 out of 63 national parks)
Fun facts and things to know about Kobuk Valley National Park:
• Kobuk Valley was established as a national park in December 1980, the same day that six other Alaska parks joined the park system, including Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Gates of the Arctic, and Lake Clark.
• Kobuk Valley NP lies between the Baird Mountains in the north and the Waring Mountains in the south. It covers nearly 2 million acres, making it one of the largest U.S. national parks.
• The entire park lies above the Arctic Circle, meaning the sun never fully sets in July, and never fully rises in January.
• The sand dunes in Kobuk Valley formed years ago when glaciers plowed through the area and ground rocks into sand, then winds picked up the finer grains and carried them through the valley until they collected in dunes.
Sand dunes used to cover more than 300 square miles of this area, but vegetation has been steadily reclaiming the land. Shrubs and eventually trees have taken hold in what used to be barren sand dunes. Only 10% of the original dunes remain.
• Today, the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes cover about 25 square miles, while the Little Kobuk Sand Dunes are about 5 square miles. They reach as much as 100 feet high.
The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are surrounded by the Kavet Creek on the western edge and the Niaktovik Creek on the southeastern edge. Ahnewetut Creek bisects the dunes.
• Spring and fall are the times of the famous caribou migration through the park. About a quarter million caribou cross the Kobuk River at Onion Portage as they move between their winter and summer homes. Scientists and a small number of tourists come to witness the spectacle.
In spring, the caribou head north to their calving grounds on the northern slopes of the Brooks Range. In fall, they head south to their winter home.
• The park is also home to grizzly and black bears, wolves, moose, wolverines, lynxes, porcupines, foxes, and more. It’s also home to the wood frog, a remarkable creature which freezes solid for eight months, becoming active after it thaws in the spring.
• The best time to visit is from mid-June to the beginning of August. That time of year provides the best weather. August begins the rainy season.
• There are still some private lands within park boundaries used by the local Iñupiat for subsistence hunting and gathering, just as their ancestors have for thousands of years. They fish, hunt caribou and birds, and gather berries and vegetables.
• Onion Portage, named after the wild onions that grow there, is a National Historic Landmark. The area has been used by humans for at least 8000 years, and archaeological excavations have uncovered evidence of at least nine different groups of humans moving in and out of the region during that time.
• This region is the northern limit of the boreal forest. You’ll see spruce, quaking aspen, cottonwood, willow, and birch trees. On the ground, look for lichen, shrubs, mosses, and grasses.
• Contrary to some misinformation posted elsewhere, there are absolutely no established hiking trails in Kobuk Valley National Park. You’ll have to create your own path, or follow game trails in the woods.
My Experience in the Park
Visiting Kobuk Valley was truly a unique experience! I flew there from the town of Kotzebue on the west coast of Alaska during late July.
From Kotzebue, I joined a small group tour that flew by bush plane to the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes.
We landed on a flat strip right on the dunes, and we camped out there for two nights right on the sand.
Camping out in the middle of nowhere was a thrill! We were fortunate to have two hot, sunny days (in the upper 70s F).
The lack of shade was a little tough, but I knew it was better than the alternative. Cold, rainy days would not have been fun here – I would not have wanted to deal with wet sand inside my tent.
We hiked on the dunes and into the edge of the forested sections of the park. Though we saw very little wildlife, the evidence was everywhere.
We spotted grizzly and wolf tracks in the sand, and lots of moose and wolf scat on the ground. Though summer is not caribou migration season, caribou bones and antlers showed up everywhere.
In one instance, we saw several different caribou bones scattered across a small area, along with patches of caribou fur, and substantial amounts of wolf scat. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what happened there.
Scroll to the end of this article for more of my Kobuk Valley photos!
How to Get To Kobuk Valley National Park
Ok, so you’re interested in visiting Kobuk Valley National Park. What’s the easiest and cheapest way to get here?
Sorry, there is no “easy” or “cheap” when it comes to Kobuk Valley. There’s a reason this park sees so few visitors. It’s remote, and costly to visit.
Since there are no roads or airports in Kobuk Valley NP, your two options are to come by boat along the Kobuk River, or by bush plane using a private flightseeing company.
Those with experience in the backcountry can get dropped off by air taxi and camp in the park on their own. Casual tourists typically opt for day trips or guided excursions.
The Best Way to Get to Kobuk Valley: Visiting By Bush Plane from Kotzebue
If I had to recommend an “easiest” way to visit Kobuk Valley, it would be to fly to the small town of Kotzebue. Alaska Airlines has direct flights to Kotzebue from Anchorage.
From Kotzebue, you’re a single bush plane ride away from the Kobuk sand dunes. Flight companies (such as Golden Eagle and Arctic Backcountry) regularly fly tourists to the dunes, let them get out and walk around for 20-30 minutes, and fly right back to Kotzebue.
That’s not much time on the ground, and the short trip will set you back at least $1000-2000. But you’ll be able to say you visited the park.
Since there’s no welcome sign in the park, many air taxis bring their own signs and allow you to pose with them.
For a more thorough visit, you could have a flight company fly you to the dunes, drop you off, and return to pick you up in a couple days.
In that case, you need to be entirely self-sufficient, bringing your own tent, food, water filter, and survival gear. And the cost will double, since you’re paying for two flights (a drop-off and a pickup.)
How much would a flight to Kobuk Valley cost? Unfortunately, most flight companies don’t advertise their prices for private flights like these.
You’ll have to contact them directly and inquire. Expect to pay a minimum of $600-700 per hour, possibly much more.
The benefit of traveling by plane is that you’ll see the park from above. You can see the meandering rivers, the rolling hills of boreal forest, the open tundra, and the full scope of the sand dunes.
Some air taxi companies fly to Kobuk Valley from the town of Bettles, east of the park. Getting to Bettles is more difficult than getting to Kotzebue, though, as you have to take a bush plane from Anchorage to Bettles, or a commercial flight from Fairbanks to Bettles on Wright Air or Warbelow’s Air.
Another operator flies out of Coldfoot, which is located 250 miles north of Fairbanks on the Dalton Highway.
These are the companies you’d want to contact to get a quote on a flight to Kobuk Valley:
Authorized Air Taxis into Kobuk Valley:
• Arctic Backcountry Flying Service – flying from Kotzebue
• Brooks Range Aviation – flying from Bettles
• Coyote Air – flying from Coldfoot
• Golden Eagle Outfitters – flying from Kotzebue
• Wright Air Service – flying from Fairbanks
Visiting Kobuk Valley by River
You can take a canoe, kayak, raft, or motorized boat along the Kobuk River into the park. This would be difficult to do without a local’s knowledge, but experienced outdoorsmen and women could make it happen. You’ll mostly likely still require a bush plane flight to your drop-off location.
The National Park Service’s advice: Some visitors bring their own packable boats and have pilots drop them off to start a float through the park. Study a topographic map, then talk with a pilot to decide on a feasible backcountry landing spot. Or plan to fly the boat as cargo on a small commercial plane to the villages of Kobuk, Shungnak or Ambler to start a trip on the Kobuk River.
During summer, boat charters may also be available with local companies.
Guided Tours and Group Trips to Kobuk Valley NP
Are there any group tours or guided tours to Kobuk Valley National Park? Yes, but not many. So your options are limited.
Here’s a rundown of the group tours and established trips to Kobuk Valley National Park, as of the 2023-2024 season.
All of these tours visit both Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic, the other remote Alaska park which can only be reached by bush plane. Most people crazy enough to make the trek all the way up here decide they should see both parks while they’re here!
• Alaska Alpine Adventures – Noatak River & Great Kobuk Sand Dunes Combination
Origin: Starts in Fairbanks; ends in Anchorage
Destinations: Kobuk Valley NP & Gates of the Arctic NP
How long: 12 days
More info: https://alaskaalpineadventures.com/tour/noatak-river-great-kobuk-sand-dunes-combination-gates-of-the-arctic-and-kobuk-valley-national-parks/
Talk about an adventure! This tour features six days of floating the Noatak River (with day hikes along the way) and two-plus days of exploring the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, with additional days for transit.
It’s run by Alaska Alpine Adventures, one of the most successful and well-known Alaska tour companies. If you want to get deep into these parks and explore them thoroughly, this tour may be your best bet. You need to be in good enough physical condition to hike 6-10 miles per day.
• Bettles Lodge Park Collector Package
Origin: Bettles, AK
Destinations: Kobuk Valley NP & Gates of the Arctic NP
How long: 1 day (a brief stop on the ground in each park)
Cost: Not listed
More info: https://bettleslodge.com/summer/park-collector-package/
Designed for folks who want to set foot in both Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic, this day trip from Bettles Lodge does a quick stop in each park.
The price is not shown on the Bettles Lodge website, so you’d have to contact them to find out the current rate. Expect it to be less than the other tours on this list, since this one is just a single-day trip.
• Fly Coyote – Kobuk & Gates of the Arctic Tour
Origin: Coldfoot, AK
Destinations: Kobuk Valley NP & Gates of the Arctic NP
How long: 1 day (30 minutes on the ground in each park)
Cost: $4650 for two people
More info: https://flycoyote.com/flightseeing/
The quickest way to see both Kobuk Valley & Gates of the Arctic NPs is this six-hour trip from Fly Coyote. You’ll touch down inside both parks and see them from the air.
The only problem is that getting to Coldfoot can be a pain. You either have to drive five hours north from Fairbanks on a gravel road that rental cars aren’t allowed on, or take a small plane to Coldfoot from Fairbanks.
• Arctic Wild – Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley National Parks Tour
Origin: Kotzebue, AK
Destinations: Kobuk Valley & Gates of the Arctic NPs
How long: 5 days (2 days camping in each park)
More info: https://arcticwild.com/trip/base-camp/gates-kobuk-national-parks-2024/
This was the tour I took last summer. (I traveled at my own expense; it was not a sponsored trip.)
The trip featured two days camping in the Kobuk Sand Dunes and two days camping in the mountains of Gates of the Arctic. The scenery was fantastic.
I found Arctic Wild’s communication lacking, as they failed to respond to multiple emails I sent in the weeks leading up to the trip. Still, they got me there and back safely, and the guide was excellent. So I’d give this company a tepid endorsement.
This tour has limited spots and sells out a full year in advance, so you have to be fully committed to make it happen. They also offer a tour that adds an extra day in Cape Krusenstern National Monument for only $300 more.
• Arctic Treks Adventures – Kobuk & Gates of the Arctic Basecamp
Origin: Fairbanks, AK
Destinations: Kobuk Valley & Gates of the Arctic NPs
How long: 5 days (mostly camping in Gates of the Arctic, with a day trip to Kobuk Valley)
More info: https://arctictreksadventures.com/land-based/kobuk-valley-gates-of-the-arctic-basecamp-iii-2/
This tour from Arctic Treks is similar to the 5-day trip offered by Arctic Wild, with a few differences. First, it originates in Fairbanks. Most of the five days are spent camping in Gates of the Arctic NP, with only a short day trip to Kobuk Valley.
The trip to Kobuk Valley is in a float plane which lands on a lake inside the park. There is no opportunity to get out and walk around on the soil of Kobuk Valley NP.
That could be a deal-breaker for some folks. This trip does provide a chance for canoeing inside Gates of the Arctic, which most trips do not offer.
Is Kobuk Valley NP Worth Visiting?
If you intend to visit all 63 national parks, then yes, you’ll have to visit Kobuk Valley National Park.
It’s also worth visiting the park if any of the following are true:
-You want the thrill of exploring the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes
-You really want the experience of being out in nature above the Arctic Circle
-You feel compelled to witness the spring or fall caribou migration
Otherwise, Kobuk Valley NP is probably not worth visiting. It costs a minimum of a few thousand dollars just for a short visit.
You can see sand dunes in other national parks, and you can fly to the Scandinavian countries of Europe and explore the Arctic there for probably close to what you’d spend to visit Kobuk Valley.
Where is the Kobuk Valley NP Visitor Center?
The center has exhibits and photos for all the nearby NPS units in western Alaska, including the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, and Noatak National Preserve.
Unfortunately, the heritage center is only open from 9 am to 5 pm on weekdays.
What is Kobuk Valley Weather Like?
Remember that Kobuk Valley NP is above the Arctic Circle, so it’s cold most of the year.
June and July are the most comfortable months of the year in Kobuk Valley, with average high temperatures in the mid 60s F. August sees average highs around 57 F, while May and September are in the 40s F.
The rest of the year, expect freezing temperatures. From November through February, average highs are in the single digits F, with lows well below zero.
The rainiest month is August, though it sees only 3.6 inches of rain. The sand dunes, in particular, are pretty dry during summer.
More Kobuk Valley National Park Photos
The view from my tent on the dunes, overlooking the forest. What a beautiful place to camp!
The wind creates ripples in the sand over time. I almost felt bad walking through here and messing up those perfectly-formed ripples!
We saw lots of tracks in the sand, including caribou and what looked like faint wolf tracks. We saw a single section of grizzly footprints in the sand near the forest’s edge:
Caribou bones were everywhere. Sometimes including entire jaws!
We hiked a few miles from the eastern edge of the dunes to the middle section, where Ahnewetut Creek passes through the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes.
A few hearty plants and flowers have somehow taken root in the dunes.
When the wind was still, the mosquitoes were pretty brutal. They were tolerable with a head net.
Flying to Kobuk Valley is impressive, and it provides an opportunity to see the forested areas of the park. I’m fascinated by the winding rivers.
I snapped a quick photo from my tent at 2 am, as the sun remained visible on the horizon.
Some of the grasses had circles around them in the sand. That’s confusing, until you realize that it’s from the wind whipping the grass around in various directions so it makes a circle shape.
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