River through the Dunes in Kobuk Valley National Park

US National Parks

Kobuk Valley

Arctic Alaska is easily one of the most remote regions in the world: there are no roads, no trails, and no signs of mankind anywhere. It is isolating, but also beautiful: the lack of infrastructure leaves open the door for free adventure in one of the most preserved environments left on earth.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to not only visit this natural wonderland, but also camp in it for 7 days. This blog post highlights three of those days which were spent in Kobuk Valley National Park, which is tucked away on the Northwest side of Alaska.

Getting to Kobuk Valley is challenging: it can basically only be reached by small “bush” planes which typically fly out of rural Alaskan villages (which can be equally difficult to reach). I had the good fortune to be working with an experienced tour operator called “Arctic Treks” who took care of all the logistics. Starting in Fairbanks, we first flew North on a small plane to a truck stop called “Coldfoot”, where we were then picked up on an even smaller plane and taken ~200 miles West to the Park.

Flying over Kobuk Valley National Park
Landing on the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. Including our guide, there were 4 of us on the camping expedition. Our pilot and his plane “Pumpkin” can be seen in the background.

We landed out on the “Great Kobuk Sand Dunes” which are widely considered the Park’s most iconic feature. Covering an area of roughly 25 square miles and reaching heights of over 100 feet, the dunes provide an odd contrast to the area around them, which is largely composed of marshland and dense forest.

River through the Kobuk Valley sand dunes
Three worlds collide: sand dunes, marshland, and forrest

While most of the tourists who visit this Park simply fly in, land, then fly back out, I made the decision that was worth the expense to stay and camp for multiple days in the Park. This comes with its own challenges: camping on the dunes means exposure to cold winds and sand, camping in the marsh means perpetual wetness and a lot of mosquitoes, and camping in the forest means uneven terrain and slightly fewer mosquitoes. After some careful consideration, we opted for camping roughly equidistant between the forest and the dunes:

This is a “4-season tent” which is recommended for Arctic trips since the wind and rain can get quite intense. I initially set up my tent in the spot captured in this photo, but later moved it further into the woods after a bunch of wet sand got in my tent during a storm :O

The trip we were on was called a “basecamp trip” which meant that we would set up camp in a single location, then do day hikes out from there. Since there are no trails of any kind in Kobuk Valley, hiking meant that we could go wherever we wanted, which I found to be a liberating experience after so many years of having to follow strict signs, fences, and walkways.

Hiking out on the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. As the pictures indicate, I think we saw just about every type of weather during our stay here.
One of my companions looks out at a creek that cuts through the center of the dunes.
Stopping for lunch. Somehow my clothes were still clean at this point!

Hiking on the dunes themselves is surprisingly nice- while they can be quite steep, the sand is much harder than at other places like the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado and I found it very easy to maintain my footing and keep my boots (mostly) sand-free.

Up the dune we go!
The crest of the Dune
Some of the dunes are extremely steep- this one was nearly 60 degrees which can make it very difficult to hike up.
Luckily getting down them is not a challenge!

While it’s tempting to think that hiking predominantly on dunes can be a bit boring (that was my thought going in as well), this could not be further from the truth, as there so many hidden wonders to be found:

A large set of Bull Moose antlers I found in the sand. One of the coolest things about the Kobuk dunes is that animal prints can be found nearly everywhere. We saw dozens of clear trails from Wolves, Caribou, Grizzly Bears, and Moose while out there.
The relationship between the sand, the forest, and the creeks creates some of the coolest landscapes I’ve ever seen. I nicknamed this one the “Kobuk Horseshoe Bend” due to its visual similarity with the Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona.
We kept joking that it would be ‘great to have a dune buggy out here’ and low and behold, we found one! We have no idea where this poor, abandoned pink buggy come from or how it got here and even after a lengthy Google search, its origins remain a mystery. Unfortunately, this guy was completely rusted through- so there were no wild, Kobuk joy-rides on this trip.

At the end of the three days, we packed up our stuff and we’re picked up by our pilot so that we could begin the next phase of our journey. While there were certainly many challenges on this leg of the trip, what I will remember most is the good times we had swimming in the river (freezing but refreshing), hiking on the dunes, and sunbathing in our camp chairs.

My next post will be for my last National Park on this 3-year journey, Gates of the Arctic. So long for now!


Bonus Images:

Kobuk Valley Creek
This photo took some careful maneuvering, as that brown stuff is really thick, quick-sand like mud.
Our Guide Walks Alone
One thing that became immediately clear while we were out here is just how vast these Dunes are. Every time it felt like we had reached the end, they just kept going and going.
The wind of Kobuk Valley
It’s amazing to see how the wind shapes these dunes. We would see alien-like patterns drawn into the dunes by plants caught in big gusts of wind.
Dunes for Miles and Miles
Hoping that’s not another storm coming in.
A rogue tree in Kobuk Valley
This is a rogue baby tree growing out on the dunes. Over the past several thousand years, miles of the dunes have been effectively lost to the forest, which continues to grow rapidly.
The Brooks Mountains
In the distance are the Brooks Mountains, which are the location for my next National Park post: Gates of the Arctic
Dunes and Creeks in Kobuk Valley
Plains of Kobuk
River through the Dunes in Kobuk Valley National Park
Today’s cover photo.
The River in Kobuk


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