Alaska above the Arctic Circle is vast and unforgiving, with human existence seemingly irrelevant. The region is home to America’s largest swaths of protected land, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, and the National Petroleum Reserve. Despite the harsh conditions, the tundra and permafrost support a range of wildlife including caribou, musk oxen, wolves, bears, and countless species of migratory birds.
Access to Arctic Alaska is severely limited. Commercial flights link Anchorage and Fairbanks to the North Slope towns of Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. Air taxis out of Fairbanks are commonly used for backcountry trips. The only road access is the 414-mile Dalton Highway linking Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay. The “Haul Road,” as it was once known, is used primarily by oil field supply trucks, although ambitious tourists brave the legendary bumps and bugs for a chance to see this remote corner of the state.
Alaska’s Arctic, and in particular ANWR, often makes the national spotlight as politicians debate mining the rich natural resources. Some question the necessity of preserving this isolated region, arguing that the land should be made available for economic gain. Groups led by environmentalists and native people maintain the sanctity of the Arctic for its cultural importance, biodiversity, and rugged beauty. To be sure, it is one of the last great frontiers.
Things to Do in Arctic Alaska
The 414-mile Dalton Highway, running parallel to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from Fairbanks to the massive Prudhoe Bay oil field, is the only road in Arctic Alaska. The Dalton makes it way across the Yukon River and Arctic Circle, through the Brooks Range, and over the North Slope to the Arctic Ocean (public access ends at Deadhorse, eight miles from the Arctic Ocean).
The road is rough—over 100 miles have been paved but gravel sections are notoriously bad and truckers fly by with little regard for tourists. Most rental car agreements specifically forbid driving the Dalton Highway but a handful of local companies specialize in renting vehicles for that purpose. For those who make the journey, the Dalton passes through some of Alaska’s most pristine landscapes, including Gates of the Arctic National Park, and is the only road through the Brooks Range. For more information, see the BLM’s guide to the Dalton Highway.
Rafting and Hiking
For outdoor enthusiasts (only the hearty), Arctic Alaska is an adventure hotspot. A number of local companies offer guided trips in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, including rafting, hiking, and snowshoeing. All of the trips are multi-day affairs, with the majority ranging from 1–3 weeks in the wilderness. A highlight is the Brooks Range and surrounding foothills, the northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains that reach over 9,000 feet in elevation. The terrain is extremely rugged but the wildlife viewing is excellent and the peak of summer brings 24 hours of daylight.
Barrow and Prudhoe Bay
Tourism is virtually non-existent on the North Slope of Alaska. The tiny village of Barrow on the Arctic Ocean holds the distinction of being the northernmost settlement in the United States and mainland North America. Barrow once was a great whaling town and the majority of the 4,000 current residents are of Inupiat ("Eskimo") descent. The settlement of Prudhoe Bay to the east is the hub for the Prudhoe Bay oil field, the largest in North America. Flights from Anchorage and Fairbanks to Barrow and Prudhoe Bay usually cost around $500.