The Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is located near Bettles, Alaska, which is a description that still makes the vast majority of people scratch their heads and say "huh?" Basically, if you're looking at a map of the state of Alaska, a mountain range called the Brooks Range cuts across the top third of the state. Gates of the Arctic is located in the center of the Brooks Range. The park received its name from a comment of explorer Robert Marshall, who described the pass between Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags as the gate through the Brooks Range to the true arctic.

Designated a National Park and Preserve in 1980, the total park and preserve area covers 8,202,517 acres, 7,052,000 of which are designated as a Wilderness area. In addition, the area was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1984. There are no established roads or trails within the park proper. In fact, there are no facilities at all within Gates of the Arctic, and the closest road is the Dalton Highway, which runs about 5 miles from the eastern side of the park. The National Park Service website warns potential visitors that "other than hiking in from the Dalton Highway (across one or two rivers then over the mountain passes, normally at a maximum rate of one mile per hour) access is generally by air." The villages of Bettles, Coldfoot, and Anaktuvuk Pass are very close to the park boundaries, and visitors may fly into them before chartering a flight into the park or hiking in on foot. Given the difficulty of access, and the lack of amenities, it's no surprise that Gates of the Arctic only gets 4000 visitors a year. (Compare this to Denali National Park's several hundred thousand annual visitors.)

Once the logistic difficulties of travel are overcome, visitors will find that Gates of the Arctic is home to some absolutely stunning scenery and wildlife, including 6 designated Wild Rivers, and 36 species of mammals, including wolves, caribou, brown bears, moose, lemmings, and arctic ground squirrels. The park also has more than 133 species of birds, over half of which may be seen along rivers and streams. Hunting and fishing is allowed in certain areas, and people from the surrounding villages practice subsistence hunting and fishing in and around the park. (Visitors should consult the National Park Service or the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to verify where and when they may hunt and fish.) Visitors can also float the relatively tame Alatna River, or shoot rapids on the north fork of the Koyukuk River.

Taiga, tundra, and shrub thicket are the three main vegetative types in the park. Continuous permafrost and a short growing season mean that vegetation is slow growing and fragile. Trees are only found at the lower elevations, and a scrubby-looking black spruce with a 2 inch diameter could be over 100 years old. Reindeer moss, a favorite food of the migratory caribou, may take 100 to 150 years to recover from even moderate browsing. The whole area is so easily impacted that it is obvious why the Park Service has never made a point of building roads or trails in the park. There are no entrance or use fees, but recreational visitors to the park are required to take a backcountry orientation offered at one of the ranger stations, and are strongly encouraged to practice "leave no trace" techniques during their stay.


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