Bering Land Bridge is as much a part of America s cultural heritage as Yellowstone or Yosemite, if not more so. The distance across the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska's Seward Peninsula is approximately 55 miles, and for several periods during the Pleistocene Ice Ages the trip could be made entirely on land instead of water. During additional periods the passage from Siberia to North America could also have been made by small watercraft bumping along coastlines. Bering Land Bridge National Preserve commemorates this prehistoric peopling of the Americas from Asia some 13,000 or more years ago. It also preserves important future clues in this great detective story regarding human presence in the Americas. During the late Wisconsinan glacial episode, so much of the Earth's water supply was locked up in huge ice masses that the sea level fell 280 to 350 feet below today's level, exposing vast areas of land formerly under water. The result here was a continuous land bridge that stretched between Siberia and Alaska. Most archeologists agree that it was across this Bering Land Bridge, also called Beringia, that humans first passed from Asia to populate the Americas.
"Bridge" is really a misnomer, for the land mass ranged up to 1,000 miles wide. Just when humans first traversed Beringia is subject to less agreement. The Pleistocene epoch began 1.6 million years ago and ended only 10,000 years ago after a final onslaught of ice known as the late Wisconsinan glaciation. It is theoretically possible for people to have entered North America from Asia at repeated intervals between 40,000 and 13,000 years ago. Artifacts suggest that people lived in both North and South America by some 12,000 years ago; by that time waters of the Bering Strait had become a significant barrier again. However, similarities between peoples of coastal Siberia and coastal Alaska show that the Bering Strait did not prevent contact between their cultures. Similar languages, shared spiritual practices, hunting tool and traditional dwelling similarities, distinctive fish cleaning methods, and meat preservation by fermentation are but a few examples ethnologists cite.
The Bering Sea has a long history of stable, although seasonal, animal populations productively supporting human life despite otherwise harsh environments. Pleistocene Beringia was notcontrary to popular notionsglaciated; it may have had grasslands. Cold much of the year, the park today is a primitive landscape into which, paradoxically, flocks of migratory birds may descend so profusely in summer as to look like snowstorms. And migrating sea mammals seasonally funnel through the Bering Strait in concentrations unknown elsewhere. Native subsistence use links past and present here in a paradise for geologists, archeologists, paleoecologists, and other students of Earth and human pasts. Difficult for the average traveler to reach, the park nevertheless is host to sport hunting, fishing, skiing, and hot springs bathing besides the subsistence activities protected by law.
The only way today to grasp how massive the Ice Age glaciation was might be to stand on one of Earth's two existing polar ice sheetsin Greenland or Antarctica. During the final Ice Age push, the Wisconsinan glacial period, vast ice sheets up to nearly two miles thick blanketed much of North America. Because the amount of water available is constant, this great hoarding of global water in huge ice sheets caused sea levels to drop dramatically. Such was the case in the Bering Strait.
Continental shelves are the shallow submarine plains that border many continents. Typically continental shelves end in steep slopes that descend to an oceanic abyss. Where a wide continental shelf slopes gradually, a small drop in sea level can greatly expand shoreline areas. Sea level fell approximately 300 feet during the Wisconsinan glacial period, exposing a relatively flat, low-lying stretch of continental plain that linked North America to Asia. What today is the 55-mile stretch of sea that separates Alaska and Siberia was once dry land. Although popularly known as a "land bridge," this land mass that joined the Americas to Asia was as much as 1,000 miles wide.
Numerous clues to the intriguing question of how and when humans arrived in the Americas undoubtedly lie under water now. For the past 10,000 years sea level has risen an average of one foot per century, and that rate is increasing. Recent global climate change has speeded up the rate at which the polar ice masses are melting. Archeologists have already begun to study some coastal sites before the rising sea claims them. In parts of Alaska this warming trend is melting the permafrost, the so-called "permanently frozen subsoil," and damaging buildings and roads. Images from satellites show most of Earth's 160,000 glaciers shrinking at an accelerating rate. By 2050 the Rockies, Cascades, and Glacier National Park will have lost almost all their glaciers.
20,000 years ago In the four Wisconsinan glacial stages of the Pleistocene Ice Age, Beringia joined Asia and North America. Nearly all of the Aleutian island chain was one peninsula, and with its islands it also nearly linked the continents. As glaciers fluctuated, much of Beringiaeven inland of today's Alaska coastoften stood free of ice, and it would have been habitable by humans.
Today Some 150 U.S. citizens live only three miles from Russia. They are the residents, mostly Inupiat, of Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait. From the Seward Peninsula of Alaska it is only 25 miles to Little Diomede, and from there only three miles to Big Diomede Island, Russia, and then 28 more miles to Siberia. The U.S./Russian fishing boundary is also the International Date Line.
Peopling the Americas
Arising in tropical Africa, the human species stayed in Earth's middle latitudes until liberated by the conquest of fire. With captive fire came climate controland migrations northward around the Mediterranean Sea. Using hides for warm clothing and developing insulating shelters, humans eventually inhabited far northern climates. Crossing the Bering Land Bridge, humans spread rapidly eastward and southward over the Americas. Constantly sorting out new clues in this fascinating story, scientists generally agree about its broad themes while arguing many of its details.
Many plants and other animals also moved between continents via Beringia. (The land bridge prevented marine mammals and fish from moving between the Bering and Chukchi seas, however.) Today's park remains a landscape of migrations, although most are now seasonal. In summer the park is host to birdlife from six continents, and some of these birds migrate 20,000 miles yearly.
The First Americans
Indigenous peoples of Beringia lived in a world in which the thinnest of lines separated the realms of physical appearance and of spiritual reality. Dangers of cold and threats of starvation meant that their lives depended on taking life from other beings. Blurred were any lines between social organization, religious practice, subsistence patterns, and artistic and educational endeavors. Artifacts of material culture and ceremonial life seem fused in form and in function. Excellent records of traditional life exist in the words of people born in the 1800s, before modern technologies. At that time the Inuit population is estimated to have been 30,550. Today it numbers 36,000 in Alaska and Siberia.
Access and Information
Access Bering Land Bridge National Preserve sprawls across 2.7 million acres of the northern Seward Peninsula in northwestern Alaska. It is one of the most remote and least-visited areas in the National Park System. Its western boundary lies 42 miles from the Bering Strait and International Date Line. No roads connect northwestern Alaska with other regions. From the towns of Nome and Kotzebue, served daily by jets from Anchorage, bush planes and small boats provide most summer access into the park. Winter access is mostly by small planes on skis, snow machines, or dog sleds.
Information Park offices in Nome are open weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Climate and Weather Weather is a central concern in visiting the park. Summer temperatures on the coast are usually in the low 50s°F, with mid 60s to 70s and an occasional 80 or 90 in the interior. Average January lows are -15 on the coast and -50 in the interior. Winds average 8 to 12 mph, but 50 to 70 mph winds commonly accompany storms and produce extremely low and dangerous chill factors. And averages can be meaningless: summer can see snow, near-freezing temperatures, and long periods of clouds, wind, and rain. Exposure and hypothermia are real threats here. Summer days are long and almost without darkness; winter days are short, with only a few hours of light.
Things to See and Do
Activities Camping, hiking, backpacking, exploration, nature observation, photography, and coastal boating are some of the many possible activities. Winter offers opportunities for snowmobiling, dog sledding, and some cross-country skiing. Hunting and fishing are permitted under state regulations, and Alaska hunting and fishing licenses are required. You can explore remains of the Gold Rush era and evidence of ancient Inuit life. The park and its surroundings, including Native villages, offer opportunities to observe and learn about traditional subsistence living and historic reindeer herding.
Scenery The park contains extensive lava flows and ash/steam explosion craters now turned to lakes called maars. It also offers dynamic coast and beach environments of barrier islands and low sand dunes. Tundra plant communities range from wet tundra along the coast to alpine tundra on mountains in and near the park. Serpentine Hot Springs lies in a haunting valley marked by imposing granite spires called tors.
Plants and Animals More than 400 species of plants have been listed at the preserve. Many of them evolved in ancient Beringia and spread into Asia or North America. The Seward Peninsula boasts a rich and diverse birdlife. More than 170 known species include such seabirds as gulls, murres, and kittiwakes; such migrating and nesting waterfowl as ducks, swans, and geese; such birds of prey as hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls; and many songbirds of tundra and uplands. At the crossroads of the Asiatic-North American flyway, this area offers rare opportunities to observe several Old World species. Mammals include the muskox, grizzly bear, moose, reindeer, wolf, wolverine, foxes, and smaller species. Once extinct on the Seward Peninsula, muskoxen were reintroduced in 1970 and today are thriving. Reindeer from Siberia were introduced here in 1892 as a meat source to replace the native caribou that seem to have disappeared earlier in the century. Reindeer herding and husbandry is a small but continuing industry for Inuit herders. Polar bears frequent the coastline in winter and may come ashore. Marine mammals occasionally seen along the coast include several species of seals, walrus, and beluga and bowhead whales. Fish in rivers, streams, and lakes include several species of salmon, grayling, char, whitefish, and pike.
Facilities in this wildlands park are extremely limited and there are few trails. Six shelter cabins widely scattered in the preserve are primarily for emergency winter use. A bunkhouse-style cabin at Serpentine Hot Springs sleeps 15 to 20 people in two sections. A wooden tub for bathing there is enclosed in a small bathhouse. All cabins are unreserved and bush etiquette may require sharing space with strangers. Camping is relatively unrestricted, with no formal campsites and no developed water, power, or sanitation facilities.
In Nome and Kotzebue Park offices in Nome offer information and limited displays on park themes. Nome and Kotzebue provide services expected in small townshospital, restaurants, hotels, and grocery and hardware stores. Camping gear and sporting goods are often of limited variety, quantity, or availability. Air taxi services provide scheduled flights to neighboring villages or charter flights into the preserve.
In Neighboring Villages Small stores in nearby villages offer limited clothing, food, or supplies. As tourism develops, some villages also offer meals, lodging, and village tours.
Precautions and Safety
Insects Mosquitoes and other biting insects are common in the summer. Headnets and repellent are recommended.
Self Reliance Very often you are completely on your own in the park, with few if any links to the outside world. Hiking can be difficult and strenuous, especially across tussock tundra. You must be prepared for varied and changing weather conditions. Use only durable, tested equipment and be experienced in its use before you set out.
Subsistence Subsistence hunting, fishing, trapping, and collecting of wild plants sustain village cultures and are protected by federal law. Do not disturb cabins, camps. drying racks, wood supplies, boats, fish nets, or other equipment, even if they look abandoned.
Archeological Resources Artifacts, sites, structures, and other archeological and historical resources are protected by federal law. Do not disturb them. Please report such finds to the National Park Service.
Wildlife Encounters Bears, moose, and other wildlife can prove deadly, especially if surprised or if they think their young are threatened. Respect these animals and keep a safe distance. This area has black, brown/grizzly, and polar bears. When you hike, lessen your chance of an encounter by watching for bears and bear signs, making noise, and traveling in groups. Food trash and any cooking gear must be properly stored well away from your sleeping areas. Avoid taking odorous foods. Keep a clean camp and use bear-resistant food canisters. It is legal to carry a firearm for protection. Before beginning your trip, get the free bear pamphlet that gives in-depth advice on bear safety. You can get a copy at the Nome or Kotzebue park offices or by writing to the park address.
Motorized Vehicles The use of off-road vehicles, including all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), is prohibited. Snowmachines are allowed during periods of adequate snow cover.
Source: NPS Brochure (2003)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Acoustic Bat Monitoring in Alaska National Parks 2016-2018 NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/AKRO/NRR-2020/2096 (Paul A. Burger, March 2020)
Aleuts: An Outline of the Ethnic History (Roza G. Lyapunova, translated by Richard L. Bland, 2017)
An Environmental Survey of Serpentine Hot Springs: Geology, Hydrology, Geochemistry, and Microbiology NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/BELA/NRR-2015/1019 (D. Kirk Nordstrom, Linda Hasselbach, Steven E. Ingebritsen, Dana Skorupa, R. Blaine McCleskey and Timothy R. McDermott, September 2015)
An Ipiutak Outlier: A 1,500-Year Old Qarigi at Quitchauvik on the Golovnin Lagoon, The Golovin Heritage Field School, 1998-2000 NPS Technical Report NPS/AR/CRR/2007-67 (Owen K. Mason, Matthew L. Ganley, Mary Ann Sweeney, Claire Alex and Valerie Barber, 2007)
Arrows and Atl Atls: A Guide to the Archeology of Beringia (E. James Dixon, 2013)
Asia at the Juncture with America in Antiquity: The Stone Age of the Chukchi Peninsula (N.N. Dikov, translated by Richard L. Bland, 1993)
Eskimo Prehistory on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska NPS Resources Report NPS/ARORCR/CRR-93/21 (R.K. Harritt, 1994)
Fortune's Distant Shores: A History of the Kotzebue Sound Gold Stampede in Alaska's Arctic Historic Context Study for: Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, Noatak National Preserve, Kobuk Valley National Park, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve (Chris Allan, 2019)
From Hunters to Herders: The Transformation of Earth, Society, and Heaven among the Iñupiat of Beringia (Linda J. Ellanna and George k. Sherrod, August 2004)
Geologic Resources Inventory Report, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/GRD/NRR-2019/2024 (Amanda Lanik, David K. Swanson and Ronald D. Karpilo Jr., October 2019)
Indigenous Knowledge & Use of Bering Strait Region Ocean Currents (Julie Raymond-Yakoubian, 2014, ©Kawerak, Inc.)
"It is a hard country, though:" Historic Resource Study, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve (G. Frank Williss, September 1986)
Landcover Mapping for Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and Cape Krusenstern National Monument NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/ARCN/NRTR-2004/001 (M. Torre Jorgenson, Joanna E. Roth, Michael Emers, Wendy A. Davis, Sharon F. Schlentner and Matthew J. Macander, November 2004)
Living With Old Things: Iñupiaq Stories, Bering Strait Histories (Amber Lincoln, 2010)
Loon occupancy dynamics in Western Arctic Parklands, Alaska, 2011-2018 NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/ARCN/NRR-2021/2280 (Jeremy D. Mizel, Melanie J. Flamme and Joshua H. Schmidt, July 2021)
Mapping of Erosion Features Related to Thaw of Permafrost in Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, and Kobuk Valley National Park NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/ARCN/NRDS-2010/112 (David K. Swanson, December 2010)
Mysteries in the Rocks of Ancient Chukotka (Petroglyphs of Pegtymel) (N.N. Dikov, 1971)
Park Newspaper (Arctic Views): 2000 Western Arctic National Parklands (©Alaska Natural History Association)
Post-breeding Shorebird Use of Salt Marsh on the Ikpek and Arctic Lagoon Barrier Island, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/ARCN/NRDS-2014/669 (Jeremy Mizel and Audrey Taylor, May 2014)
Sedimentary biomarkers reaffirm human impacts on northern Beringian ecosystems during the Last Glacial period (Richard S. Vachula, Yongsong Huang, James M. Russell, Mark B. Abbott, Matthew S. Finkenbinder and Johnathan A. O'Donnell, extract from Boreas, 2020)
Serpentine Hot Springs Transportation Access Report, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve (URS Group, Inc. March 7, 2011)
State of the Park Report, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Alaska State of the Park Series No. 40 (2016)
Subsistence Use of Birds in the Bering Strait Region, Alaska Alaska Department of Fish and Game Technical Paper No. 239 (Amy W. Paige, Cheryl L. Scott, David B. Andersen, Susan Georgette and Robert J. Wolfe, July 1996)
The Bering Land Bridge National Preserve: An Archeological Survey Volume I Research/Resources Management Report AR-14 (Jeanne Schaaf, February 1988) (Note: Volume II has restricted access and is not for public viewing)
The Ethnography and Folklore of the Kerek (Vladilen V. Loent'ev, 2017)
Ublasaun: First Light, Inupiaq Hunters and Herders in the Early Twentieth Century, Northern Seward Peninsula, Alaska (Jeanne Schaaf, ed., December 1996)
Umiak: The Traditional Skin Boat of the Coast Dwellers of the Chukchi Peninsula (Lyudmila Ainana, Viktor Tatyga, Piotr Typykhkak and Igor' Zagrebin, translated by Richard L. Bland, 2003)
Vegetation and Snow Phenology Monitoring in the Arctic Network through 2020: Results from Satellites and Land-based Cameras NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/ARCN/NRR-2021/2337 (David K. Swanson, December 2021)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 16-Dec-2021