Kobuk Valley
National Park
Park Photo
NPS photo

Expansive Arctic and Subarctic Wildlands

Known simply as the Western Arctic National Parklands, four units of the National Park System stretch eastward from the Chukchi Sea for some 290 miles to the upper Noatak River. Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Kobuk Valley National Park, Noatak National Preserve, and Bering Land Bridge National Preserve together protect some 11.8 million acres of subarctic and arctic wildlands. They also offer, on the Noatak and Kobuk rivers, some of North America's finest waters for wilderness expeditions. These parklands contain the western terminus of the Brooks Range, which is the northernmost extension of the Rocky Mountain Range. They trace the treeline or northern limit of tree growth as the boreal forest gives way to the tundra that stretches northward to Point Barrow on the Beaufort Sea. The Western Arctic National Parklands protect the archeologically significant beach ridges of Cape Krusenstern, the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, and most of the expansive watershed of the Noatak River and commemorate the people of the Americas who crossed the Bering Land Bridge in prehistoric times. With Gates of the Arctic National Park they extend 350 miles inland and encompass 19.5 million acres. Linked to this expansive topography is the wide-ranging, nomadic Western Arctic herd of barren ground caribou. In 2000 the herd numbered more than 450,000 animals. The tundra offers a thin veneer of life across which caribou must move to forage for adequate food. In summer the land is covered with a profusion of low-growing plants, including dwarfed ground willows, saxifrage, lupines, reindeer moss, and lichens. The caribou has a strong presence in native stories of this region. Native peoples here were often semi-nomadic, following the caribou migrations. Even the coastal peoples of Cape Krusenstern ranged inland to hunt caribou and to hunt and trap other land mammals when the sea mammals so important to their lives were scarce. Throughout these parklands, local residents still pursue caribou hunting, fishing, trapping, and other subsistence activities. Many residents rely significantly on locally harvested animals, fish, and plants for satisfying basic food needs. The Inupiat people traditionally valued the land so that, through wise use over thousands of years, its resources and productivity were carefully preserved for the benefit of future generations. The National Park Service has a compatible mission—of stewardship of this vast reach of northwest Alaska for the use and enjoyment of this and coming generations. From the visitor centers it is difficult to imagine the extent of the Noatak River—whose name means "passage to the interior"—or the expanse of the annual caribou migrations throughout the immense area that these parks encompass. For information about the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, please see its individual brochure.

Kobuk Valley

Kobuk Valley National Park is also mountain-enclosed—by the Baird and Waring mountains. Major natural features that the park protects include the central section of the Kobuk River, the 25-square-mile Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, and the Little Kobuk and Hunt River dunes. Additional dunes that have been stabilized by vegetation now cover much of the southern portion of the Kobuk Valley. Sand created by the grinding action of ancient glaciers has been carried to the Kobuk Valley by winds—westerly in summer and easterly the rest of the year—and by water. River bluffs, composed of sand and standing as high as 150 feet, hold permafrost ice wedges and the fossils of Ice Age mammals. Up to 1,500 feet wide, the placid Kobuk River falls a mere two to three inches per mile. Its valley provides important fall and winter range for the Western Arctic caribou herd. Bands of bulls and cows may be seen here from late August through October as they cross the Kobuk River on their extensive annual migrations. Native peoples have lived along the Kobuk for at least 12,000 years. Their history is best recorded at the Onion Portage archeological site. The Salmon River, within Kobuk Valley National Park, is classified as a national wild and scenic river. Activities: Motorboats, kayaks, canoes, and rafts are used on the river for a variety of floating experiences. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes can be reached at their northern tip—once you have floated the river into hiking range, that is—by an easy cross-country hike from the Kobuk River.

Caribou, Nomads of the North

Caribou migrations are one of the wonders of the subarctic and arctic realms. Traditionally, caribou have been among this region's chief food sources for humans, predators, and scavengers. The populations of some other animals species may even fluctuate with that of the caribou. Native peoples have depended on caribou for food, clothing, shelter, and tools, using the entire animal. For food: meat, greens from the stomach, and fat. For clothing: hides for coats called parkies, trousers, boots called mukluks, and mittens, plus sinew to sew them. For shelter: hides for tents. For tools: antler and bone for needles, sleigh brakes, fish spears, knife handles, arrowheads, hide scrappers, and snow shovels.

Life on the Tundra
Truly migratory, caribou move about the tundra in constant search of plant foods to support their body weight: 150 to 300 pounds for bulls. Tundra is a mat of mostly prostrate vegetation that can grow where short summers and other conditions preclude tree growth. Tundra is often underlain by permanently frozen ground called permafrost. The ground surfaces of wet tundra and moist tundra thaw in summer and stay waterlogged because permafrost prevents ready drainage. Alpine tundra often grows on rocky ground that drains very rapidly: the ground thaws in summer, but plants must resist drying out. Caribou feed on grasses and grass-like sedges; small shrubs and their berries; and twigs and bark. In winter, when these are not as available, they eat significant amounts of a lichen called reindeer moss. Caribou can dig through snow to find food unless the crust is too hard, in which case they may suffer malnutrition and even starve. Besides the predators, chief antagonists of caribou in summer are the caribou warble fly, caribou nostril fly, black fly, and mosquito. Caribou may even stop eating while trying to avoid the Arctic's summer hordes of biting insects. Mosquitoes, however, are an important food source—converting the productivity of plants into protein—that sustain abundant bird and fish life of the north.

Range and Migrations
Known as "nomads of the north," caribou have lived in most of Alaska except its southeastern panhandle. In their yearly wanderings, caribou of Western Arctic herd range over 140,000 square miles, including the entire four parks that make up the Western Arctic National Parklands. The herd—North America's largest—is more than 450,000 at this writing. Spring migration begins in March: the herd's main body crosses the Kobuk and Noatak rivers moving northward to calving grounds on the Arctic Coastal Plain. Many of the caribou begin to cross the Noatak southward in late August and the Kobuk in September. The winter range lies south of Kobuk Valley National Park and the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge.

Caribou have adapted to this harsh and demanding environment in many ways. Hollow caribou hair traps substantial air for excellent insulation against the cold. Its buoyancy is evident when the animals cross rivers; they float very high.

The caribou's dew claws and spreading cleft hooves help support its weight on soft ground and snow. In winter the hoof's sharp edges help the caribou on frozen terrain.

Adult bulls can accumulate fat deposits—mostly on the back and rump—that weigh 60 pounds or more in early fall. They lose the fat during the rutting, or mating, season.

Wolves and Other Predators
The principal predators of the caribou are the wolf and bear. Wolverines, foxes, and eagles prey on calves. Any of the above, as well as weasels, lemmings, some hawks, ravens, gray jays, and gulls, will scavenge caribou carcasses. Some wolves, especially on North Slope calving areas. will follow the caribou herd. However, many wolves reside in specific locations. Wolves hunt caribou by stealth and ambush, by relay running, or by culling victims of falls from running in a tightly massed herd. Healthy adult caribou can normally outrun single wolves and have the advantage on ice. Wolves have the advantage on soft tundra and in some snow conditions.

Western Arctic National Parklands

Access and Information

park map
(click for larger map)

Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Kobuk Valley National Park, Noatak National Preserve, and Bering Land Bridge National Preserve together are known as the Western Arctic National Parklands. The parks' information center and the headquarters offices in Kotzebue and Nome are open Monday through Friday. At these locations you can buy topographic maps, aeronautical charts, and books on the region, and get information on hunting and fishing regulations, location of private lands within the park units, minimum impact camping, bear safety, and other important topics. Kotzebue and Nome can be reached only by air. These airports are served both by scheduled airlines and by many Alaska package tour companies.

Transportation. People generally reach the Western Arctic National Parklands by scheduled airlines from Fairbanks or Anchorage. Scheduled flights are available from Kotzebue and Nome to nearby villages. Check at the visitor centers for a list of the villages. Air taxi or charter flights are available from Kotzebue, Nome, Ambler, Bettles, and Fairbanks. Write to the superintendent for a list of authorized air taxi services for Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Kobuk Valley National Park, Noatak National Preserve, and Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.


There are no National Park Service developments, services, campgrounds, or trails in these park areas. Summer access to and through them includes motorized and non-motorized watercraft, aircraft, and by foot. Light aircraft land on gravel bars and tundra airstrips or on rivers, lakes, and lagoons. Floating the major rivers can be the experience of a lifetime.

At Cape Krusenstern, kayaking along the coast and through lagoons is possible. Camping, hiking, backpacking, wildlife observation and photography are popular activities.

At Kobuk Valley, motorboats, kayaks, canoes, and rafts are used on the river. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, up to 150 feet high, are an easy hike from the Kobuk River.

At Noatak, fine canoeing, kayaking, and rafting opportunities abound on the Noatak River. Aircraft also provide access for fishing and backpacking.

At Bering Land Bridge, camping and hiking. Backpacking, birding, and coastal boating are among many possible activities.


Private property. Private lands are located within all four areas, generally along rivers and beaches. Respect property and privacy.

Subsistence use. Local residents engaged in a subsistence way of life are legally permitted to continue subsistence. Please do not interfere with subsistence camps, fishnets, or other equipment.

Fishing. Fishing can be good when rivers are clear and fish are running. Species include grayling, arctic char, sheefish, salmon, pike, and whitefish. An Alaska fishing license is required for all persons 16 years of age or older. Alaska fish ing seasons and regulations apply.

Hunting. Sport hunting is permitted in Noatak National Preserve and Bering Land Bridge National Preserve with an Alaska hunting license. Alaska seasons and regulations apply. Kobuk Valley National Park and Cape Krusenstern National Monument are closed to sport hunting. Subsistence hunting by local residents living in identified resident zones is permitted in all four areas. State and federal subsistence hunting regulations apply.

Camping. The four park areas have no designated campgrounds. Tundra and river bars are often used for camping. Use river bars with caution: Rapid changes in river levels can occur without warning. Camp only where escape routes are available to safe higher ground. Keep gear above river level and secure boats and other floatable items.


This is a vast area subject to harsh weather, high winds, rain, and snow. Guard against hypothermia, an all-season killer. Animals are wild and must be respected. Before traveling in the backcountry, review the brochures about handling wildlife encounters. These are available at the visitor centers or by mail. Mosquitoes and biting flies are prevalent; headnets and/or repellent are recommended. Drinking water should be boiled for one minute before use. Giardia lamblia can be a problem. You must possess good backcountry skills for wilderness survival. Know—and test—your gear before you arrive.

For your safety, leave your itinerary with someone and notify that person when you complete your trip. Winter travel can be recommended only to those experienced in arctic camping and survival techniques.

Bear Warning

Grizzly and black bears are common to the parks. They are unpredictable and dangerous. Never surprise or approach them closely; stay cautious and alert at all times. Make noise—loud talking, ringing a bell, shaking stones in a can, etc. If you meet a bear, yield the right-of-way by moving slowly away, not by running.

Clean camps are essential to reducing bear problems. The odors of various foods, lotions, toothpaste, shaving cream, etc., attract bears. Keep sleeping and cooking areas separate. Store food and scented articles in airtight containers. Leave scented foods such as bacon and smoked fish at home. Burn and carry out all garbage. It is legal to carry a firearm for bear protection.

Source: NPS Brochure (2002)


Kobuk Valley National Park — December 2, 1980
Kobuk Valley National Monument — December 1, 1978

For More Information
Please Visit The
Link to Official NPS Website

Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards expand section


A Proposal: Kobuk Valley National Monument, Draft Environmental Impact Statement (December 1973)

Arctic Citadel: A History of Exploration in the Brooks Range Region of Northern Alaska — Historic Context Study for: Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Noatak National Preserve, Kobuk Valley National Park, Cape Krusenstern National Monument (Chris Allan, 2014)

Climate Change Scenario Planning for Interior Arctic Alaska Parks: Noatak — Gates of the Arctic — Kobuk Valley NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/AKSO/NRR-2014/833 (Robert Winfree, Bud Rice, John Morris, Nancy Swanton, Don Callaway, Jeff Mow, Nancy Fresco and Lena Krutikov, July 2014)

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)

Foundation Statement, Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska (February 2010)

Foundation Document Overview, Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska (January 2016)

General Management Plan/Land Protection Plan/Wilderness Suitability Review: Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska (December 1986)

Kobuk Sand Dunes Overview and Assessment: Annotated Bibliography (Scott Shirar, 2010)

Kobuk Valley Wilderness Character Baseline Assessment: Building Blocks for Wilderness Stewardship NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/KOVA/NRR—2016/1103 (Nyssa Landres, January 2016)

Kuuvanmiut Subsistence: Traditional Eskimo Life in the Latter Twentieth Century (Douglas B. Anderson, Wanni W. Anderson, Ray Bane, Richard K. Nelson and Nita Sheldon Towarak, August 1998)

Hydrologic data and a proposed water-quality monitoring network for Kobuk River basin, gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, and Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska USGS Water-Resources Investigations Report 2001-4141 (Timothy P. Brabets, 2001)

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)

Metal mobilization from thawing permafrost to aquatic ecosystems is driving rusting of Arctic streams (Jonathan A. O'Donnell, Michael P. Carey, Joshua C. Koch, Carson Baughman, Kenneth Hill, Christian E. Zimmerman, Patrick F. Sullivan, Roman Dial, Timothy Lyons, David J. Cooper and Brett A. Poulin, extract from Communications Earth & Environment, Vol. 5, 2024)

National Register of Historic Places Nomination Forms

Onion Portage Archaeological District (AHRS AMR-001) (Karen Wood Workman, December 15, 1975)

Park Newspaper (Arctic Views): 2000 Western Arctic National Parklands (©Alaska Natural History Association)

Proposed Kobuk Valley National Monument, Alaska: Final Environmental Statement (1975)

Special Report on a Reconnaissance of the Kobuk-Koyukuk Headwaters Wilderness Area, Brooks Range, Northern Alaska (March 1969)

Stability of Ice-Wedges in Kobuk Valley National Park and the Noatak National Preserve, 1951-2009 NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/ARCN/NRR-2016/1248 (David K. Swanson, July 2016)

State of the Park Report, Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska State of the Park Series No. 45 (2017)

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)

Western Arctic National Parklands Junior Ranger (2015; for reference purposes only)

Whitefish: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Subsistence Fishing in the Kotzebue Sound Region, Alaska Alaska Department of Fish and Game Technical Paper No. 290 (Susan Georgette and Attamuk Shiedt, January 2005)

Wild and Scenic River Values: Salmon Wild River (July 2016)


Kobuk Valley National Park

Books expand section

Last Updated: 30-May-2024