On the northern edge of the continent where the Brooks Range nearly meets the Arctic Ocean, caribou amass in great herds at the end of June. This scenic backpacking trip traverses one of their favorite areas. Join us backpacking through an iconic wilderness in search of caribou.
In the far north of Alaska where the sun circles the sky in June and trees seem like a distant memory, lies the famed Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This summer we will hike through the mountains across the flower covered coastal plain, crossing 35 miles of some of the wildest and most remote land in America.
We start our trip in the mountains, where colorful ridges and cliffs of folded rock tower above our camp. With plenty of time to reach our final destination we can dawdle a bit here where the topography is dramatic and we will take time to climb a small peak for views of our route. After a two and a half days of backpacking through the canyons and exploring in the hills, we will emerge into the big-sky country of the coastal plain where the tundra is etched from millennia of caribou migrations.
The coastal plain is a place like no other. Enormous, austere, mysterious, inspiring, and occasionally a bit intimidating in its vastness and unfamiliarity. The scenery is subtle with rolling tundra hills and broad gravel flats but at a walking speed there is no end to the delights we may find.
From the variety of wildflowers, to ground patterned by the relentless ice, to the delight in finding an Arctic Fox den on a bluff above the creek each day is full of wonder and delight. Unlike much of the coastal plain, the area near the Yukon border where we will hike is dry, with a nearly continuous blanket of wild-flowers covering the rolling hills making for decent hiking.
As we traverse the coastal plain we will get glimpses of the sea-ice to the north. At times an arctic mirage called “fata morgana” will make the ice appear far above the horizon. As the light changes both day and night the coastal plain transforms, perhaps disappearing into the fog, maybe blazingly bright in 24 hour sun.
Our final full day of the trip includes a day-hike to the Arctic Coast, where we are likely to find great rafts of eiders and other sea-ducks feeding amongst the sea-ice. We may find polar bear tracks on the beach, whale bones, or artifacts from Inupiat fish camps both modern and ancient. If you are brave you can even take a swim!
With luck, we will cross paths with the migrating Porcupine Caribou Herd, numbering nearly 225,000 at last count. In 2016 we watched them stream through our camp for 2 days straight! We could never predict what the caribou will do next June, but if the pattern holds we could find ourselves hiking with the herd across the coastal plain. Imagine waking in the night, the sun low in the north, to the sound of a thousand clicking hooves.
Where there are caribou, there are those animals who live from their unwariness: wolves and grizzly bears. And where the two join, there are scavengers like fox, wolverine, and ravens. This is a trip with excellent potential for wildlife encounters. It is a great hike with or without caribou, but we will keep our fingers crossed and our eyes peeled.
Hiking in the arctic is an “off-trail” experience, so a six-mile day can take as long and be as taxing as ten miles in other parts of the world. The footing is a mix of dry tundra benches and gravel bars with various kinds of wet tundra mixed in. We will have to contend with some tussock fields but mostly the walking is flat and gravely. There are a couple of mountain passes to cross and several stream crossings.
This is a good trip for both experienced backpackers and newcomers in good shape who are willing to push themselves. Experience with overnight backpacking prior to the trip is highly recommended. Each hiker will get 15-20 pounds of food and community gear to carry. Due to the small party size and the trip’s duration, expect to start the trip with a pack weighing no less than 45 pounds.
Last updated: November 22, 2021
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet your guide for a pre-trip meeting at 4pm in Fairbanks at Arctic Wild headquarters.
A day to explore the Arctic Coast on foot. There are old sod houses, sea-ducks nesting, seals basking on the sea-ice and maybe even polar bear tracks!
From our camp by Demarcation Bay we pack up early and begin listening for our airplane. When it arrives we reluctantly load our gear and ourselves for the flight back through Arctic Village and on to Fairbanks, arriving late in the afternoon.
Such a joy to spend days where time was meaningless. A wonderful adventure and I would like to return next year for a longer, more challenging trip.
You mentioned to me in an email that you have terrific guides – you do indeed. Dave is a superb guide. He is personable, knowledgeable about the Arctic, and has excellent group management skills. I appreciated the time he spent teaching me to read the map, which is not easy without trails. He allowed Adrian and me to hike at our own pace and he encouraged all of us to explore the area surrounding our campsites. I know the others would concur in my praise.
Round-trip airfare from Fairbanks
Food while in the wilderness
Stoves, cooking & eating utensils, water filter, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Select Camping Equipment is available through Arctic Wild
Personal clothing and gear, backpack, tent. See complete equipment list.
Fishing gear, and fishing license
Gratuity for guide(s)
Temperatures vary dramatically in the Arctic and can range from 20-80 degrees. Temperatures could be hot in the river valleys under the 24 hour sun, but as we get close to the Arctic Coast it will be cooler or downright cold. Ice fog along the coast and strong winds are part of the regions charm. There could be a few mosquitoes but the trip is too early for them to be very bad yet. Bring DEET and a head-net just in case.