Raft with us from the heart of the Brooks Range all the way to the Arctic Ocean on the fast-paced Hulahula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This wilderness rafting trip has it all: day hikes up to glacier views, whitewater rafting, arctic wildlife, spring wildflowers, and even a walk on the frozen Arctic Ocean. Traverse the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on this classic rafting trip from the mountains to the sea.
Read more about Arctic Refuge and this river trip in Chris Solomon’s exceptional article in the New York Times.
From the high peaks of the Brooks Range to the windswept Arctic Ocean, our Hulahula raft trip traverses the diverse and stunning Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
There is no better way to experience the grandeur of the region. We start with several days paddling and hiking in the mountains, then paddle the canyon’s Class III rapids, before spilling into the foothills. Two more days of nonstop Class II rapids take us to the Coastal Plain, a wilderness region unlike any other—with stunning views and superb camping. Then we continue on through the river’s delta to the Arctic Ocean, where we make our last night’s camp on a gravel island next to the sea ice.
The beauty of this trip is in the diversity of landscapes and wildlife. High in the mountains Dall sheep dot the mountainsides and bears dig roots on the river flats. In the foothills we often see wolves hunting marmots or following caribou trails.
The Coastal Plain is where we may see musk oxen and we will keep our eyes peeled for arctic fox as we approach the coast. On this trip we also have good chances of seeing peregrine falcons, golden eagles, jaegers, plovers, and a great variety of other migratory birds.
Hiking in the mountains and on the tundra is excellent. Our travel schedule allows three layover days to hike the country, and plenty of free time each day. Our first hike will be high in the mountains where Dall Sheep graze and glaciers carve dramatic ridge-lines. As we emerge from the higher peaks we will stop and hike among the wildflowers with views of peaks behind and the sprawling Coastal Plain downriver.
After leaving the mountains and entering the Coastal Plain’s yawning sky the wildlife changes and the birding gets even better. Arctic rarities abound and the Hulahula Delta is one of the best birding locations in the entire Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
No experience is required for paddle rafting, as instruction is provided. Everyone joins in the fun of paddling the boats under the guidance of a raft captain. Everyone will be busy and engaged on this small rock-studded river. There are several rapids that your skilled guide will negotiate with great care. You will get splashed, but in all our years of running the Hulahula we’ve never had anyone go for an (unintentional) swim.
Summer travel in the Arctic can be rigorous and participants should be ready for anything, including low water levels that require us to get out of the boats and drag them over shallow spots. A half-mile portage is typical at the end of this trip. The hiking opportunities are limitless; from easy ambles up the valley, to all-day peak ascents. Day hikes will be tailored to your interests and abilities.
On a wilderness trip like the Hulahula, one never knows what conditions we may face nor what opportunities might arise. This is the nature, and the honor, of wilderness travel.
Last updated: December 22, 2020
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Pre-trip meeting with your guide(s) in Fairbanks at 4pm at Arctic Wild headquarters.
Fly north from Fairbanks across the Yukon River, the Arctic Circle, and the Brooks Range, to the headwaters of the Hulahula River. We’ll make a comfortable camp, have a good dinner, and watch the sun refuse to set! Welcome to the arctic! We can climb a small hill for a lovely view of the valley ahead.
We’ll spend our first full day of the trip hiking on the tundra and learning about the refuge. From our camp next the the Hulahula’s headwaters we can climb into the high country for views to the Continental Divide. We’ll glass for Dall sheep in the peaks and press our faces close to the ground to inspect emergent wildflowers.
After a safety discussion we can launch the four-person paddle rafts into the current and work on paddling as a team on the small and technical Hulahula River. We’ll back-paddle away from rocky cliffs, skitter over the shallow cobbles and weave our way past remnants of last winter’s ice. The river is fast and fun.
At intervals, we’ll pull over and search the gravel bars for fossilized coral or we may have the opportunity to get out the spotting scope so we can watch a distant grizzly, digging for squirrels.
We’ll have time (and infinite daylight) to take a hike after dinner and explore away from each of our riverside camps.
As we approach the northern edge of the mountains we enter a spectacular canyon and the river gains speed and difficulty. Here we encounter a couple of Class III rapids and numerous Class II sections. We may stop and scout or even line the boats through the rapids if the water level makes them unsafe.
Once through the rapids we reach the mountain front where the Brooks Range ends and the foothills begins. We encounter many unique species of plants and animals where the two habitats intersect and we’ll have a full day here to hike and relax.
If you are particularly ambitious we can climb Mt Kikiktat for views to the north almost to the Arctic Ocean. Or grab your binoculars and stroll to a nearby lake and observe waterfowl nesting and feeding on the edge of the coastal plain. There is lots to do here and the camping is superb.
The Hulahula gains a few tributaries and though we are out of the biggest mountains, the river remains fast and fun. The technical rapids are behind us but we’ll enjoy long wave trains and varied paddling as we make our way north through the foothills.
This is the area where we most frequently see caribou on the Hulahula. The calves are just weeks old and they grow quickly while there mothers feed on the rich sedges of the Jago Uplands. Most years there are few if any mosquitoes this early in June so the caribou are relaxed and spread out. Watching them drift across the rolling landscape while the sun lingers in the northern sky is a quintessentially Arctic experience.
Eventually the foothills melt into the coastal plain and the sky swallows us in its enormity. As the land grows flat the air fills with birds and begins to feel more coastal.
Before entering the Beaufort Sea, the Hulahula splits into several channels, floods tundra ponds and winds its way into a complex delta it shares with the Okpilak River. The delta is one of the most biologically interesting places in the Arctic Refuge and we’ll have some time to enjoy it.
We will need to paddle the few remaining miles of the Hulahula, portage 3/4-mile from the Hulahula to the Okpilak River (you get to paddle two rivers in one trip!), and then paddle across the coastal lagoon to a barrier island where we’ll eventually meet the plane. We could do all that in a single day but we like to savor the area so we’ll spend some time birding in the delta, and still leave enough time to explore the barrier island.
The gravel island is austere and a bit foreboding, but full of interest. We’ll be looking for old polar bear tracks and if conditions permit, even walking on the sea-ice! At days end we can build a bonfire from driftwood and watch the midnight sun. Happy Solstice!
Awake this morning at the northern edge of the continent. Weather permitting, we get a quick flight to the Inupiat Village of Kaktovik and then a longer flight back south across the Brooks Range, the Arctic Circle, and the Yukon River to Fairbanks arriving late in the day. Time to change your socks!
We had great guides and traveling companions, and were fortunate to see lots of caribou, bears, and other wildlife. The variety of scenery and adventure was great, even dragging the rafts through the mud on the delta was strangely fun. We’re really glad the trip went all the way to Arctic Coast. Great to have the library and spotting scope.
Round-trip airfare from Fairbanks
Food while in the wilderness, stoves, cooking & eating utensils
Boats, paddles, life jackets, safety & repair gear
Professional guide service
Personal clothing and gear, waterproof river bag
Fishing gear, and fishing license
Gratuity for guide(s)
Rental equipment is available through Arctic Wild. See full equipment list
Temperatures vary dramatically in the Arctic and can range from the 20s to 70s. When the wind comes from the north, the temperature can drop to below freezing. Cold rains and snow are possible, but we get lots of sunny weather in the summer season. With luck this trip is prior to the “bug season” but bring along a mosquito head net and a small bottle of DEET repellent. Better safe than sorry.