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Atigun Gorge, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge , Alaska, ANWR, Alaskan Arctic, Arctic, Northern Alaska, Atigun, Atigun River

A Day Hike into ANWR

A Day Hike into ANWR was originally published in October 2020

I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out- it’s totally possible to do a day hike in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from the Dalton Highway. How do I know this? Well, guys, I’ve done it. I hadn’t intended to do this, you see. I had purchased a map of Gates of the Arctic National Park, that I intended to venture into as part of my greater trip into the Arctic as I road tripped the entirety of the Dalton Highway. When the map finally arrived in the mail I happened to notice that ANWR (the commonly used acronym for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) came precariously close to the Dalton Highway in one short stretch of the park’s western boundary. One mile to be exact. With a hair-brained plan hatched in my usual fashion, suddenly a day hike into ANWR was on our Arctic Alaskan itinerary.

Start planning here: The Ultimate Alaska Travel Guide

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What is the Arctic National Widlife Refuge?

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR for short is the largest wildlife refuge in the United States, located in northeastern Alaska, entirely within the Arctic Circle. In 1960, 8.9 million acres of land in northeast Alaska were established as wildlife refuge, and in 1980 the refuge was expanded to 19.3 million acres (the refuge is roughly the same size as the state of South Carolina) and renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The land is mostly unihabited, housing only a handful of small villages within the boundaries of the refuge, the two largest being the Gwich’in settlement of Arctic Village at the southern boundary of ANWR, and the Inupiat settlement of Kaktovik on the northern fringes.

Throughout the duration of my entire life, ANWR has been a place of controversy. I’ve heard it argued over between Alaskans and oil companies, locals and outsiders, government officials, politicians, tribal councils, and regular old civilians. The reason for the fight you’re likely wondering? The 1002 Area.

Area 1002

Area 1002 has two things going for it that have caused many a heated debate over the last few decades, both inside and outside Alaska. Area 1002 sits along the coastal plains of the Arctic Ocean, which is an important calving area for the Porcupine Caribou herd that migrates roughly 1,500 miles between the Porcupine River in northern Canada and the southern slopes of the Brooks Range. Area 1002 also contains a large reserve of oil and gas. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) was signed into law in December 1980, and Section 1002 was included as a part of the act, mandating that potential oil reserves within the 1.5 million acre coastal plain within the 1002 Area be considered for development, only if authorized by the United States Congress.

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Views of the pipeline from Atigun River 2 Bridge

a Day Hike into ANWR

Making a short day trip into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from the Dalton Highway is easier than you may think. Sure, you’ll need some gear to protect you from the elements out here (they can be quite wild), a map, an ability to navigate without a trail, and a touch of confidence. With all that said, I wouldn’t recommend making the 710 mile drive up from Anchorage (that’s one way, mind you) just to go on a day hike into ANWR, however, if you’re planning to take on the Dalton Highway road trip and want to go on a day trip to visit Alaska’s most controversial refuge, this is the post for you.

How to get to the start of the ANWR day hike

First, you’ll need to head to Atigun River 2 Bridge, located close to Galbraith Lake. There’s a parking lot right off the Dalton Highway on the west side of the road, and on the south side of the bridge. From here, you have two options. One option is the walk on foot across the bridge from the parking lot and follow the northern bank of the Atigun River eastward into ANWR (this is what we did). The other option is to cross the highway from the parking lot, staying on the south side of the Atigun River, and follow the course of the river into the refuge.

Me and 10,000 mosquitos

The best time to go to ANWR

Seeing that ANWR is located in the Arctic, this region is frozen most of the year. The best months to visit are June through September when temperatures are bearable. These warmer months do come with one caveat: mosquitos. I visited in mid-July and the mosquitos were horrendous (I knew this going in and was fully prepared for it), and I don’t mean just a minor nuisance. I have spoken with other’s who have visited the refuge, nearby Gates of the Arctic, or just have spent a lot of time in the Alaskan Arctic, and have stated that if you visit in early June, or after mid-late August that the bugs aren’t quite as bad. Just know that if you visit in July be prepared to be fully covered to avoid being eaten alive.

Atigun Gorge, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, ANWR
Views of Atigun Gorge on our hike into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from the Dalton Highway

What was hiking in ANWR like?

If you’ve never trekked off-trail and in the Arctic, this will likely be quite the challenge in comparison to other experiences you’ve likely had. Get ready for tussocks, tundra, uneven ground, and just about everything in between.

If you’ve never trekked off-trail and in the Arctic, this will likely be quite the challenge in comparison to other experiences you’ve likely had. Get ready for tussocks, tundra, uneven ground, and just about everything in between. Though in my opinion the benefits far outweigh the risks. Here are a few things to know about and to look out for:

  • Tundra: Tundra’s flat appearance looks inviting, but tundra is much more difficult to walk on than meets the eye. It’s often damp and, especially alpine tundra will be covered in delicate mosses, lichens, and wildflowers. Another feature commonly seen in areas of tundra are tussocks.

    Given the delicateness of tundra, and the things that grow on and around it, it’s recommended to follow an already established trail (if there is one, here in ANWR likely not), and to try and walk on rocks and stones (where there are any). If there is no trail (most likely the case for you here), and you’re trekking with others, it’s recommended to ‘fan’ out when walking. Meaning don’t all walk in a single-file line, this is to avoid the creation of a new trail.
  • Tussocks: Tussocks are clumps of grasses that form and can get the size of basketballs and larger. When tromping across the tundra, you’ll surely see tussocks. When you get into areas where the ground is saturated these tussocks look like welcoming little islands to which you can hop from one to another, avoiding getting your feet wet. It’s best to avoid areas of tussocks altogether, typically by heading for drier slopes, riverbeds, or patches of willows or alders. If you can’t avoid an area chock-full of tussocks, avoid stepping atop them as it puts you at risk of twisting and injuring an ankle.
  • Creek and riverbeds: We found (especially true on our multi-day trek into Gates of the Arctic National Park) that walking in creekbeds and riverbeds felt almost like a highway in comparison to trying to navigate the arduous tundra terrain.
Atigun Gorge, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge , Alaska, ANWR, Alaskan Arctic, Arctic, Northern Alaska, Atigun, Atigun River
Atigun Gorge, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge , Alaska, ANWR, Alaskan Arctic, Arctic, Northern Alaska, Atigun, Atigun River

Trekking further into ANWR

You could, of course, use this ANWR day hike route as your send-ff to exploring further into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This route outlined in this blog post gives you the quickest access to the refuge, only being located about one mile off the Dalton Highway.

Following the Atigun River easteard, it eventually meets with the Sagavanirktok River that runs in a north-south direction, which you could follow either direction to explore ANWR further. Of course there’s countless a mountain pass to choose from to continue on into the Brooks Range.

Of course, you could trek eastward from the Dalton Highway from several other points into ANWR, but know that these routes may see you hiking for 50 miles or more before reaching the boundary of the refuge.

Know that you’ll need to be 100% self-reliant and will need to carry all gear and provisions on you plan to do a multi-day trek into ANWR. There are several local companies that offer various backcountry trips around ANWR too, so if you’re not 100% confident doing this DIY-style, a guided trip should be your next move. If you’re looking to join a backpacking expedition in ANWR, check out the scheduled departures on offer by Alaska Alpine Adventures and Expeditions Alaska. You can also arrange custom trips with my friend and expedition guide extraordinaire Kathryn over at Backpack AK.

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Our ANWR Day Hike Route

  • Distance: 10 miles (return)

The ANWR day hike route is pretty straightforward, just follow the course of the river. The above map is loosely based on my handful of waypoints dropped with my GPS along the route. Really, all you’ll need to do is look for your own “path” and go for it. There are no trails out here, so you’ll need to comfortable trekking into the (somewhat) unknown.

I’d recommend spending the night before the trek (and possibly the night after if you’re not turning this into a multi-day hike) at Galbraith Lake. There is an established BLM campground here on the opposite shore from the highway, just past Galbraith Airport.

Atigun Gorge, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge , Alaska, ANWR, Alaskan Arctic, Arctic, Northern Alaska, Atigun, Atigun River
Hiking along Atigun Gorge in ANWR

What To Pack for an ANWR Day Hike

What to Pack for further exploration

Atigun Gorge, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge , Alaska, ANWR, Alaskan Arctic, Arctic, Northern Alaska, Atigun, Atigun River

Safety in ANWR

It’s important to remember that ANWR is extremely remote, and it is wild after all. There are plenty of caribou, wolves, moose, grizzly bears, wolverines, polar bears (only near to the coast), and countless other critters to be aware of. Being self-sufficient is important, given the remoteness of the region. There’s no phone reception, no roads, and no amenities waiting for you in the mountains or the tundra.

Have any questions about visiting ANWR?

Ask in the comments section below.

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