Arctic Light Backpacking, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14021A, Backpacking


  • Experience 24-hour Arctic spring daylight
  • View abundant wildlife and birdlife
  • Enjoy wilderness quiet and solitude


  • Charter flights to and from the Arctic Refuge
  • All meals and snacks, vegetarian-friendly
  • All permits and all entrance fees


DatesJun 7–15, 2014
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffAndrew Ogden

This trip has already run. Here are a few others you may enjoy:

To search our full lineup by destination, date, activity, or price, please visit our Advanced Search page. Or give us a call at 415-977-5522 to find the trip that's right for you.

Trip Overview

The Trip

In June, the tundra and mountains north of the Arctic Circle are bathed in 24-hour daylight as the long winter releases its icy grip on the landscape. During the brief spring and summer, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a land of wild rivers rushing with snowmelt, ranging predators, migrating birds, prolific wildflowers, and the vast Porcupine caribou herd on its annual migration from eastern Canada to its ancestral calving grounds on the Coastal Plain.

Our trip will visit a particularly scenic and wildlife-rich part of the Refuge. We will start our adventure being dropped off by bush plane in the foothills of the Coastal Plain, after a spectacular flight across the Brooks Range. Camping near the airstrip, we will spend our first full day exploring Paleolithic hunting sites and enjoying the immense vista across the Plain to the edge of the ice-covered Arctic Ocean 30 miles to the north. If we are fortunate, we may see tens of thousands of caribou from the Porcupine herd scattered across the Plain as they pause in their migratory cycle to feast on the rich sedges and prepare their newborn calves for the long trek back to their winter feeding grounds in eastern Canada.

The next day we will hike south, following the broad valley carved by the Aichilik River deep into the Brooks Range, enjoying spectacular vistas as the surrounding peaks rise ever higher on either side of our route. During our trip the tundra will awaken from its winter's slumber, turning greener with each day as grasses and fields of wildflowers spring forth, reaching for the never-setting sun. We will keep a constant eye out for the abundant variety of wildlife and bird life that frequents the major river drainages in the Refuge, hoping to see brown bears, wolves, foxes, wolverines, Dall sheep and golden eagles, all of whom taking advantage of the brief summer to rear their young and prepare for the coming Arctic winter. Climbing higher and higher, we will take time to explore seldom-visited side valleys and perhaps climb an unnamed peak or two to view the distant glaciers on the high peaks of the Brooks Range. After several days of climbing, we will hike over an alpine pass and descend quickly and camp in a spectacular valley. On the next to last day, we will follow a cascading stream down to our pick-up spot on the Jago River, where we will make our camp the last night surrounded by rugged alpine peaks with serpentine glaciers flowing down their flanks.

The goals of our journey will be to see the area's abundance of wildlife and birdlife, enjoy the stunning scenery along our route, and experience the vastness and solitude of true wilderness. At camp we will have the opportunity for evening readings from Alaskan and arctic-themed literature, and to discuss the day's adventures and some of the current conservation issues involving the Refuge and Alaska. In addition to a having the personal experience of a lifetime and a lot of fun, by visiting this vast, remote and wild place, participants will come to appreciate its unique beauty and importance as an undisturbed refuge for wildlife.


Before our trip begins, we will meet at a B&B in downtown Fairbanks to discuss the trip and go over our gear and supplies. There should be an opportunity for visiting various points of interest in Fairbanks, including the University of Alaska Museum of the North, the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, the Large Animal Research Station at the UA Fairbanks campus, Creamer's Field wildlife refuge, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and downtown Fairbanks, with its variety of attractions, shopping, and eateries.

Early on the first day of our trip, we will fly north from Fairbanks via regional air service to the Gwich'in settlement of Arctic Village. From there we will shuttle via bush plane in a spectacular flight over the Brooks Range to an airstrip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the Aichilik River at approximately 2,500 feet, where we will camp for the first night. On the second day, we will take a long day hike to the edge of the foothills, where we will visit a Paleolithic hunting site and climb a low peak to view the Coastal Plain. On our third day, we will begin our hike south by following the Aichilik River. We will camp for a couple days along the river before turning southeast, when we will follow a nameless tributary for several more days higher into the mountains. On our most strenuous day of the trip, we will climb approximately a thousand feet and cross a pass up at 4,000 feet, from which we should be able to see some of the most remote peaks and glaciers in the Brooks Range. Descending quickly from the pass, we will camp in a broad valley. On the next and final day of hiking day, we will head northwest, following a crystal-clear cascading mountain stream to reach the landing strip by the Jago River and our pick up on the last day. The pace of our approximate 30-mile journey will be moderate but steady, hiking approximately 5-6 miles a day, taking time to watch and photograph wildlife, enjoy the vastness of the landscape, and to take side trips to explore interesting places along the way. We will end our trip by taking another spectacular flight by bush plane from the Jago landing strip to Arctic Village, and then a scheduled flight to Fairbanks. The adventure usually ends after the return to Fairbanks with a final group meal at the northernmost brewpub in the United States.



Getting There

Fairbanks is served daily by a number of scheduled airline flights, either directly from some airports in the lower 48 states or connecting through Anchorage. You must schedule your flights or other travel arrangements so that you arrive at least one full day, and preferably two days, before our scheduled trip departure to allow time for pre-trip organization and any delays in the arrival of your gear and baggage. Your departure from Fairbanks should be scheduled at least a full day after our scheduled return date to allow for possible delays in our return due to weather or other conditions.

Accommodations and Food

The cost of lodging and food in Fairbanks before and after the trip is not included in the trip price. The leaders will attempt to reserve rooms for everybody in one location, and participants will be responsible to finalizing those reservations or may make their own arrangements for lodging if they desire. Most local transportation around Fairbanks before and after the trip will be provided, possibly except for airport pick-ups and drop-offs. All nights in the Refuge will be spent camping. All meals and snacks are provided for the entire trip, beginning with lunch on the first day. The menu will be vegetarian, but not vegan as it will include dairy and eggs. Participants are responsible for notifying the trip leader of any special dietary requirements. The Sierra Club will furnish stoves, pots, cooking gear, and fuel. All meals will be prepared and eaten as a group, and everybody will be required to take turns assisting in the preparation of meals, cleaning up afterwards, and helping with other camp chores. Water in this area of the Refuge is very clean and many travelers (including the leaders) drink it without filtration or treatment. However, on our trip all water used in food preparation will be either boiled or treated. Individual participants wishing to treat water for their personal use should provide their own purification equipment.

Trip Difficulty

We will be hiking in a rugged wilderness area with no improved trails. Hiking will mostly be along tundra and river bars and following wildlife trails. However, we will be hiking with wet feet as it will be necessary to cross streams, rivers, tussock fields and soggy terrain. The length of our days typically will not exceed 5-6 miles at altitudes ranging from 2,000-4,000 feet. Although this trip is rated Moderate, participants should not underestimate the challenges presented by the lack of improved trails, stream and river crossings, rugged terrain, and the highly variable nature of Arctic weather and wilderness travel. Participants should be in good physical condition, able to carry their pack with personal and group equipment and supplies, and have experience hiking off-trail in wilderness terrain.

Equipment and Clothing

Participants should appreciate they will be outside for the entire trip, with little opportunity to be sheltered from the weather except when in camp. Because of the changeable weather, participants should be prepared to camp and to be active in rain and other adverse weather, sometimes for several days at a time. Proper equipment selection is critical and all equipment should be field tested before trip departure. We especially urge you to bring only high-quality clothing and boots; a high-quality lightweight pack, tent, sleeping bag and other camping equipment; good binoculars; and as little of everything else as possible. Participants are responsible for supplying their own tent, backpack, sleeping bag, pad, rain gear, personal mess kit, clothing, and personal items. In addition to all of their personal gear, each participant will be expected to carry approximately 10-12 pounds of group food and gear when we are backpacking. The weight of your personal gear will need to be limited accordingly. Confirmed participants will receive a detailed equipment list after signup.

Fishing will be variable at this time of year, but grayling and arctic char may be found in some streams and rivers. Fishing licenses are required and may be purchased at sporting goods stores in Fairbanks or from the Department of Revenue, Fish and Game Division, Pouch SA, Juneau, AK 99811.

The remoteness of the Refuge requires that we be self-sufficient for the duration of our trip. Leaders will carry an extensive first-aid kit and a satellite phone for communicating with our pilot and using in medical or other emergencies.

The weather in the Refuge at this time of year is usually mild, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s, but will be warmer or cooler and is very changeable at any time. You should anticipate and be prepared for strong sun, fog, drizzle to heavy rain, strong winds, and a wide range of temperatures. Below freezing temperatures and snow are possible, especially in the high mountains.



  • USGS quadrangles: 1:250,000 "Demarcation Point"; 1:63,360 “Demarcation Point“ B-4, B-5 & C-4


  • Pielou, E. C., Field Guide to the Arctic. University of Chicago Press. This book won the Western Book Award for Creative Nonfiction in 1995 and is very readable natural history and science of the high Arctic regions.
  • Kaye, Roger, The Last Great Wilderness: The Campaign to Establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. University of Alaska Press, 2006. Comprehensive history of the effort and political dealings to establish the Refuge.
  • Wohlforth, Charles, The Whale and the Supercomputer. A well-researched study of climate change effects in the Alaskan Arctic.
  • Miller, Debbie S., Midnight Wilderness-Journeys in Alaska 's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alaska Northwest Books, 1990 & 2000. An excellent compilation of the author's journeys in the Refuge.
  • Madsen, Ken, Under the Arctic Sun-Gwich'in, Caribou & the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Earthtales Press, 2002.
  • Kantner, Seth, Ordinary Wolves. Milkweed Editions, 2004. Acclaimed novel about growing up in modern Inupiat culture.
  • Kantner, Seth, Shopping for Porcupine-A Life in Arctic Alaska. Milkweed Editions, 2008. Collection of short stories and photography about the author's life growing up in western Alaska.
  • Bornman, Walter R., Alaska—Saga of a Bold Land. A well-written comprehensive history of Alaska.

Websites & Video:

  • US Fish & Wildlife Service/Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:
  • NOAA National Weather Service for Fairbanks, AK:
  • Northern Alaska Environmental Center:
  • Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (formerly Pew Center on Global Climate Change):
  • "Being Caribou", Karsten Heuer & Leanne Allison (2003). Travel with the filmmakers on their five-month journey by ski and on foot following the Porcupine Caribou Herd from its winter calving grounds to the calving grounds on the Coastal Plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and back again.


The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last intact large-scale ecological systems in the world, and protecting it is among the highest priorities of nearly every major environmental organization. At this time the Refuge is under considerable political pressure by both resource development advocates and by the effects of climate change. During our trip we will discuss: the conservation and economic issues affecting exploitation of Alaska 's natural resources and of opening the Refuge and the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea to energy development, and the effort to designate all of the Refuge as wilderness. We will also discuss the short- and long-term effects of climate change that are affecting the Alaskan Arctic. Participants will also learn how to keep abreast of developments affecting the Refuge and Arctic Ocean, and how to become advocates for their protection.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under permits from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the North Slope Borough.



Andrew Ogden lives in Boulder, Colorado, from which he pursues his passion for outdoor adventure and travel. Andrew is an experienced backpacker and a veteran of numerous treks in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and other parts of Alaska. Andrew is an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado School of Law, where he specializes teaching courses in wildlife and habitat conservation. He is also an American Mountain Guides Association certified climbing instructor, backcountry ski guide, and certified avalanche safety course instructor. Andrew enjoys helping others to safely and respectfully travel in the Alaskan wilderness, and using his political and legal experience to support the conservation efforts of the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations. Andrew hopes that you will contact him with any questions about backcountry travel in general or this trip in particular.


Janet Cerretani is an art director from Boulder, Colorado, and has backpacked, climbed, hiked and boated in Alaska, the Northeast, the Tetons, and in the Rocky Mountains. She hopes all participants will share her enthusiasm in viewing and protecting the amazing wildlife and wilderness of arctic Alaska.

Contact the Staff

Refresh Type the characters you see in this picture. Type the characters you see in the picture; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.  Switch to audio verification.

Try Another Trip

By Date