The High Valleys of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14006A, Backpacking


  • Observe caribou and other wildlife in a pristine wilderness
  • Experience the 24-hour sunlight of the Arctic spring
  • Stay at a mid-way base camp with food cache
  • Enjoy a small group size


  • Return flights from Fairbanks to the Arctic Refuge
  • All meals and cooking gear
  • All permits and entrance fees


DatesJun 9–20, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffJonas Wickham

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Experiencing the pristine remoteness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is truly a once in a lifetime experience. At this time in the Land of the Midnight Sun, the tundra is bathed in 24-hour daylight as winter gives way to spring and then summer. Visitors have the opportunity to see wild rivers rushing with snowmelt, ranging predators, migrating birds, prolific wildflowers, and, with luck, some of the vast Porcupine caribou herd as it returns on its annual migration to ancestral calving grounds in the Refuge.

Deep in the heart of the Brooks Range, through broad glacial valleys, our route traverses the upper reaches of three of the Arctic Refuge’s major rivers. Far from well-known rafting routes this trip presents a rare opportunity to explore a particularly un-traveled section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Our small group will likely be the only people you see during our whole journey.

Thanks to a mid-way food and fuel cache, which lightens our packs, the difficulty level will be relatively moderate overall, but the challenges of traversing a mountain pass, traveling over uneven terrain, negotiating numerous river crossings, and finding suitable camp sties each night will mean some days will be strenuous. In addition to having the personal experience of a lifetime, by visiting the Arctic Refuge, participants will come to more fully appreciate this vast, remote, and inspirational place, and gain a deeper understanding of its unique status as the most significant wilderness area remaining in the United States.

In the endless daylight of the Arctic spring, the land will green and bloom before our eyes. Moving quietly through this remote terrain, our small group will be able to become a part of the landscape, observing caribou and other wildlife as we go. Looking out on these endless vistas can be awe-inspiring, with the constant light allowing time for photography, birding, sketching, or simply enjoying the unspoiled natural surroundings.


The itinerary described should be taken as a general plan as the uncertainties of backpacking through this trail-less terrain cannot be overstated. The timing of the onset of spring and variations in snowmelt and glacial runoff make for highly variable river water levels and hiking conditions. Daily mileage can only be estimated, as weather, as well as the location of suitable campsites, cannot be planned for. Injury, or other factors outside of our control, may necessitate that we modify our plans, so please bring a flexible attitude and a good sense of humor.

Day 1: We will fly north via a scheduled regional airline from Fairbanks to the Gwich'in settlement of Arctic Village. From there we will shuttle via three-passenger bush plane in a spectacular flight over the Brooks Range to a remote tundra strip, high in the mountains, where we will begin our trek in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. These flights take up the majority of the day and are included in the trip price.

Days 2-5: After spending our first night near the strip, we will hike for four days, through two major glacial valleys to where a welcome food cache will be waiting. Time permitting, we will base camp here for a day and rest or enjoy a light, pack-less, day hike to explore the area.

Days 6-7: We will continue to the northwest for two short milage days, giving us plenty of opportunity to relax and enjoy the grand terrain close to the Continental Divide.

Day 8: Negotiating possible snowfields, we will climb over the 4,800-foot pass, across the Continental Divide; the highest point in our trip. 

Days 9-11: For the next three days we will follow the river steadily downward, through the towering mountains, as it leads us north toward our destination.

Day 12: On our final day, weather permitting, we will reverse our plane journeys -- shuttling via bush plane over the Brooks Range to Arctic Village. From there, we will fly south for an anticipated late afternoon arrival in Fairbanks.



Getting There

We will meet you in Fairbanks, where reservations have been made at a great bed-and-breakfast close to downtown (note: your room and board in Fairbanks is not included in the trip price). Here, group gear and food will be divided. It’s recommended you arrive at least a day before the trip begins to allow time for delayed gear to turn up. Departure flights from Fairbanks should be scheduled at least one full day after the trip end date, as weather conditions can easily delay the bush flight out of the Refuge.

Accommodations and Food

All meals, drinks, and snacks are provided for the duration of the trip. Special dietary considerations may be accommodated if leaders are notified in advance. 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 expected to take turns preparing meals and cleaning up.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is not recommended for inexperienced backpackers. Few people travel to this remote part of the Arctic and we will be hiking in a vast and rugged wilderness area with no trails except those made by wildlife. Despite relatively modest mileage and elevation gains overall and a mid-way food cache, packs will be very heavy for the first few days and -- due to the highly variable nature of Arctic weather and the unpredictable nature of backpacking -- some sections will be strenuous. Therefore, participants should be in good physical condition and have experience backpacking over rough terrain for extended periods and in adverse weather. Our route will cover approximately 60 miles, at moderate elevation, with our greatest altitude being a mountain pass at around 4,800 feet. While gravel bars and firm tundra benches will be our preferred hiking surfaces, we will also be traveling across rocky riverbeds and boggy, unstable tussock fields. We will negotiate several river crossings, which can be challenging, and participants should be prepared for the possibility of wet feet on our travel days. A well-matched group, in abilities and expectations, makes for the most rewarding experience for all, so your leader strongly encourages your contact prior to signup to discuss the trip rating.

Equipment and Clothing

Participants should appreciate we will be outside for the entire trip with little opportunity to get out of the weather except in our tents at the end of each day. Proper equipment selection is critical and all equipment should be thoroughly field-tested before departure. Participants should be prepared to camp and to be out and active in rain and other adverse weather. We especially urge you to bring only high-quality clothing and boots, high-quality lightweight (but not ultra-light) equipment, good binoculars, and as little of everything else as possible. Participants will need to supply their own tent, backpack, sleeping bag and pad, rain gear, and mess kit. All gear will be inspected in Fairbanks, prior to departure, to ensure the safety and comfort of all participants in this remote wilderness. The leaders will carry a first-aid kit and a satellite phone for use in medical or other emergencies. In addition to their own gear, each participant is expected to carry approximately 18 pounds of group food and equipment, so please limit the weight of your personal gear accordingly. Confirmed participants will receive a detailed equipment list and your leader is happy to discuss any gear questions you may have.

The weather in the Refuge at this time of year is usually mild, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s, but can change quickly and be colder or warmer. Wind chill can be a major factor and you should anticipate and be prepared for strong sun, fog, drizzle, heavy rain, strong winds, and possibly snow.



USGS quadrangles:

1:250,000:  'Arctic,' Mount Michelson' & 'Table Mountain'

1:63,360:  'Arctic':                        D-1 & D-2

                 'Mount Michelson':      A-1 & A-2

                 'Table Mountain':        C-5 & D-5


  • Pielou, E. C., Field Guide to the Arctic. University of Chicago Press. This book won the Western Book Award for Creative Nonfiction in 1995. This is readable natural history and science.
  • Kaye, Roger, The Last Great Wilderness: The Campaign to Establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. University of Alaska Press, 2006. History of the effort and political dealings to establish the Refuge.
  • 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 WolvesRecent novel about growing up in modern Inupiat culture.
  • Wallis, Velma, Two Old WomenA story of Survival in the Alaskan wilderness, based on an Athabascan Indian legend of the Upper Yukon River Valley.
  • Lopez, Barry, Arctic Dreams. National Book Award-winning classic study of the Far North.
  • Brower, Kenneth, Earth and the Great WeatherA rich resource on the Brooks Range.
  • Watkins, T. H., Vanishing Arctic. A comprehensive study of the Refuge and its future.



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 a permit from Alaska National Parks.



Jonas Wickham leads Sierra Club trips in Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. He's traveled and backpacked on five continents and made a home on three. This will be his tenth trip into this area. Jonas enjoys sharing the senses of discovery and adventure that wild places like this evoke; taking time for photography and quiet contemplation. Jonas works in television in Los Angeles where he lives with his wife Kim, son Henry, and daughter Maisie. He welcomes any questions you may have and encourages pre-signup inquiries.

Assistant Leader:

Michael Jensen has been hooked on backpacking since his first backpack trip in the Wind River Range in 1980. He has backpacked on Sierra Club and personal trips in twelve states and Canada. Sharing glorious vistas with interesting new people makes these trips a wonderful experience. While his job at a university keeps him indoors too much, in his spare time his outdoor activities with family and friends include day hikes, backpacking, telemark skiing, and an occasional canoe trip. Michael also enjoys reading, writing fiction, and photography.

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