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Introducing Barrow

Barrow is the northernmost settlement in the USA, the largest Inupiat community in Alaska, and one of the most distinctive places you'll likely ever visit. Situated 330 miles above the Arctic Circle, it's a flat, bleak, fogbound place, patrolled by polar bears and locked in almost perpetual winter. It's also a town of surprising contradictions.

On one hand, Barrow's wealth is famous: due to the spoils of North Slope petroleum, it boasts facilities, such as its Inupiat Heritage Center, which are totally unexpected in a town this size. On the flipside, it's an Arctic slum, packed with ramshackle structures wallowing in frozen mud.

It's also at once ancient and modern. Inupiat have dwelled here for a least two millennia, and nowadays they still run the place. Barrow, as the seat of the North Slope Borough (a countylike government covering an area larger than Nebraska) is the administrative and commercial hub of Alaska's Far North. Yet locals have retained much of their traditional culture, best symbolized by the spring whale harvests and seen during the Nalukataq Festival, staged in June to celebrate successful hunts.

For tourists, however, Barrow's appeal isn't so much its Inupiat culture as its novel latitude. They come to see the midnight sun (which doesn't set for 82 days from May to early August), and say they've been at the top of the world.

The vast majority of the 7000-plus visitors who arrive every summer are traveling as part of a package tour. Barrow is an expensive side trip for independent travelers.