The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a 30,625-sq-mile wilderness in Alaska’s northeast corner, straddling the eastern Brooks Range from the treeless Arctic Coast to the taiga of the Porcupine River Valley.
Beyond the bragging rights it brings from visiting one of the most remote regions of the world, ANWR (an-wahr) attracts with its boundless wilderness and surprisingly diverse wildlife. This ‘Serengeti of the north’ is home to dozens of land mammals, including grizzlies, musk ox, Dall sheep and the second-largest herd of caribou in North America. Over 20 rivers cut through the region, several suitable for multiday paddles, as well as the four highest peaks in the Brooks Range. For adventurers, photographers and lovers of all things untamed and untrammeled, there are few more appealing destinations.
Getting there and accommodation
Even getting to ANWR is easier said than done. There’s only one place it can be accessed by car: just north of Atigun Pass on the Dalton Hwy, where the road and the refuge briefly touch. To get deep into the refuge, you will need to fly. For a list of charter companies, consult the refuge’s website or visit the Public Lands desk at the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center in Fairbanks. Wilderness Alaska offers over 20 different ANWR trips, from rafting to following the caribou herds.
As tough as it is to get to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, staying here is even more challenging. There are no facilities of any sort. Literally millions of mosquitoes will decide you are an acceptable source of protein. The area is an Arctic desert, and giardia is present in the few water sources. You need to be comfortable camping around bears, and you must camp in such a way that bears won't come near you. ANWR is incredible, but only seasoned outdoors explorers should apply.
One of the gateways to the refuge is Kaktovik, an Iñupiat village on the northern shore of Barter Island in the Beaufort Sea, 160 miles east of Deadhorse. Kaktovik is the place to see polar bears in the wild, especially in September when they feed close to the town. For more information (and accommodations), contact the village's Waldo Arms Hotel.
Controversy around oil drilling in the ANWR
For years, the refuge has been the subject of a debate over whether to drill beneath its coastal plain, which is thought to contain vast reserves of crude oil and natural gas. In late 2020 there was a controversial development – one of President Trump's last acts in office was to grant oil companies the right to purchases leases to drill in the area. This prompted an outcry from environmental campaigners over the potential damage to such a precious ecosystem. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was granted a reprieve by the Biden administration in 2021 when the leases were suspended pending a review. However, the battle to protect the area is most likely far from over.