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The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes

Step Back in Time in Kobuk Valley National Park

If you can make it to the Kobuk Valley, you can walk on sands from the Ice Age, glimpse a society's ancient way of life, and experience the most primal wilderness left in the United States.

Hiking Easy, Moderate, Severe

The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes
The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes Photo: E. Kahl, NPS


In northwest Alaska, above the Arctic Circle, lies the Kobuk Valley––a vast expanse of boreal forest split by a broad river, and bound on either side by rugged mountains. This landscape is green and soggy in the summer and frozen solid through the winter, but it has another feature which you might not expect: sand dunes. Kobuk Valley National Park is home to the largest dune field anywhere in the Arctic. They are, in fact, a relic of the last Ice Age, when much more of the valley was covered in windblown glacial sediment. Since then, the sand has slowly been reclaimed by vegetation, but thousands of acres of golden dunes remain.

The dunes are the park’s main attraction for visitors, though they comprise a small percentage of the total area, all of which is completely roadless and without designated trails. This untracked terrain holds boundless potential for hiking, floating, and mountaineering in an utterly remote wilderness. Despite this allure, Kobuk Valley remains one of the least-visited units in the national park system... by outsiders, at least.

The reality is that the region has been inhabited for thousands of years by Native Alaskans, and continues to be. At the margins of the park are thriving settlements linked by the Kobuk River instead of roads or trails. The residents pride themselves on a subsistence lifestyle, reaping the bounty of fish, caribou, and edible plants provided by a healthy Arctic ecosystem.

That health is highly dependent on the land staying wild and untrammeled so that the caribou are free to migrate and the fish free to spawn. Apart from the villages, there is little evidence of human passage in Kobuk Valley, and that’s the way it should remain. All visitors must recognize the significance of this place, not only as some of the world’s last great wilderness, but also as the home of one of North America’s oldest cultures.

Any trip to Kobuk is an advanced-level adventure, requiring extensive planning just to get there, on top of skills to survive in the backcountry. The easiest way to reach the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, for example, is by chartering a bush plane from the town of Kotzebue, which is itself reached by commercial flight. A sightseeing flight to the dunes is perhaps the easiest excursion to arrange in this national park, and the difficulty only increases from there. Guided trips are available, however, and in various formats to suit all kinds of clients. The routes mapped here are based on some of the more common itineraries for private and guided groups, but these are not meant to be a comprehensive resource. Use them for inspiration, and perhaps as elements of planning a trip to Kobuk Valley National Park.

Routes included

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