The Least Visited National Park, Kobuk Valley

Where is the least visited National Park in the country?

We recently visited Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas.  We were told there that it is one of the least visited National Parks.  That inspired me to do some research on what the actual least visited park is.  With an average of only 8,000 visitors per year, the least visited National Park in the United States is Kobuk Valley National Park.  Big Bend, in comparison, gets about 350,000 visitors a year!

Kobuk River Valley National Park
The Kobuk River as seen from the air

Yes, you guessed it…Kobuk Valley National Park is located in Alaska.  More specifically, it’s about 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Northwestern Alaska.  It’s actually located just 32 miles to the west of the Gates of the Arctic National Park, which as you probably could guess is also on the list of least visited parks.  It was first designated as a National Park in 1980.

Great Kobuk Valley Sand Dunes
Amazing backcountry camping at the edge of the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. Photo by Western Arctic National Parklands, licensed by Creative Commons

There are some good reasons why this park is visited by so few people.  I’m actually impressed that it even gets 8,000 visitors.  There are no roads that lead to the park.  The only way to get there is to take a ride on a chartered flight from Nome, Bettles, or Kotzebue.  The park headquarters and visitor center are in the closest town of Kotzebue.  So there are no buildings, trails, campgrounds, or any other kind of development in the park.  That’s what makes this park so unique.  It is 2,805 square miles of untouched Arctic wilderness.

Least Visited National Park, Bush Plane
Bush planes are the easiest way in and out of the park. Notice there’s no runway!

So if you’re willing to make the trip all the way up to Kobuk Valley, what will you get to see?  Visitors will be rewarded with amazing views of pristine, completely untouched wilderness.  Kobuk Valley is famous for the arctic sand dunes located in the park.  There are three large sand dune areas located on the south side of the Kobuk River.  These sand dunes cover approximately 20,500 acres! The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are the largest active sand dunes anywhere in the Arctic.  They are quite a unique sight when compared to the rest of the arctic landscape.  These sand dunes look like they are straight out of the Sahara desert, or maybe Jockey’s Ridge in the Outer Banks.  The sand dunes were created by retreating glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, about 14,000 years ago.

Least Visited, Great Kobuk Sand Dune, Valley
The huge area covered by the Great Kobuk Sand Dune

What’s crazy about these dunes is that in the summer they can reach temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit!  In a place 25 miles above the Arctic Circle!

Least Visited National Park, Kobuk Valley Dune
These sand dunes cover over 25 square miles.  Photo by Western Arctic National Parklands, licensed by Creative Commons

The National Park is located in a transition zone between boreal forest and tundra so there is an unreal amount of wildlife you can see in Kobuk Valley.  During the summer there is almost 24 hours of sunlight a day due to the proximity to the North Pole.  So you will have a great chance to see a ton of wildlife throughout the park.

Least Visited, Kobuk Valley Alaska
The edge between the forest and the start of the dunes

It is very common to see grizzly bears, black bears, river otters, Canadian lynxes, Dall’s sheep, wolves, moose, wolverines, foxes and many other Arctic mammals.  The rivers here are also full of salmon, sheefish, arctic char, lake trout, and arctic grayling.

Kobuk Valley Moose, Least Visited National Park
Moose wading in the water in Kobuk Valley National Park. Photo by Western Arctic National Parklands, licensed by Creative Commons

Kobuk Valley is the location of a huge annual caribou migration.  The Western Arctic Caribou Herd has over 250,000 caribou and they travel this migration route every spring and fall.  The herd travels through Kobuk Valley along the 600 mile route between their summer and winter habitats.  This is one of the few uninterrupted great migrations left on the planet.  Watching that many caribou traveling through open tundra and expansive sand dunes is quite the sight!

Kobuk River Caribou, Alaska
Caribou are swimming across the Kobuk River during their migration.  Photo by Western Arctic National Parklands, licensed by Creative Commons
Kobuk Valley National Park Visitor Center
Kotzebue Village is the nearest town to the Park. This is where the visitor’s center is located.

It’s definitely understandable why Kobuk Valley is the least visited National Park in the country.  The combination of the harsh Arctic conditions, and the number of bush plane rides required to get there usually keeps this park out of people’s summer vacation plans.

Kobuk River, Least Visited Park
Aerial View of the Kobuk River

If you’re considering planning a visit check out the Kobuk Valley National Park website Here.  There’s actually no park entrance fee.  Most likely because you need to charter an air taxi to reach this undeveloped wilderness area.  It definitely takes a lot of planning and time to visit this park, but it would easily be a once in a lifetime experience!

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