Alaska’s Little-Known Landscape of Massive Sand Dunes

Allison Burney

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Massive mounds of golden sand look like a desert landscape randomly plopped in an Arctic forest. — Atlas Obscura

Before ever traveling to Alaska, I imagined it to be many things. But I have to admit that a land of giant sand dunes certainly wasn’t one of them.

In fact, when I first read about them in a magazine, I thought it was a mistake. Maybe they’d mixed up the locations, I thought. Surely the 100-foot sand dunes being described were in a desert somewhere, not the frozen wilderness that Alaska is best known for. I just couldn’t imagine it; my mind wouldn’t go there.

However, more research revealed that it was, of course, true.

“Formed 14,000 years ago as retreating glaciers ground rocks into sand, the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, together with two smaller dune fields, cover 30 square miles,” Centennial Travel writes in its special 2021 issue, Complete Guide to the National Parks.

Located thirty-five miles above the Arctic Circle, the dunes are located within Kobuk Valley National Park, sitting in the northwest corner of the state. They constitute the largest arctic sand dunes in the world.

Arctic sand dunes!? Is no one else as flabbergasted by this as I am?

I thought something this bizarre and unique would be better known, and I wondered why, even while traveling around Alaska, we’d never heard about it. Nobody had mentioned it, and it hadn’t come up on any lists, websites, or tour companies’ suggestions as a ‘must see’ attraction while in Alaska.

But the more I learned, I began to realize why.

Like many of Alaska’s national parks, it’s not easily accessible. There are no roads or facilities inside the park, making a trip to see them that much more complicated—but not impossible.

There are a few ways to explore this remote 1.7 million-acre park, but the most popular and easiest way to reach the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes is to charter a plane from the nearby towns of Kotzebue or Bettles. Pilots can land right on the dunes, giving you a chance to wander around this incredible place and marvel at its existence. Or maybe you just want to have a picnic on the dunes! Apparently, that’s a popular activity here as well. You can also camp in tents on the dunes or do some day hiking around the area to explore the boreal forest, arctic tundra, or nearby mountains.

For those feeling a little more adventurous, another (though more physically demanding) option exists. The park is named after the Kobuk River valley, and the river provides another access route. Visitors can land on the river in a float plane, get off at the water’s edge, and then backpack their way across the tundra to reach the dunes about two miles in. However, the route is not marked and therefore requires good orienteering skills, according to the National Park Service.

While both of these options sound amazing, I now understand why the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes aren’t on the ‘don’t miss’ Alaska bucket list: it’s an experience with a hefty price tag! The NPS reports that on average, private charter rates run between $600-$700 per hour. With a price tag like that, you may want to consider combining a stop here with a trip to Gates of the Arctic National Park nearby as well, another of Alaska’s hard-to-reach places.

For a list of tour operators that have been issued a commercial use authorization (CUA) by the NPS to provide services within park boundaries, click here. From backpacking, camping, and hiking to boat trips and chartered flights, you’ll be able to find a reputable company to get you where you want to go—just don’t expect it to be cheap!

Centennial Travel describes even a brief encounter with this peculiar land as “one for the books, as travelers set foot on a wild landscape unchanged for millennia,” while the National Park Foundation says, “The lofty dunes are a sculpted desert in the middle of a wilderness of wetlands.”

There’s no question that I’d absolutely love to see the curious sand dunes of this beautiful national park someday—but I may need to get my pilot’s license first!

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Freelance writer & proofreader. I love travel, reading, coffee, and exploring nature. On a mission to keep learning, growing, and enjoying this adventure we call life.

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