Coast and Beaufort Sea

The features which make up the transition from land to sea here include sea-ice, river deltas, lagoons, barrier islands, beaches and melt-ponds. In an otherwise treeless landscape, the islands and beaches are often strewn with driftwood discharged from the Mackenzie River in Canada. In addition to the core of animals common to most regions of the Refuge, you may also find polar bears, seals, whales and many shore and sea-based birds. This is one of the richest, most exotic areas and includes artifacts left by the natives of the region, the old whaling industry and more recently by national defense projects and other development.

The coast is also one of the harshest and most difficult areas to access in the Refuge. The Arctic coastal weather is heavily influenced in the summer by a volatile mix of moist, cold Arctic Ocean air moving inland over the warmer land mass of the coastal plain. This often produces extensive low-lying cloud cover and dense fog as well as strong winds and rain or snow throughout the season.

Most traveling here consists of paddling along the shoreline in kayaks and canoes between late-June and early August. Earlier than this you may find the sea-ice still attached to the coast or blocking the lagoons and river deltas. Later than this, the often harsh and deteriorating weather conditions make traveling and flying here particularly difficult.

Coastal Plain and Northern Foothills

Often referred to as the ‘North Slope’, the area between the Northern foothills of the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean is a relatively narrow area of slight topographic relief composed of tundra, frost-patterned ground and river drainages. By mid-June the tundra is normally flowering and many migratory birds and the Porcupine caribou herd are here or arriving. Bears are foraging by this time and most of the animals common to the refuge can be found here as well.

The northern foothills are open, rolling hills with vegetation similar to the coastal plain. Most of the animals of the coastal plain are also found here and through much of June this can be a good place to find groups of caribou feeding on the rich new shoots of low shrubs and willows.

The weather here shares most of the characteristics of the coastal environment, however, fog is less pronounced as you move further inland and the winds, humidity and precipitation, while still significant at times, moderate substantially with even a short retreat toward the nearby mountains. The more restrained weather of the foothills makes access here more reliable than on the more exposed coastal plain.

Backpacking and base-camping are popular here from the first week of June; however, in the first half of June localized snow-pack and shallow, standing water can sometimes restrict travel. People normally travel along the various river corridors for the good footing they provide. Floating on most of the major rivers and a few of the minor ones is another means of seeing the area, however, such trips are best delayed until around the second week of June to allow the river channels to clear of aufeis. I generally encourage visitors to these areas to plan their trips to end no later than the first week of August.

Brooks Range

There are many discrete regions within the mountains that produce substantially different ecological settings, yet, generally the Brooks Range are sparsely vegetated, rugged mountains, humanely-scaled and with an interesting variety of geologic features including folded, uplifted and eroded limestone beds, granite batholiths, glaciers, braided river valleys, alluvial fans and aufeis fields. The highest peaks in the Brooks are found in the Arctic Refuge (Mt. Michelson, Chamberlain and Isto), but overall, these are not extraordinarily high mountains and in most areas there are non-technical hiking routes possible which utilize natural passes or the gravel beds of the rivers and streams.

The Brooks Range is where the distinct weather patterns to the north and south mix and these, with the occasional frontal system, can produce widely variable conditions throughout the season. In early June substantial snow can sometimes remain on shaded slopes, passes and higher elevations and rivers and passes can still be difficult to cross. From late June and throughout July thunderstorm activity can produce significant wind and rain with a risk of flash-flooding.

The Brooks are home to most of the animals found commonly in other areas of the refuge, and are the only habitat in the Refuge for Dall sheep. The range of most of the animals living in the mountains is somewhat discontinuous and there are areas and times here that are more or less likely than others to provide opportunities to view wildlife.

There are many places in the mountains suitable for base-camping which offer a diverse range of country to explore on day-hikes. For backpackers, most of the country here is accommodating compared to other areas of the Refuge. Floating parties, taking advantage of their ability to travel quickly, often loiter in the mountains for extended periods to day-hike in the surrounding country. Depending on the side of the continental divide you are traveling on, the usual season for visiting extends from the beginning of June to mid-September.

Boreal Forests & the Southern Slopes

South of the more rugged mountains of the continental divide, the country spreads out somewhat and becomes increasingly vegetated with meadowland, willow and dwarf spruce. As you leave the mountains and approach the foothills and Yukon Flats, the forests become dense, mixed willow, birch, spruce and aspen and are difficult to travel through by any other means than floating the rivers in the summer.

Nearer the continental divide, what forests exist are relatively thin and often underlain by enough drained soil to provide areas of good hiking. This is where you are most likely to encounter moose, bears and the various other animals common to most areas of the refuge and also where you will see the most dramatic display of fall colors.

Weather in this lower country tends to be more influenced by the continental climate of the Yukon Flats, but even here, frontal weather systems can produce widely variable conditions, especially in June and August. Thunderstorm activity is common during the peak of summer from the end of June till the end of July.

Backpacking, base-camping and river floating are all common here, mostly along or between the major river drainages. The usual season for floating the southern flowing rivers is from the third week of June, to the end of September and backpackers and base-campers can access most areas here from the beginning of June through mid-September.