Gates of the Arctic National Park | Arrigetch Peaks + Anaktuvuk Pass

the hearnes » adventure elopement photographers

The Hearnes Adventure Wedding Photography flight tour over Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska

I don’t really remember the first time I ever heard of Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, but I do remember a phase of semi-obsessing over the park, reading everything I could about it and spending hours scrolling through google images of the Arrigetch Peaks and other epic mountains in the Brooks Range. Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park is not easy. It is the northern-most park in the United States, and the second largest at 13,348 square miles. Second only to Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. There are no roads, trails, or campground in Gates of the Arctic National Park, it is only accessible by foot (long-distance hiking), or by air (most typically a small plane). I remember doing that research back then, and honestly assuming I’d never actually see this park myself. It felt so out of reach and so far away!

When we started planning our drive to Alaska this summer, we mapped out a few goals for the trip, and tried to make sure we had plenty of time in the places we already knew we loved from last year’s visit, like Valdez, time in Anchorage with our local friends, the Kenai Peninsula, and so on. Once we figured that out, we looked into driving the Dalton Highway up to Prudhoe Bay, which is in the Arctic Ocean and “tops out” the Pan-Am, a famous highway connection from Alaska to the southern tip of South America. We hope to do sections of the Pan-Am one day, but aren’t dead-set on “completing” it in it’s entirety. We ultimately decided not to go to Prudhoe Bay mainly because we were running out of time, we didn’t want to add so many miles on rough dirt road right before driving all the way back through Canada, and our main priority was to visit the Arctic Circle, which we got to do with this flight tour!

We chose to do the Parks Highway to Fairbanks near the end of our two months in Alaska because we wanted to catch the fall colors and possibly see some northern lights! We absolutely hit the Fall colors at the right time, and we have a few great nights of northern lights, so it turned out perfectly! Its also worth noting that Alaska has been unusually dry this summer, which is bad for the ecosystems out here and has been a huge negative impact on the amount of wildfires spreading. It’s supposed to be quite rainy in Alaska in August, but we “got lucky” with the warm, dry weather (but I feel bad celebrating that because of how much the rain is needed!). We’d considered going up to Coldfoot for our flight into Gates of the Arctic, but we ended up finding a flight service from Fairbanks, which saved us some time and driving!

Flying in to Gates of the Arctic National Park from Fairbanks, Alaska

From Fairbanks, we chartered a private flight with Wright Air Service and were so happy with the experience! We reached out super last minute — the day before, and thankfully our pilot, Jason, was down to go! He recalled to us, that as he was getting ready to leave for the day, one of the front desk employees ran up and said “this couple wants to fly into Gates of the Arctic tomorrow, they’re photographers and are hoping to see some of the epic mountains in the Brooks Range.” and, knowing the weather was forecasted to be great, he said he was “stoked to do it!” We ended up being able to bring our dog, Charlie, which was a huge treat and saved us the stress of finding someone in Fairbanks to watch him! I was a little nervous about how he’d do on the plane, but as it turns out he just thought it was a car and he curled up to sleep until we arrived.

We chose to do a one-day trip because of time constraints, although I would have loved to spend a few days or at least one night out there — next time! We got to Wright Air Service at 8:15am and were ready to go by 9, loaded up the plane with Jason and hopped in! We took a Cessna 206, which could have fit one more person but was comfortable with three people (including our pilot), our 35 pound dog, and our backpack of gear! We flew about an hour and a half across some flatlands and wetlands, passing many large rivers, and then into the foothills of the Brooks Range. The views were pretty the whole time, but the second two hours of the flight were nose-glued-to-the-window stunning! The mountains were absolutely wild with the fall colors, a few foggy clouds sweeping through, and the dappled sunlight making dramatic shadows with the ridge lines. 

Our pilot took us specifically to see the Arrigetch Peaks, which have been compared to Yosemite Valley with their sheer walls and exfoliating faces. The clouds lifted just enough to allow a flight directly into the valley and we absolutely couldn’t get enough — it was like seeing a whole valley of Fitz Roys and Mount Washingtons with a beautiful glacier tongue in the back. I would love to go back one day to explore this valley more. The jagged ridge lines and huge faces were absolutely stunning. There were a few mega-blue lakes with epic creeks and waterfalls flowing out.

Landing in Anaktuvuk Pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park

We then flew about 30 more minutes to Anaktuvuk Pass, which is a small native Alaskan Village with an airstrip, and one of the most common places to land within Gates of the Arctic National Park. Anaktuvuk Pass is a sleepy town with a small museum, but we didn’t have very much time so we just hiked up to a nearby knoll to have some lunch and stretch our legs. We took some photos, but from our experience I wouldn’t say Anaktuvuk Pass is a “must visit” for any reason other than to land, take some photos outside of the plane, and possibly start a backpacking or float trip! It’s placed right at the continental divide for the Pacific and Arctic Oceans, and is within the Arctic Circle, which makes for a pretty cool experience! The plant life growing in the tundra was stunning and quite strange to walk around on! Gates of the Arctic National Park has no roads or trails, so most hiking/walking around is more of bushwhacking and making your own trail, which is not allowed in most parks that have more visitors, but is the only way to get around here (and has less of a negative impact because so few people come!).

Overall, this was an absolutely amazing one-in-a-life-time experience. I am so thankful we were able to do it, and the resulting photos are some of my favorites we’ve ever taken! The landscape out here is so huge, so vast, and so so wild. It was the farthest north I’ve ever been, and getting to spend some time within the Arctic Circle felt like a dream come true for me! I would love to do this flight in the winter one day, but I imagine finding a clear day would be quite difficult! If you’re considering chartering a plane to fly into Gates of the Arctic, be sure to do your research and decide what you want to do ahead of time as you should be able to communicate that to your pilot before you take off. There are a few different ways to see this park, but the flight tour is definitely the best way to cover a lot of ground in a limited amount of time. We took off from Fairbanks at 9:30am and were back by 3:30pm, which felt like a lot of time in the air! Also, I reccomend using the restroom before you take off…there are no bathrooms in that tiny Cessna, and three+ hours is a long time to hold it :)

The Hearnes Adventure Photography is run by Abbi and Callen Hearne, a husband & wife wedding photography team with an emphasis on adventure. They live on the road as full-time nomads, allowing them to serve a large portion of the western US. You can typically find them in Moab, Utah or Yosemite National Park, California, with side-quests to Patagonia and Alaska. They believe love is the greatest adventure and strive to create photos that are epic, romantic, true, and timeless.