Last Updated on September 27, 2023

When you think of Alaska, images of snow-covered mountains, glaciers, and icy tundra likely come to mind.

However, did you know that Alaska is home to a hidden desert with sand dunes?

The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, located in the Kobuk Valley National Park, are the largest active sand dunes in the Arctic and offer a unique and unexpected experience for visitors to the Last Frontier.

Great Kobuk Sand Dunes in Alaska's Kobuk Desert.
Great Kobuk Sand Dunes in Alaska.

Great Kobuk Sand Dunes

Located 35 miles above the Arctic Circle, the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are made up of three dune fields – the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, the Little Kobuk Sand Dunes, and the Hunt River Sand Dunes – that together comprise 30 square miles of towering, rippling sand.

These dunes were formed some 14,000 years ago from retreating glaciers and have been slowly advancing with new life and vegetation ever since.

The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes offer a truly unique and otherworldly experience.

The dunes soar up to 100 feet high and, in the summer, temperatures can reach over 100 degrees. The dunes are surrounded by lush tundra, providing a stark contrast to the golden sands.

Despite being located in the Arctic, the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are surprisingly accessible.

The park is open year-round and can be reached by either car or small plane. Visitors can take guided tours or go on their own hike, and camping is also available in the park.

The best time to visit is during the summer months, when the weather is milder and the days are longer.

Hiking through these dunes is a one-of-a-kind adventure, and visitors can also take guided ATV tours to explore the dunes in a different way.

Plants and Wildlife

The park’s wildlife is also abundant, with caribou herds roaming the land, bears lumbering across the tundra in search of a berry patch, and foxes and wolves roaming the woods.

The Western Arctic Caribou Herd, the largest in the United States, passes through the park twice a year during its migration, leaving millions of hoof prints on the dunes as a sign of their passage.

In addition to the sand dunes, visitors can also explore the park’s other natural features, such as the Kobuk River and its tributaries, which are home to salmon and sheefish, and the park’s many lakes, which are frequented by ducks, loons, geese, and swans during breeding season.

The park is also home to the Kobuk Locoweed, a flowering herb that is only found on the slopes of the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes.

The park also provides a glimpse into the ecosystem of Beringia, the thousand-mile-wide expanse of grassland that connected Asia and North America during the last Ice Age.

15,000 years ago, woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers once roamed the valley in place of today’s moose and grizzly bears.

Great Kobuk Sand Dunes - Alaska
Sand dunes in Kobuk Valley National Park.

Visiting Kobuk Valley National Park

The Kobuk Desert is a true hidden gem of Alaska and a must-see destination for those looking for an off-the-beaten-path adventure.

Reaching the Park is an adventure in itself, as the location is remote and there are no developed facilities, but the 1,795,280 acres of backcountry provide endless opportunities for outdoor activities.

In the summer, visitors can take advantage of boating and floating, backpacking and camping, flightseeing, and fishing.

Winter activities include snow machining, skiing, and dog mushing, but they require arctic winter survival skills and personal equipment.

Getting there

The nearest major cities are Fairbanks and Anchorage, both of which offer flights to nearby towns such as Kotzebue, Ambler, and Nome.

From there, you’ll need to arrange for transportation to the park. The best way to access the park is by plane or boat.

While it is possible to backpack from the Dalton Highway, most trips begin by taking a plane to your starting point.

During the summer, commercial businesses provide flights, but it’s important to plan extra days in case of bad weather.

When planning your visit to Kobuk Valley National Park, be sure to stop by the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue to tour the museum and talk with a ranger.

Permits are not required for independent travelers, but organized recreational groups do need to get a permit from the Chief Ranger.

Read also: American Deserts and Sand Dunes in the US

Alaska Sand Dunes FAQs

Is there a desert in Alaska?

Yes, there is a desert in Alaska. It is called the Kobuk Valley National Park, and it is located in the northwestern part of the state.

The park is home to the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, which are the largest active sand dunes in the Arctic.

What are the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes?

The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are the largest active sand dunes in the Arctic.

They are located in Kobuk Valley National Park in Alaska, about 35 miles above the Arctic Circle.

How were the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes formed?

The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes were formed about 14,000 years ago from retreating glaciers.

The sand and silt that was left behind by the glaciers was then blown by the wind into the dunes that we see today.

What is the best time to visit the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes?

The best time to visit the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes is during the summer, from June to August.

The weather is warm and sunny during this time, and the days are long.

What are some activities that I can do at the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes?

There are many activities that you can do at the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, including hiking, camping, sandboarding, and wildlife viewing.

You can also take a guided tour of the dunes.

How do I get to the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes?

The nearest major airports are in Fairbanks and Anchorage.

From there, you will need to take a connecting flight or a charter plane to Kotzebue, Alaska.

Do I need a permit to visit the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes?

No, you do not need a permit to visit the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes if you are traveling independently.

However, organized groups of 10 or more people do need to obtain a permit from the park ranger.

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