Alaska’s Iconic Great Kobuk Sand Dunes
By: Courtney Dowd-Stanley
Did you know that Alaska is also home to one of the top two largest desert areas on planet earth? It sure is! In fact, the Arctic Polar Desert is about 5.4 million square miles in total, with some of that area being found in Alaska. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes is one of the most wildly unusual and incredibly beautiful places that you probably never knew existed in the Last Frontier. This special spot is one of the most iconic attractions inside Kobuk Valley National Park. The sand dunes jolt out of the earth, rising like pyramids and perfectly swiveled art creations, alongside the treeline and the southern bank of the Kobuk River.
The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are made up of three total dunes, and are the largest active sand dunes inside the arctic region. The two smaller dunes are Little Kobuk Sand Dunes and Hunt River Sand Dunes. Located 35 mile above the Arctic Circle, together these three dunes make up around 30 square miles of lofty, mountainous-like sand that truly looks like something you’d see inside the Sahara Desert in Africa. It’s one of the most unique and mind-blowing sights you’ll ever come across in the 49th state.
As the story goes, about 28,000 years ago the Earth cooled and glaciers were formed from mountains surrounding valley floors. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are remnants of an Ice Age past. As the years went by the glaciers would grow and retreat, the rocks that were beneath them would grind into extremely fine sand. Then, the extreme winds that would blow through the area would move the sand into ice-free, sheltered areas such as the Kobuk Valley.
Approximately 200,000 acres of mind-blowing rolling sand dunes are now found along the banks of the Kobuk River. Conchoidial mirage patters are carved by the wind leaving the dunes with an ever-changing landscape that looks like priceless artwork.
Over the years around 16,000 acres of the soft, flowing sand dunes area has been slowly reclaimed by vegetation. When you visit, you’ll see random places where grass, wildflowers, and sedges will appear popping up out of the dunes. The plants that are found here are actually said to stabilize the sand and create a path for things like mosses, algae, and lichen (and more) before things like aspen, spruce, and birch can eventually take root and create a forest environment.
The sunsets at Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are a sight to behold. Though there aren’t many locals here, people have lived in the region of the Kobuk Valley for around 8,000 years. Most residents live near the Kobuk River, which is known for it’s prolific runs grayling, pike, and sheefish.
Hunting camps have also been found and are said to be dated back thousands of years, near the dunes. Wildlife in the area is incredible. Caribou herds roam the land through natural migration, and the surrounding mountains make for a picture-perfect background for all nature enthusiasts to enjoy. The Western Arctic Caribou Herd passes through twice a year as they head to and from their calving grounds in the Brooks Range.
Other wildlife such as black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, foxes, porcupine, and moose also call this area (and the surrounding woods) their home. Spotting tracks in the sand is not unusual whatsoever.
Of the three sand dunes, Great Kobuk is both the largest and most easily accessible. The golden sand is effortlessly gorgeous with peaks topping 100 feet high into the air. While winter temps are of course quite frigid, the summertime can reach extremes around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you’re lucky enough to visit this region during fall, winter, or early spring – there is a good chance that a spectacular Northern Lights show will grace your presence. Look up! You never know when you’ll be graced with the best aurora show of your lifetime…
Have you ever visited the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes? We’d love to see your pictures and hear about your experiences here.
Looking for another great read? If you love Alaska’s idyllic charm, check out these 11 charming Alaska small towns that’ll leave you wanting more. Buckle up and prepare to enjoy: Road-Trippin’ Alaska; Your perfect way to escape the crowds in 2020. Also, for all of your adventurers that like an off the beaten path experience, take a look at America’s least-visited National Park located right here in Alaska.