The Noatak River in northwestern Alaska flows through the largest undisturbed watershed in North America. It’s designated a National Wild and Scenic River and flows through an area listed as an International Biosphere Reserve.
From its origins in Gates of the Arctic National Park, the river runs west and south for 300 miles through Noatak National Preserve, past a changing landscape that starts as alpine mountains in the Brooks Range and becomes wide-open tundra before the river empties into the Kotzebue Sound.
But people come here for more than the landscape. This is one of the most wildlife-rich areas in North America, with frequent bear, Dall sheep, caribou and musk ox sightings. Grizzly bears like the one above feast on salmon through summer and early fall.
Given that this is deep wilderness, you can’t drive here. Instead, you float. Despite its wild surroundings, the river usually makes for a relatively slow raft or canoe trip with occasional Class II rapids. Trips can range from a few days to a month depending on how much of the river you want to see (and how much time and stamina you have).
Most people start their tours by flying from Anchorage to the tiny town of Bettles (population: 12) at the east end or Kotzebue, site of the preserve visitor center, to the west. For those seeking a dose of luxury before they embark on a tour of the river, Bettles Lodge provides cushy accommodations and helps plan trips. But it’s just one option. Alaska has no shortage of guides and outfitters ready to help adventurous tourists plan and execute their great northern adventures.