True traveler confession: This is the only time my exploring bucket-list expanded solely because of social media envy. My friend posted a photo standing in a place that did not look at all like home. It was mid-summer and she was bundled up in layers and mittens, shivering on the edge of some body of water, posted under two huge arching bones.
It looked cold, distant, and amazing. Her picture inspired a quest to stand in the same place: Utqiagvik, Alaska — often known by its former name of Barrow. The northernmost city in the United States is about 2.5 times closer to the North Pole than it is to Washington, D.C. When you get there, you’ll find fewer than 4,500 residents, two hotels, and a place unlike any other in the country.
Intrigued? Start planning now because this is not a spur-of-the-moment road trip. In fact, no roads actually lead all the way to the community on the Chukchi Sea coast. It’s just part of the adventure of a trip, which can last as little as a day but promises memories to last a lifetime.
Here are seven ways to make the most of your time at the U.S.’s far (really far!) northern border.
1. Enjoy The Journey And The Destination
I was embarrassed to admit I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going. I could point to it on a map, yet some websites talked of Utqiagvik, while others said Barrow. Which was correct and how did I pronounce it? Luckily, Facebook offers an expert guide to hear for yourself. It boils down to tradition. Though about 60 percent of Utqiagvik residents are Iñupiat Eskimo, non-natives started calling it Barrow because it was easier to pronounce. In 2016, the community voted to make Utqiagvik official.
Pro Tip: When searching online to plan your trip, search for both names. Community information comes from Utqiagvik; Alaska Airlines flies to Barrow. I’ll call it Utqiavik for the rest of the article to respect the community’s decision.
My pre-pandemic trip was part of a longer Alaskan experience with my family, so we chose a one-day chartered air tour from Fairbanks, which required one refueling stop. We had less time to explore on our own, yet our Utqiagvik tour guide was ready when we landed to take us on an adventure, no other plans needed — and we came home with an “official” Arctic Circle crossing certificate!
If you get to stay longer, you can choose between two hotels: the King Eider Inn and the Top of the World Hotel. Tripadvisor lists five B&Bs.
2. Bring Light-Blocking Sleep Masks (Or Flashlights!)
Speaking of sunsets, they don’t happen every day. The sun rises in mid-May and stays up for 83 days. The flip side: It sets in mid-November for 66 days of unrelenting darkness.
February’s average high temperature is -7 degrees Fahrenheit; I went in balmy July, where the high averages 47 degrees. Tour guide Mike Schults, who has spent 13 years showing people the tundra, says he doesn’t recommend tours in the dark. However, he loves the coldest months and says, “50-below-zero cold air slaps you in the face and lets you know you’re alive.”
Pro Tip: Schults, who has no website but can be reached at [email protected] or (907) 355-2204, is currently one of the only private tour guides operating in Utqiagvik. Large tour groups are not being scheduled for 2021 as of now due to COVID-19. Check before making plans.
3. Start Your Whale Of A Tale
Remember that picture of my friend from Utqiagvik? It was taken at one of the first stops I wanted. The arch is known as the Gateway to the Arctic and it’s made of a bowhead whale’s jawbone. This whale is one of the oldest and largest mammals on earth — just one can weigh more than 120,000 pounds! These bones prove it. This photo opportunity is a memorable reminder this is a community that has used — and still uses — whales as a critical part of its culture.
Pro Tip: One other easy photo op in town is a multi-directional signpost. (Just ask and people will direct you there!) Want to know how far you are from Port-au-Prince, Haiti? Easy: 4,886 miles. It’s 3,572 miles from Austin, Texas, and 4,774 miles from Lake Placid, Florida. It may not show your hometown, but it will likely suggest you are a long distance from it!
4. If You Really Want A Whale Of A Tale…
Time your trip to the annual whaling festival, called Nalukataq. Regrettably, my July visit was a few weeks too late to experience what Utqiagvik residents say is a must-see event. The festival is a chance for Iñupiat Eskimos to celebrate the whaling season. It’s held in late June, scheduled around the whale hunts, with traditional dances and food, including a chance to try muktuk, the traditional dish of frozen whale skin and blubber.
Whenever you visit, you can learn about culture at the National Park Service Iñupiat Heritage Center. This site helps you understand history with artifacts and exhibits, and it gives local artists a chance to practice their crafts.
Pro Tip: There’s a gift shop here, which is noteworthy because you won’t find many souvenir shopping options in town. This is one of your best bets for treasures to take home.
5. Go Into A Grocery Store (Really!)
Remember, there are no roads into Utqiagvik, so it’s no simple task to “pick something up.” Everything must come by air — or in summer, by ship — so supply matters. Stepping into a grocery store gives you a sense of what it takes to live in this community. Guide Mike Schults reports orange juice costs $18 a bottle, a quart of mayonnaise costs $23, and watermelon is a luxury at $80. This reality has inspired Youtube videos by tourists wanting to see these prices to believe it. A stop here is a small part of understanding life lived remotely.
Pro Tip: One tourist who checked out the prices bought groceries and donated them to a local food pantry. It’s a great way to learn and leave things a bit better.
6. See A Memorial To A Plane Crash That Shocked The World
In the 20th century, humorist Will Rogers was known around the world for sayings like, “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”
In 1935, Rogers and famous pilot Wiley Post were killed in a plane crash 15 miles from Utqiagvik. A National Park Service article about the crash says the news was so stunning, both the House of Representatives and Senate in Washington, D.C. stopped work for a period of national mourning. There are two memorials to the crash victims, one at the crash site and the second in Utqiagvik. You will see the names on one other important place in the community: The Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport is named in their honor.
7. Go The Distance: One More Milestone
Yes, Utqiagvik is the northernmost city in the U.S. But if you want the northernmost point, you need to go nine miles more to Point Barrow. When you do, you can skip rocks or dip your toes in the Arctic Ocean. It is as cold as you’d imagine; water is usually around 30 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit in summer. When you’ve come this far, it’s really worth crossing this final thing off your Utqiagvik checklist.
Pro Tip: Tourists can not access Point Barrow on their own as it is located on tribal land. You need to go on an approved tour like this one; it offers Polar Bear Plunges for those who want to go all-in to the water! One other note: Polar bear plunges are more than marketing ploys; polar bears really do come into the community.
When my family talks about adventures, this trip always makes the list. It was eye-opening, unique, and unforgettable — even better than the pictures!