Barrow (Utqiaġvik), Alaska: How to get there, when to go, and other travel tips

Barrow, Alaska from the plane

The first leg of our trip to Utqiaġvik was a 100-minute flight to the oil town of Deadhorse.  Barely a dot on the map, Deadhorse is one of three cities above the Arctic Circle to which Alaska Airlines flies, the other two being Kotzebue and Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow).

We celebrated when we landed; we’d left Anchorage at 7:39 that Saturday morning, and now, not even 2 hours later, we were above the Arctic Circle!  The plane sat on the runway for a few minutes, allowing us time to revel in this knowledge.  A few people disembarked the plane and others got on; then the pilot made his usual pre-flight announcements, saying that we were “number one for take off.”  This made us laugh—we were the only commercial plane in the airport.  It wasn’t long before we were back in the air, and Utqiaġvik was just a short flight northwest along the coastline.

Our excitement was short-lived.  The fog became more and more dense as the flight progressed, and our descent into Utqiaġvik didn’t last long; the pilot didn’t have a good view of the runway and wasn’t comfortable landing.  We circled around and made a second attempt, but he again aborted the landing, so we were forced to turn south and head to Fairbanks, where we’d been rerouted.

This was disappointing, but fortunately we managed to secure seats on the next morning’s flight.  Sunday morning we followed the same routine, and this time the skies were clear.  We landed without incident and had the day to explore America’s northernmost city.

Getting there

Barrow, Alaska, from the plane

The primary way to reach Utqiaġvik is by plane, as there are no roads into town.  Alaska Airlines, the biggest airline that services Alaska, has several flights from both Anchorage and Fairbanks to Utqiaġvik daily.  We used air miles to cover our flight, and it was a steal—30,000 miles round-trip total for both of us (in August 2017).  Alaska Air has one of the best loyalty programs out there, and I highly encourage you to join their program if you fly with them at all.

We flew into the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport (see our previous post about the plane crash that killed these two men).  The airport is a 10,900-square-foot, pre-engineered metal building created to withstand the Arctic conditions:

It’s pretty tiny.  Here’s the baggage claim “carousel”:

Barrow (Utqiaġvik) airport
Our friend Jingyi, who went with us, was trying to get out of the way as I took a pano of the airport

Note that you can book your own flight, but some tour companies, like the ones I mentioned in our previous post, may offer packages that include the airfare.

When to go

When is the best time to go to the Arctic?  The summer months are a given because the weather, while never balmy, is at least above freezing.  But what about the winter?  Utqiaġvik is one of the coldest cities in America, and starting mid-November the sun disappears for over two months.  Should you even consider going during this time?

Actually, yes.  If you’re tough enough to withstand the cold and the darkness, there are reasons to visit Utqiaġvik year round.

In the winter, the Arctic gets spectacular views of the Aurora Borealis, a reason to visit all on its own.  Plus, the Arctic Ocean freezes over, which means you can walk on it, snow machine across it, or even take a dogsled tour!  We thought that walking on a frozen lake and, later, an ice road, were both pretty badass experiences; I can only imagine what it’s like to step out onto an ocean!

Some winters, Utqiaġvik also hosts the Kivgiq, or Messenger Feast, an ancient celebration that in modern times brings together Arctic peoples from all over the world.¹  It sounds like a special experience.

As I talked about in this post, traditional Iñupiat whale hunting occurs in the spring and fall, providing visitors with the opportunity to have a truly unique cultural experience.  The spring whale hunt typically takes place away from land because the ice is still close to shore, so it may be difficult for visitors to observe the villagers as they process the whales.  By October, however, the ice has melted back and is much further from shore, so the whaling crews typically launch from land, and whale carcasses are usually towed to the beach and butchered there.  This increases a visitor’s odds of being able to observe, interact with the locals, and sample delicacies such as muktuk.

If the spring hunt is a successful one, the Iñupiat will host Nalukataq, a celebratory festival.¹  The whaling crews are bound by tradition to share their catch with everyone, and visitors are welcome to partake.  One of the highlights of the festival is the blanket toss, where villagers throw participants into the air using a tarp made of seal skin.  The legend behind the blanket toss is that hunters used the technique to spot game in the distance.  The objective is to hurl participants as high as possible, which, you should know, frequently leads to injuries!

Blanket toss (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Another festival, Piuraagiaqta, celebrates the return of spring and sounds like a total blast.  It’s held in April and includes a parade as well as events such as igloo building, dog mushing, a geese-calling contest, snow machine races, golf games held on a frozen lagoon, and an art show.

Avid birders should visit in the spring or summer.  The Barrow Visitors Guide states that from May through July, over 185 species of birds nest in or migrate through the Alaskan Arctic.

Go in July or December and you might catch an exhibition of the Eskimo Games.  For thousands of years, the Iñupiat people played a variety games to sharpen the physical skills needed for hunting and survival.  These exercises experienced a revival in the 1960’s with the creation of the World Eskimo Games, now known as the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.  The Olympics are held in Fairbanks every year, and incredible athletes from all over Alaska and the country participate in a variety of events.

We saw a demonstration of the one- and two-footed high kick at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage (a fantastic cultural center that we’ll talk about in an upcoming post):

Demonstration of the high kick at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. The objective is to kick the little ball that's hanging high in the air.  After several attempts, this young athlete successfully kicked it.  He competed in the World Eskimo Indian Olympics in July.  Note: the record for the one-foot high kick, set in 2013 by Tim Fields, is 9 feet, 9 inches!
Demonstration of the high kick at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. The objective is to kick the little ball that’s hanging high in the air.  After several attempts, this young athlete successfully kicked it.  He competed in the World Eskimo Indian Olympics in July.  Note: the record for the one-foot high kick, set in 2013 by Tim Fields, is 9 feet, 9 inches!

Utqiaġvik offers two opportunities to witness these feats of strength and physical prowess: at the Christmas Eskimo Games in December and as a part of the Independence Day festivities in July.

How long to stay

We’ve wanted to go to Utqiaġvik for a long time, and we figured that, once we made it there, we’d stay at least a few days.  When Dale started his research, however, he read several accounts from people who had taken day trips, returning to Anchorage in the evening.  At first, the idea of going above the Arctic Circle and back in the same day sounded ridiculous.  But the more we read, the more it seemed plausible.  Utqiaġvik is a small town, and many of its highlights can be seen in a day.

This initial trip gave us a nice introduction to Utqiaġvik and the Arctic, but that being said, we plan to go back.  I’ve written extensively in these past few posts about what to do and see in Utqiaġvik, and it’s clearly enough to fill several days.

Food and accommodations

At the time we were there, Utqiaġvik had ten restaurants.  Wiki Travel has a list of those restaurants, and Yelp offers some reviews.  Our tour guide, Mike, recommended two places that are popular with the locals: Sam & Lee’s and Arctic Pizza.  We opted for Sam & Lee’s, the northernmost Chinese-American (and Korean) restaurant in the U.S.  The food was good, the proprietor was welcoming, and the portions, huge.  Note that no matter where you eat, food is expensive, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone.  It is the Arctic, after all!

Mike’s mother, Fran Tate, owned what was probably the most famous restaurant in Utqiaġvik, a Mexican food place called Pepe’s North of the Border.  Fran was known for her hospitality and personality and was even a guest on the Tonight Show many years ago.  Unfortunately, Pepe’s burned down in 2013 and was not rebuilt, and Fran no longer lives in Utqiaġvik, but you’ll still find references to Pepe’s if you read travel information about the town.

As for alcohol, don’t expect to warm up on a frigid winter night with a shot of tequila or a hot toddy; the sale and purchase of alcohol is banned in Utqiaġvik, and there are no bars or nightclubs.

Places to stay

From what I can tell, there are four hotels in Utqiaġvik: the Top of the World Hotel, Airport Inn, King Eider Inn, and UIC Tukkumavik Suites.  Trip Advisor offers a comprehensive list of available accommodations, and Airbnb has a few listings.

Weather

Utqiaġvik has a polar climate, which means that it’s cool at best and downright frigid at its worst.  The winters are long, cold, and dark, and the summers are short and chilly.  Fierce storms may roll off of the Arctic Ocean and hit the coast at any time, and in general the weather is unpredictable.  This could mean travel delays or cancellations, or, as was the case with us, an aborted landing.  One travel site I came across recommended travel insurance so that if your tour is cancelled, you’re covered.

Who to contact if you have questions

This one’s a bit tricky.  Nowhere could I find the contact information for a visitors center in Utqiaġvik, and it’s unclear if there is one at all.  Dale called City Hall and came away with no concrete answers.  While the woman on the phone confirmed that at one point a visitors center did exist, she couldn’t say for sure whether it’s even open.  So from what I can gather, your best sources of information are:

  • The Iñupiat Heritage Center, which is open year round and also involved in many of the cultural events that take place around town
  • Your hotel, if you’re staying in Utqiaġvik over night.
Entrance to the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Utqiaġvik
Entrance to the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Utqiaġvik

Final tips

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Utqiaġvik, whether it’s for a day or a week, you should go.  Just remember that traveling in Alaska can be unpredictable, so you should:

  • Bring layers of warm and water-resistant clothing and be prepared for extreme temperatures or sudden weather changes
  • Embrace the opportunity to experience unique cultures and lifestyles in this fascinating place
  • Revel in being above the Arctic Circle
  • Maintain an attitude of flexibility, so that no matter what happens, you can just roll with it!

 


¹The Kivgiq (Messenger Feast) does not occur annually. And Nalukataq, (the whaling festival) usually occurs in June, but it’s centered around the end of the whaling season and the date therefore varies.  To find out more about these festivals and other events in Utqiaġvik, contact the Iñupiat Heritage Center (907-852-0422).

It’s not just unpredictable weather that disrupts air traffic in Utqiaġvik: here’s a story from October about a seal napping on the airport runway.  Too cute!