The landscape is distracting, tundra shimmering under a late summer sun, deep valleys spattered with red and gold, sharp peaks dwarfing this tiny Alaska village. It takes first-time visitors a while to notice what's missing.
There are no trees here.
But barren it's not. This is eye-candy terrain, rich with nature, culture and history, from the Eskimo settlement of Anaktuvuk Pass to other stops above the Arctic Circle. Stark and beautiful, the top third of Alaska is increasingly finding favor with travelers lured by the mystique of the far, far north.
But be forewarned: This is not your finicky cousin's luxury cruise. There are few frills here. Some accommodations sport only bare plywood walls. The trade-off is the view: otherworldly, raw, unbelievably vast, utterly wild.
Whether you choose a group tour or self-guided trip, the base of operations for most is Fairbanks, a modern city of 30,000 about 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the point where there's at least 24 hours of light in summer or darkness in winter. From Fairbanks, you can fly north, head off for backcountry treks or drive to North Slope oil country. While the majority of visitors come during the summer, many companies offer winter tours and services as well.
Here are some interesting points along the way:
Anaktuvuk Pass: This is the last remaining settlement of Nunamiut, or inland, Inupiat Eskimos, located at the base of the Brooks Range near the northern Continental Divide. Residents still hunt the caribou that migrate along the glacial valley, so it's only fitting that Anaktuvuk Pass means "the place of caribou droppings" in Inupiaq.
The village, with 300 residents, is the only community within the Gates of the Arctic National Park and one of the rare villages with a museum. The Simon Paneak Memorial Museum offers a comprehensive look at a once-nomadic people, as well as local artwork for sale, including caribou skin masks trimmed with wolf, fox or bear fur.
The village is off the road system. You have to fly there. But that hasn't stopped a growing number of travelers, even cruise ship passengers like Donna Kucinski, 38, and Kathleen Gunning, 33.
The elementary school teachers from Chicopee, Mass. were looking for a more unusual side-excursion during their August trip. And they found it with local guide Cyrus Mekiana. The 54-year-old Eskimo rolled his eight-wheel Argo over shallow sections of the meandering John River, then over grounds bursting with jewel-hued plants nestled in lichen. Next was the caribou migration route, where bleached skulls and antlers from old hunts were scattered on the valley floor.
Towering over everything are the jagged, intricately carved mountains.
"It's just totally different at the top of the world," Kucinski said. "It's so different from New England."
The Dalton Highway: This is one extreme road trip, stretching 414 miles to Deadhorse, a Prudhoe Bay industrial camp just south of the Arctic Ocean.
The Dalton was built in the 1970s for hauling supplies during construction of the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline. The entire length of the highway opened to the public in 1994, but most of it remains a gravel road, although some southern sections are paved. Beware of sharp rocks, potholes, steep grades and dense smoke from summer wildfires. Few car-rental companies allow their vehicles to be used on the highway.
A big thanks to those that do. What a way to experience the pipeline, an imposing steel structure flanked by brick-red pillars and forklike tines. This colossal piece of landscape art would put Christo to shame.
Along the roadway are granite slabs and other strange rock formations. Fields of fuschia-colored fireweed burst from burned forests. And you never know when you'll see musk oxen, moose and Dall sheep.
Also check out Coldfoot, a rest stop for far north truckers and home of the new, surprisingly ritzy Arctic Interagency Visitor Center. A goldmining hub in the early 1900s, Coldfoot was abandoned for Wiseman, a quaint outpost of 24 people 13 miles to the north where you can visit a gold-rush era cemetery and the non-denominational Kalhabuk Memorial Chapel, open 24-7, featuring free Bibles and Sunday sermons by a local state trooper and the chapel owner, longtime resident June Reakoff.
And of course, you must visit the pullout at mile 115 (Alaska travelers rely on mile markers since there are few towns to note where they're at). Here, a sign ready made for those wanting to take a picture marks the Arctic Circle. That's what Paul Isabella and fellow Harley Davidson bikers did after reaching the turnaround point of their trek from Valley Forge, Pa.
"This is very much the realization of a lifelong dream," gushed Isabella, 62. "The scenery has been just unbelievable."
Barrow: The nation's farthest north town is the land of endless days, when the summer sun doesn't set for weeks and the Arctic Ocean glistens in the sublime light. And where else can you get your photo taken under an arch made of whale bones, a signature icon of the largely Inupiat Eskimo community of 4,500?
Ancient culture radiates here through Native dance demonstrations, oral histories, art made by locals, exhibits at the Inupiat Heritage Center and the sod-house remains of the original settlement of Ukpiagvik, or "the place where we hunt snowy owls." This is also major polar bear territory. But don't worry. The best opportunities for seeing these gorgeous carnivores are from the safety of sightseeing vehicles at Point Barrow, 13 miles northeast of town.
Another must-see excursion is the Arctic Ocean, which deposits satiny driftwood all along the wind-swept coast. If they dare, visitors also can take a dip in the icy deep, thanks to Fran Tate, owner of Pepe's North of the Border restaurant, which, by the way, serves authentic dishes prepared by Mexican cooks.
Tate, a 76-year-old spitfire, greets her summer guests with an invitation to join her Polar Bear Club every evening at the water's edge across the road from Pepe's. For a $10 membership, takers must fully submerge themselves to collect goose bumps and a certificate granting them lifetime bragging rights. "It only takes a minute," Tate assured the crowd on a cloudless August day when temperatures hovered in the mid 50s.
Promptly at 6 p.m., a few dozen people gathered to take the plunge or witness this Arctic peculiarity. Among the semi-brave was Debbie Smith of Dayton, Ohio, who cheered as her bolder 11-year-old son Alex went in all the way. She could only wade in calf-deep.
"It was really frigid," she said of the 45-degree water. "But now I can go back and tell everyone I've been in the Arctic Ocean."
A final word of advice, whether you plan to take the swim or not. If you venture north of the Arctic Circle, make sure to pack plenty of warm clothes - even if your trip is in the summer.
If you go:
.: Based in Fairbanks; (800) 474-1986. Summer tours begin at $139; tours with air transportation begin at $269. Three-day winter tours through April 30 are $499 per person, based on double occupancy.
: Based in Fairbanks; (800) 478-0812. Tours are conducted year-round and range from $250-$500.
: Anaktuvuk Pass; (907) 661-3413.
: (907) 474-3555. Offers transportation on the Dalton Highway between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean, June 1-Sept. 1. Round-trip fares, $40-$290, depending on distance.
BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT GUIDE TO THE DALTON HIGHWAY: (800) 437-7021.
: Coldfoot, at Mile 175 of the Dalton Highway; (866) 474-3400. Rooms $165 nightly.
: Anaktuvuk Pass; (907) 661-3520. Open year-round.
: (907) 852-5211.
: Barrow; (907) 852-4594. Open year-round.
: Barrow; (907) 852-3900. Day tours range from $374-$574; overnights begin at $525. Winter tours, Sept. 19-May 15; must be booked at least two weeks in advance.