Things to do in Barrow, Alaska (Utqiagvik): A Trip to the Top of the World (or at Least the US)

My family took an epic trip to Alaska during the summer of 2019. You can read about the whole trip here. Each family member was allowed to pick one thing they really wanted to do as far as expensive excursions (Alaska is expensive!) Three of the five of us desired a visit above the Arctic Circle.

Read on for why we choose Barrow, how we got there and things to do in Barrow (Utqiagvik), Alaska. It ended up being the most culturally unique and thought-provoking trip we have done.

What to do in Barrow, Alaska
At this point in time, my kids were the northernmost people in the United States. They definitely thought that it was very cool. And how many kids can say they skipped rocks on the Arctic Ocean?

Visiting the Arctic Circle

What is the Arctic Circle?

The Arctic Circle is the northernmost circle of latitude. At this latitude the ground is in a state of permafrost, meaning it never thaws in the year. The temperatures are low, the growing season is short (only about 100 days) and the daylight is different. The sun doesn’t even exactly set in the east and rise in the west if it goes down at all. In the summer it rises and sets near the northern horizon and is around most of the time. Conversely, It sets in the south in the winter when there are many hours of darkness.

In Alaska, the Arctic Circle lies about 200 miles north of Fairbanks on the Dalton Highway, a rough road on which most rental car companies do not allow their cars driven. There are also areas above Anchorage you can fly into.

birds in Barrow, Alaska
Barrow is a stellar place for bird-watching expeditions, particularly in fall and winter. These are sandpipers.

Where in Alaska to Visit Above the Arctic Circle

I had already been away from work for a little too long (I run a dental practice), so we didn’t have a lot of time to spend above the Arctic Circle. We looked at going into some small villages in northwest Alaska, such as Kotzebue, but for us, the trip would have taken too long. We knew we were going to Fairbanks and had read about day trips to the Arctic Circle.

Arctic Circle Day Trip from Anchorage

Alaska Airlines has a flight that leaves Anchorage in the morning flying directly to Barrow and returns in the evening. It will give you about 7 hours in Barrow.

How to Get From Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle

Arctic Circle Day Trip from Fairbanks

If you only have a day, you can get to the Arctic Circle from Fairbanks with two basic tours:

Barrow is completely covered in permafrost. The top few inches thaw in summer, allowing grass and a few flower, such as this arctic cotton to bloom.

How to Fly from Fairbanks to Barrow

Alaska Airlines has flights that go daily from Anchorage to Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay to Barrow and back again to Anchorage.

With regular commercial flights to Barrow for under $300 per person, we decided we would much rather visit the Arctic this way than by day tour. We could see the Arctic Ocean, stay overnight in a hotel and take a tour for under $500.

What to do in Prudhoe Bay (Deadhorse)?

What to do in Deadhorse Things to do in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska
The best thing in town is the soup in the oil-rigger camp, Prudhoe Bay Hotel, right across the street from the airport.

First of all, you are stopping in an unincorporated village called Deadhorse. Not a positive sign.

We had a two and a half hour layover, so we hoped to see a bit of the town. The airport is very small, just a corrugated metal building and a tarmac. We asked the flight attendants what we could do in town and they looked blankly at us and said they had never gotten off the plane and the only thing to do is get some really good soup. Really good soup in Deadhorse? Intriguing, albeit a bit bizarre.

We asked the people on the ground the same question and pretty much got the same answer. Prudhoe Bay is all oil wells on the Arctic. They do offer tours, but you have to plan ahead because you need clearance to get on the fields. There are no taxis or Uber in the area.

The official population of the town in 25. Yes, 25, although the transient population servicing the oil fields numbers in the thousands. The oil fields are why the settlement is there.

After our stop, we were on to the main attraction…

24 Hours in Barrow, Alaska

24 hours in Barrow Alaska
One of Barrow’s dental offices. As a dentist I am pleased there were several. Like most places in town, the parking lot has broken down snowmobiles and cars. The buildings on stilts are the ones with running toilets, rather than honeypots.

Why visit Barrow, Alaska?

  • Barrow has a strong Iñupiat culture and there are many ways to explore it.
  • It is easy to get to compared to most Eskimo, or Inuit, villages. In Alaska, Inuit is the name for the collection of native tribes that long ago traveled to North America over the Bering Strait from Russia. They are currently settled above Fairbanks. There are Eskimos elsewhere in the world and they are all ethnically related to Mongolians.
  • Barrow lies on the Arctic Ocean and its peninsula, Point Barrow, is the northernmost land in the United States.
  • There are walruses, beluga whales and polar bears.
  • It is so different than the lower 48.
  • When we first arrived in Barrow, we were struck by the mud and junk in yards. Barrow was a perfect opportunity to explore the way my family percieves cultures and places. It was quite thought-provoking for us.

Is it Still Called Barrow?

Barrow got its English name after an explorer, Sir John Barrow in 1825. It has been a home of the Iñupiat natives for over 4,000 years.

In 2016, the locals decided to change the name back to the original Iñupiat name, of Utqiaġvik, so that is officially the name of this town. The correct name sounds like Oot-Key-og-vik, with an unusual guttural accent in a key that will make it difficult for non-native speakers to say.

However, I never heard one person refer to it as Utqiaġvik in town, although I saw it written. Our flights were booked to Barrow, the listings on the web are under Barrow.

The Realities of Barrow, Alaska

The climate is harsh, the native land has been overrun by foreigners for oil and the bay is only accessible for two months of the year. Like many areas in the US, you can see the struggle of a people holding onto its culture in the midst of being part of the US.

There are many parts of Utqiaġvik that will first turn off many from the lower 48– whale hunting, muddy roads and yards full of junk. If you open your eyes and mind you will appreciate how all these things are proof of the strength and ingenuity of an independent people who survived in an environment many are afraid to visit at all.

What to do in Barrow Alaska

The city of Barrow is small enough to walk around. It is not safe to walk outside of town due to the danger of polar bears. Locals travel by car, ATV or snowmobile. There are many taxis that you can call.

Explore

Spend time walking around town, exploring shops and the beach in front of the whale ribs.

Family visit to Barrow, Alaska
Although I had read many harsh reviews about Barrow locals, our time was blessed with locals who were excited to share their culture with us. Above is Colleen, pictured with my family, who took her time to guide us through the whaling exhibition and speak to its significance to her family.

Take a Tour

Although I am all about exploring cities on my own, this is a place you really need to be shown around. The guides bring with them extensive knowledge of the local culture, as well as the area.

Since it is not safe to walk outside of town, this is the only way you can get to Point Barrow, the northernmost land in the United States as well as visit the town’s cemetery and see the tundra. It will also give you a better chance to see wildlife in the area, such as birds, whales and polar bears.

We took the basic tour which was 2 hours long and $100 a person. For $500 a person, you can walk with the guide all the way out onto Point Barrow. We took our tour with Mike of Windows of the World. I would also recommend Andrew who we spent a lot of time talking with. He runs the Airport Inn, so you can contact him by calling there.

Things to do in Arctic Alaska
Dressed up in Iñupiat jackets at the Iñupiat Heritage Center,

Visit the Heritage Center

Spend a few hours in the Iñupiat Heritage Center, an exciting and informative place to learn about the natives of the North Slope. We were blessed to have  Iñupiat local, Colleen, share her family experiences whaling while showing us the whaling exhibition.

When you are done, be sure to see the local artists outside and to the left of the building as they use local materials to produce unique handicrafts. The museum is closed from 12-1 for lunch, although the artists are still active.

Do you Dare Take the Plunge?

Take a polar bear plunge in the land of the polar bears. Either of the tour guides I recommended will help you make that happen.

Things to do in Utqiagvik
Bowhead whale skull drying on the beach out by the old naval yard.

Take in a Whaling Festival

Bowhead whales come to shore where they are hunted in spring and fall. If you visit at these times you may be able to take part in these cultural celebrations. These whales are not endangered.

Birding in Alaska

Mike also offers bird tours. Barrow is one of the best spots in Alaska to see unique birds.

How Long to Stay in Barrow, Alaska

The town is stark and small, so unless you come for a reason other than seeing what it is all about, you don’t need to stay for more than 24 hours.

Where to Stay in Barrow, Alaska

Top of the World Hotel

There are not many hotels to choose from. A native corporation owns the seaside Top of the World. It feels like a hotel, has a restaurant with reindeer soup and a lobby with information, much like a museum, about the area.

The Airport Inn

We stayed at The Airport Inn, which is a B&B owned by Arizona-native, Andrew, and his Iñupiat wife, Nancy. This is the perfect spot to stay in Barrow. The rooms are bigger and less expensive and it’s just a few blocks from the airport.

But the real reason this place was so perfect was the hospitality and help of the owners. They set the tone for our positive learning experience of the whole town. And their dog, Pickles, put a smile on our face when he was around.

what to do in Utqiagvik
Footbridge over the lagoon which provides water to the town.

What to Eat in Barrow

The food in the town was much different than I expected, although that was true in much of Alaska. The majority of the restaurants in town are owned by Koreans! If you want Iñupiat food, you won’t really find it. The closest you can get is the reindeer soup at Top of the World, which is served alongside a very stereotypical American menu. Natives wouldn’t eat reindeer, but rather caribou.

Why is this so? Any food considered part of a subsistence diet cannot be sold in a restaurant. That even means that you can’t order local whitefish.

That being said, the Chinese food was very tasty at Sam and Lee’s. The portions are huge and Mrs. Kim is very welcoming.

When to Visit Barrow

Even in the summer, the temperatures feel like a nice New England winter day, falling between 35-45 F. In the winter they plummet far into the negatives. I imagine there is a beauty to the white, as opposed to the brown dirt of the summer.

Polar Bears in Barrow

The area surrounding Barrow has polar bears. That is a big draw to the town for tourists who want to see one. They come into the area on ice floes. The summer we visited all of the ice was melted, as it has been for the last few years. This means there was very little chance for us to see the bears. You are most likely to see the bears in the fall and spring.

For more information on how to see wildlife in Alaska read my Alaskan Wildlife Guide.

Literary Inspiration for Barrow, Alaska

The movie, Big Miracle, follows the true story of the rescue of three gray whales in Barrow. It sheds light on both sides of whale hunting and gave us an idea of the town before we visited. Read Stories to Inspire Travel for more ideas of books and movies to enhance your travels.

Our trip to Barrow, Alaska was not warm and glamorous, but one we will remember forever. It was a highlight of our epic trip to Alaska, even to the youngest in my family. It was eye-opening and served a purpose to my family which is one of the main reasons we expose them to traveling- an understanding of people and lifestyles much different than them.

When are you headed to Barrow? Have you been? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

Don’t forget to check out my other Alaska posts.

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