Discover the Small U.S. Town Only Accessible by Plane (No Roads In!)

Whale bone arch in Utqiagvik, Alaska at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Referred to as the "Gateway to the Arctic", it symbolizes the community's relationship to the sea and whaling.
© JKBay/Shutterstock.com

Written by Kellianne Matthews

Published: November 18, 2023

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Imagine living in the rugged terrain of the Arctic tundra, where the only way in or out is by air! That is exactly what life is like for residents of Utqiagvik, a remote haven in the northernmost frontier of Alaska. This small U.S. town is a superb example of humanity’s resilience and adaptability in the face of the harsh and unforgiving natural world. There are no roads in or out of Utqiagvik, but its awe-inspiring natural surroundings make this incredible city a spectacular destination that defies comparison. Let’s take a closer look at what makes this tiny Alaskan town such an incredible place!

Welcome to Utqiagvik, Alaska

Whale Bones in Utqiagvik, Alaska

The iconic Whalebone Arch in Utqiagvik is known as the “Gateway to the Arctic”.


©iStock.com/Gemma Winston

Formerly known as Barrow, the Alaskan city of Utqiagvik is the northernmost city in the United States. Located right along the coastline of the Arctic Ocean, this charming town can only be reached by plane. That’s right, there are no roads in or out Utqiagvik. The Arctic Ocean embraces three sides of the town, while the fourth extends out into the flat and icy Arctic tundra. 

Utqiagvik’s remoteness stems from its unique geography. Approximately 1,300 miles south of the North Pole and just over 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the city is enveloped by the icy Arctic tundra. The permafrost layer, a remarkable 1,300 feet deep, makes reaching Utqiagvik extremely difficult. This impenetrable layer of solid frozen ground makes it difficult to construct solid roads. The only roads in the area are contained exclusively inside the city and remain unpaved. So, the only way to get in or out of Utqiagvik is via an airplane!

Utqiagvik’s Unusual Climate

An aerial photo of the frozen sea in the Arctic Circle near Utqiagvik, Alaska.

Utqiagvik in Alaska encompasses a total area of 21 square miles, covered by water and the Arctic tundra.

©iStock.com/Wirestock

As you can imagine, it is extraordinarily cold in Utqiagvik, with an average temperature of just 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit! Fortunately, in the summer months, temperatures often reach up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. During the winter, however, the weather can be especially dangerous as the temperatures plummet and strong Arctic winds descend. In addition, the sun disappears and brings about a unique “polar night” from November 18 to January 23. In other words, for an astounding 65 days, the city of Utqiagvik is shrouded in total darkness without any sun! 

How can people survive in such a harsh environment? Well, believe it or not, Utqiagvik is one of the oldest town sites in the United States and has been inhabited since at least 800 A.D.! For thousands of years, an indigenous Inuit ethnic group, the Iñupiat, have happily called this region home. Today, over 60% of the city’s population is made up of Iñupiat peoples, who continue to share their remarkable culture, history, and survival skills with the region. 

Survival in the Remote City of Utqiagvik

the city of Utqiavik

Utqiagvik represents the traditional Inupiaq name and means “a place to gather roots”. 

©iStock.com/ChrisBoswell

Generations of observation and innovation have forged a deep bond between the Iñupiat and the natural world as they fostered the art of sustainable living. The people are skilled hunters, pursuing caribou, seals, and bowhead whales. They have shared and traded with their neighbors for several hundred years and continue to do so today.

When European explorers first encountered the area back in 1853, they recorded the city’s name but struggled with its pronunciation. So, for more than a century, non-native Alaskan residents instead referred to it as “Barrow” (inspired by Point Barrow). However, in 2016, as part of the decolonization process, the city’s residents voted to change it to “Utqiagvik”.

With a population of around 4,300 residents, Utqiagvik is one of Alaska’s larger villages. It functions as a significant economic center in the region. Many of its citizens continue to embrace the art of hunting and gathering. Not only do they provide sustenance and economic opportunities for the community, but also for neighboring areas as well.

Visiting the City of Utqiagvik

Blanket toss at Nalukataq in Utqiaġvik

The traditional “Blanket Toss” is one of the major highlights of Nalukataq Whaling Festival.

©Floyd Davidson / CC BY-SA 3.0 – Original / License

Tourism is another important part of Utqiagvik. People from all over the world come to experience the many natural and cultural wonders the city offers. Polar bears and snowy owls often visit the region, with beluga whales, bowhead whales, and thousands of migratory birds arriving in the spring. During the spring and summer months, the coast hosts ringed seals, bearded seals, and walruses, while foxes and caribou forage across the tundra. 

While Utqiagvik is plunged into darkness during the winter, from May 10 until August 2, the city enjoys another incredible natural phenomenon called the “Midnight Sun”. During this time, the sun remains above the horizon for a full 24 hours, providing residents and visitors with weeks of continuous daylight! With 24 hours of sun each day, you have plenty of time to explore the many historic, cultural, and natural sites in and around the city. 

In addition, there are several exciting festivals and celebrations that take place throughout the summer. One of the most popular is the Nalukataq Whaling Festival in June. The festival is a vibrant celebration that honors the whales that gave their lives during the hunt and offers tribute to their spirits in hopes that they will return again the next year. 

One of the festival’s distinctive traditions is the blanket toss. In the past, a brave hunter would be tossed high into the air from a sturdy walrus hide. This offered them an expansive view of the horizon to spot potential game for hunting. In contrast, the goal for today’s participants is to maintain their balance when they land back on the blanket. Meanwhile, onlookers from the crowd throw various gifts at the person thrown into the air.


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About the Author

Kellianne Matthews is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on anthrozoology, conservation, human-animal relationships, and animal behavior. Kellianne has been writing and researching animals for over ten years and has decades of hands-on experience working with a variety of different animals. She holds a Master’s Degree from Brigham Young University, which she earned in 2017. A resident of Utah, Kellianne enjoys creating, exploring and learning new things, analyzing movies, caring for animals, and playing with her cats.

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