Date Established: 1995
Size: 1,073,673 acres
Vuntut National Park may be one of the most remote and least visited national parks in Canada, but it’s far from unpopulated. Vuntut is the domain of the Porcupine caribou herd and half a million migratory birds, and is also the cultural homeland of the Vuntut Gwich’in people. In the Gwich’in language, vuntut means “among the lakes,” a fitting moniker for this Arctic landscape, which is dotted by fertile wetlands, winding rivers, and rolling mountains.
• First Nations Co-Management Vuntut National Park was established through a land claims agreement in 1995, and is thus a relatively recent addition to Canada’s national parks system. It realized the vision the Vuntut Gwich’in people of North Yukon have of preserving the land and their way of life, and they work together with Parks Canada to manage the park.
• Gwich’in The Gwich’in people live in about 15 communities across northeast Alaska, the North Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, and are united by their language and a culture founded on a dependence on the Porcupine caribou herd. A number of nations and bands make up the Gwich’in people throughout their vast territory; the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation in Old Crow is one of these.
• Protected Areas Vuntut lies north of the village of Old Crow, a fly-in community of 300 located at the confluence of the Crow and Porcupine Rivers. Wetlands are protected in the Old Crow Flats part of the park, but Vuntut also plays a significant role in a much larger protected area. Vuntut’s neighboring national parks include Ivvavik to the north and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge across the international boundary to the west.
• Caribou Country Caribou is an important species in this northern ecosystem, and Old Crow is located on the migration path of the Porcupine caribou herd. The annual migration of this herd is one of the largest of any land animal on Earth, and a portion of the herd ranges in Vuntut National Park at various times of the year. Caribou are important to the local communities not only as a source of food but for their role in Gwich’in culture. Historically, Gwich’in hunters built caribou fences to capture the animals, and the remains of several of these fences are important heritage sites in Vuntut National Park.
• Fauna Hundreds of thousands of nesting or migrating waterfowl visit the Old Crow Flats complex of shallow lakes each year, and moose and muskrat thrive in the wetlands. The park is also home to grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, raptors, and many small mammals. Interestingly, parts of Vuntut remained unglaciated in the last Ice Age, and those parts of the landscape served as a refuge for plants and animals trying to survive in the barren environs.
How to Get There
Access to the park is challenging. The closest road, the Dempster Highway, is about 109 miles away, so one good option is to fly to Old Crow and stage a trip into the park from there. Air North flies from Whitehorse to Old Crow, Dawson City, and Inuvik several times a week. Vuntut National Park is 31 miles north of Old Crow by air, or 118 miles via river. Boats may be available for hire in Old Crow. An aircraft landing permit is required to land in Vuntut National Park; if you are planning a journey there, you need to contact Parks Canada in advance.
When to Go
Summer is short north of the Arctic Circle, and June, July, and August are the most pleasant months for a visit to Vuntut National Park. Unfortunately, insects also peak in the summer, so a bug jacket is essential gear for a summer trip. Many families from Old Crow go out to seasonal camps in the spring and fall to partake in traditional activities like hunting, trapping, fishing, and berry picking, so even though a visit to the community is special at any time of the year, you’ll see more and enjoy a richer cultural experience if you visit between March and September. Your best chance to see caribou near Old Crow is in spring (April–May) or fall (September–October).
How to Visit
Vuntut National Park is a destination for experienced, self-sufficient adventurers. Fewer than 25 people visit the park each year (not including locals); it’s complete wilderness that is difficult and expensive to access. There are no facilities or services to assist visitors—in short, you’re left mostly to your own devices if you plan a visit to the park. Those who make the effort, though, will encounter a wilderness adventure unlike any other, in a place pristine and unspoiled.
Visitors to Vuntut will get to enjoy exceptional wildlife viewing—with 500,000 birds and 100,000 caribou passing through, you can’t fail to spot some interesting species. Hardy souls may wish to hike and backpack through the park’s distinctive unglaciated mountains, or you can also canoe the Old Crow River or plan a winter ski trip through the park. Please note that extended backcountry journeys in the park require careful advance planning and logistics.
If you can, make time to visit Old Crow and stop by the new visitor center, which stands in the middle of the traditional village. A few of the residents of Old Crow also offer tours, accommodation, and excursions to view wildlife or partake in cultural activities.
—Text adapted from the 2011 National Geographic book Guide to the National Parks of Canada