The True Northernmost Extreme Point: Barrow, Alaska

Barrow, the top of the worldWhen we started planning our return visit to Alaska, we knew that in addition to visiting our final two national parks up there we also had to trek to Barrow, Alaska.  Why?  Because our visit to the previous “northernmost city” in Minnesota [see Northwest Angle post] had an asterisks behind it — it was only the northernmost city in the contiguous United States.  If we wanted to make the claim that we visited the true northernmost place in the whole of the U.S. on this road trip (which we did/do!) then we had to trek all the way up to Barrow, Alaska; for Barrow is the true northernmost north point — the ‘Top of the World’ as they claim.

Barrow is 330 miles above the Arctic Circle; it’s right on the edge of the Arctic Ocean where the Chukchi and Beaufort seas meet.  It’s the undisputed northernmost city in the U.S.; the ninth northernmost city in the entire world.

Barrow is so far north that trees can’t grow up here.  One of the photos I’ve shared below shows an interesting perspective of this native village as we approached it from the air, and you can see how flat all of this land on the North Slope is — it’s permafrost underneath tundra that’s covered with snow for much of the year.  Barrow is not on the road system; the only way to get up here is via plane, barge, or an ice road in the wintertime.  Incidentally, said barge (also in the photo mosaic below) makes just one trip per year, bringing goods people order and need to have shipped up here in shipping containers — trucks, 4-wheelers, non-perishable food, etc.  Then once the natives empty out their containers, they use them for additional storage for their households.  Photos also show a lot of re-purposed shipping containers dotting the village.

Nighttime in Barrow, AK
11 o’clock at night in Barrow and still lots of light.  Note the lack of grass and trees.  See also the roads — asphalt would get too warm in the summertime and destroy the permafrost just below the surface, so roads are gravel and kick up a lot of dirt.
Locals all seem to bring their cargo limit of three 50# containers every time they come up here
Locals bring their cargo limit of 150# every time they come up to Barrow

As we checked in at the Anchorage airport for our flight up to Barrow, we were a bit befuddled when we first observed everyone with coolers and boxes of cold/frozen food that they were checking as their baggage.  My initial thought was why would they be coming down to Anchorage to fish and ship that all back up to their village which is right on the ocean?, for the Anchorage airport is full of people flying freshly-caught Alaskan fish back to the Lower 48.  But then we learned that it’s cheaper for Barrow residents to fly from Barrow to Anchorage when Alaska Airlines offers cheap fares, purchase food there (there are two Costco’s in Anchorage that are wildly popular), then bring their limit of 150 pounds of cargo (three 50# containers are allowed per person) with them on their flight back to Barrow.  And that now makes sense to us after a visit to the AC Co. store, which carries everything from basic groceries to Carhartts, from sofas to housewares.  Let me tell you, food up there is E-X-P-E-N-S-I-V-E!  Transportation costs are the primary drivers, and short-shelf-life items are particularly pricey.  A gallon of milk will run you about $16; a very small pineapple flashed a price of $10.39; a 5-pound bag of carrots will set you back $14.39; and 1.75 gallons of Tide detergent (slightly bigger than what Costco offers) costs a whopping $58.99!  We wondered how people could afford to live up here and pondered the paradoxical notion that these Iñupiat natives, of all folks, could arguably least afford such outlandish prices.

Laura & Fred at Whale Bone Arch in Barrow, AKOur Top of the World hotel offered a 4-hour tour, lead by a lovely Iñupiat native.  Seven of us joined in, stopping to see the icons of Barrow including the Whale Bone Arch, the school, the Iñupiat Heritage Center, the big blue football field [made possible because of a very generous benefactor from Florida who saw that this eager team had no field and instead was having to play on the rocky, sandy Arctic road; ESPN profiled this story – check it out:  E-Ticket: Save The Whalers], and several other spots.  We had the opportunity to take a true Polar Bear Plunge in the Arctic Ocean, but passed — I was happy enough just feeling the cold water with my hand; Fred braved a short wade in the waters for a photo op then quickly got out of the frigid sea.

Fun fact: when the sun sets here in just a couple of months (around the 18th or 19th of November), it doesn’t rise again for 65 days.

Here are a few more facts about Barrow:

§  Barrow is the 8th coldest place in the world to live — the lowest recorded temperature is -56ºF

§  On average, Barrow’s high temperature is above freezing only 120 days per year, while temperatures are at or below zero 160 days per year

§  Barrow has around 4,200 residents, most of them native Iñupiat whose ancestors have lived here for over 1,500 years

§  Native Iñupiat survive largely by hunting whales, seals, polar bears, walrus, waterfowl, caribou, and catching fish from the Arctic Ocean

§  Scientists say the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and Barrow has been called “ground zero” for climate-change science

Here are some photos from our visit to the very unique place that is Barrow, Alaska:

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in the photo series.  To close the series, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.

These photos are from the wonderful Iñupiat Heritage Center, one of the stops along our Barrow tour:

While our visit to Barrow was a short 24 hours, I think we packed in all that we could, short of joining one of the more than 40 whale crews to pursue a Bowhead whale or row out to the ice floats to see polar bears.  [For the record, the ice was still 10+ miles off the shoreline, and so, too, the polar bears.]  Happily, we can now claim unequivocally that we have been to the true northernmost north of the United States!

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley NPWe spent nearly a month here this past week!  That’s an old joke, I know, but it is rather fitting in this circumstance.  Actually Death Valley National Park isn’t such a bad place to spend a week, but I’ll confess Fred was a lot more into it than I was.  The name gives it a bad rap, to be sure, but it is the largest national park outside of Alaska, and in spite of the forbidding name there are many parts of this big place to enjoy.

Badwater Basin - 282 feet below sea level
Badwater Basin — the lowest spot in North America, it’s 282 feet below sea level

One intriguing aspect of this park is the extremes.  Death Valley is officially the hottest place on earth, holding the world record for the hottest air temperature of 134°F.   It is the driest place on earth, with average rain amounts of just two inches.  It is also the lowest place in North America.  Badwater Basin, in the heart of the park, lies 282 feet below sea level!

The rugged mountains in Death Valley
Panoramic view from Zabriskie Point, one of the most popular venues within Death Valley

As we drove into one of the southern entrances to the park we came upon Zabriskie Point.  It’s one of the most popular spots to pull off, park, and walk up a little pathway to get incredible views of the erosional Amargosa Range, The Valley, and Panamint Range in the background.  This area was once ancient lake beds deposited five to ten million years ago that have been tilted and pushed upward by earth forces and eroded by wind and water.

Zabriskie Point Trailhead
Walking up to Zabriskie Point
View from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley
Twenty Mule Team Canyon as seen from Zabriskie Point
Manly Beacon – the lighter rock point on the left – as seen from Zabriskie Point

Another very popular place in the park is Badwater Basin.  It takes its name from the spring-fed pool of “bad water” next to the road.  Salt accumulates in the surrounding basin making the water undrinkable.  Visitors to this area can walk out into a section of the nearly 200 square miles of dried salt flats.  As mentioned above, this is the lowest point in North America — we’re pictured next to the sign showing 282 feet below sea level.  Interestingly enough, Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S. is just 84.6 miles away.  Yet another ‘extreme’ in the park.

Another iconic place in the park is Artist’s Palette.  It’s an area on the face of the Black Mountains known for a variety of rock colors.  Pastel purple, pink, yellow and green all show up thanks to the oxidation of different metals in the rocks.  

Artist's Palette
Artist’s Palette — rock colors are a result of oxidation of various metals in the rocks

While I was pleased with what we saw, we did miss two areas of the park that would have been cool to see.  One area, Racetrack Playa, is a seasonally dry lake located in the northern part of the Panamint Mountains.  It is famous for rocks that mysteriously move across the ground, making notable grooves and patterns in the ‘racetrack.’  While I’m sorry we didn’t get to see this iconic site, getting to the remote playa requires 25+ miles of travel on a rough road that warns of needing heavy-duty tires.  We had flashbacks of our flat tire in Toad 25 miles away from nowhere, New Mexico, and Death Valley didn’t seem like a good place to experience another so we skipped The Racetrack.  The other famous feature in the park that we were planning to see is Scotty’s Castle, an improbably ornate Spanish Mission villa built in a nearly-impossible location.  Unfortunately heavy rains back in October completely washed out the road leading here and caused flood damage to the property as well, so this area was out, as well.

But all was far from lost with our visit.  As fortuitous timing would have it, we were here during the happens-once-every-decade “super-bloom” of wildflowers.  The punch of yellow gave the park some nice life; I can’t imagine what it would be like without that color!

Fred went into the park several times without me which was fine — he’s training for his big Rim-to-Rim hike at the Grand Canyon coming up in two months, so he enjoyed a couple of strenuous hikes on his own.  Me, I spent my month, I mean week, reading a couple of books as our campground had no Verizon signal and no TV signal.  Did I mention it was a long week?!?  Seriously, Death Valley National Park is a great park and I have a feeling we’ll come visit again to see more of this unique beauty.

Easternmost Extreme Point: West Quoddy Head, Maine

West Quoddy Head lighthouse - easternmost point in the U.S.
West Quoddy Head lighthouse – easternmost point in the U.S.

September 18 – Three down, one to go!  With today’s visit to the easternmost point in the United States, we now only have to visit the westernmost point and we will have ticked all four ‘Extreme Points in the Contiguous U.S.’ boxes!

I’ve posted about our prior Extreme Points visits – South: Key West and North: Northwest Angle.  That just leaves Cape Alava, Washington, which we’ll hit around June 2015, and then this quirky little goal of ours will be fulfilled!

West Quoddy Head lighthouse sits in Quoddy Head State Park just outside of Lubec, Maine.  We took a day out of our Acadia N.P. touring to come here, following Route 1 along the Maine coastline about 100 miles up until we saw Canada across the bay, then there it was!

Isn’t it a pretty lighthouse?  I love the stripes, but as we women know, it does make the lighthouse look fat!  ;)

West Quoddy Head lighthouse
West Quoddy Head lighthouse

Easternmost point in the U.S.
Closeup of easternmost point plaque – we were here!

Northernmost Extreme Point: Northwest Angle, Minnesota

About 7 miles from land, here we are at the TRUE northernmost spot
The TRUE northernmost point of the contiguous United States
The Cut, Jason's bouy, and us - right on the TRUE northernmost border
The cut in the trees between the U.S. and Canada, Jason’s buoy, and his boat – we’re truly right on the northernmost point

If you look at a map of Minnesota, you’ll see a nub that sticks out at the top of the state.  Most of this is water (Lake of the Woods) but in the upper left hand corner of that nub is a 30-square-mile land mass that is about 20 miles north of the state of Minnesota as we think of it, but it’s not connected.  Getting here requires crossing from Minnesota into Manitoba, Canada, for about 40 miles, then crossing back into this little nub again. It is this unconnected part of the United States, then, that is the second extreme point, and our destination.

Mind you for most people, The Angle, as the locals call it, is a destination for fabulous fishing – muskie, walleye, northern, bass, crappie, etc. – both in the summertime and then ice fishing in wintertime.  But for us, again, with this crazy idea to get to the four most extreme points of the United States, we just had to come here.  [See March 5, 2015 Traveling to the Extreme Points post.]

Make sure to see the post on Journey to Angle Outpost for more fun photos and all the details of how we got here.  It was a very interesting journey – well worth the rather out-of-the-way trip.  And Jason Goulet and his wife, Lisa, owners of Angle Outpost Resort, couldn’t have been more accommodating!  When they knew that we were here for the extreme point and not the excellent fishing, they customized our visit to include Jason taking us out on his boat to get to the TRUE northernmost point, which happens to be in the water.  Thanks to the Goulets, we thoroughly enjoyed our adventures in Northwest Angle and have now been to two of the four extreme points in the United States.

Traveling to the Extreme Points of the United States

Today we got the brilliant idea that we were going to travel to all four “Extreme Points” of the United States while we’re Out There on our two-year road-trip.  We got the idea because we are in Key West, and we got our photo taken next to the buoy marking the southernmost point in the US.  So far, so good; three more places to go….

As we thought this goal through a little bit, we decided we needed to change the parameters slightly – we would limit our trekking to the contiguous 48 states in the US because we figured there’d be some place way at the tippy top part of Alaska above the Arctic Circle that we couldn’t get to without sled dogs or a private plane.  [Not that we’re opposed to a sled dog trip, but the expense may be a bit prohibitive!]  So there – goal more defined and more reasonably attained:  contiguous US.

So here are the four points to which we will journey in our quest to travel to these Extremes:

  • NORTH:  Northwest Angle Inlet in Lake of the Woods, Minnesota
  • SOUTH:  Key West, Florida
  • EAST:  West Quoddy Head, Maine
  • WEST:  Cape Alava, Washington

As listed in Wikipedia, there are many other ways to define the most extreme place.  For example, “southernmost” – Western Dry Rocks, Florida in the Florida Keys is the “southernmost point in the 48 contiguous states occasionally above water at low tide.”  Forget that; we need to keep this sane!

Extreme South - Key West

So here we go — one Extreme down (photo above); we’ll hit Northwest Angle Inlet this July (2014), West Quoddy Head in September, and Cape Alava sometime in late spring 2015.