At 13 million acres, Wrangell-St.Elias National Park is the largest national park in the country, almost six times the size of Yellowstone National Park. One could fit 438 of Orlando's Disney World Resorts in it. It is also the home of nine of the 13 highest peaks in the nation, including the second highest, Mount St. Elias (18,008 ft). This map gives you an idea of the overall layout.
Where's the GPS?
Forget the GPS. Getting to the park is fairly simple. Your choices are limited (in a nice way) unlike going to the bread aisle of your nearby grocery store and having to stare at two dozen different brands of bread. If you're driving from Anchorage, you'll drive all the way to Glenallen along the Glenn Highway. At Glenallen, you have the choice of driving to either Chitina (towards the south) or Slana (towards the north). From Chitina, you take the McCarthy Road (60 miles) to the west entrance. From Slana, you take the Nabesna Road (42 miles) to the north entrance of the park. Both roads (McCarthy and Nabesna) are unpaved gravel roads with no lane dividers. So, one needs to re-calibrate the idea of a road trip which, down in the lower 48, means zipping down the freeway at 70+ mph to get to the destination, as one might on their way to Las Vegas from California. Instead, brace yourself for a 3-4 hour bumpy ride amidst the breath-taking beauty of the vast wilderness that makes you forget the bumpiness and tricks your mind into thinking that you're floating by on a hovercraft.
In Glenallen, if you decide to change your mind at the last moment, you can drive to Canada instead. (Just make sure you have a valid passport.) There is also a store in Glenallen in case you need to pick up supplies that you might have forgotten.
Your first visual experience of the park will also be near Glenallen within a couple of miles from the junction for the turnoff to Canada. If you're lucky to have a clear day, you'll get to see Mt. Sanford, Mt. Drum, and Mt. Wrangell in the distance and the Copper River in the foreground. (See photo above). Mt. Sanford happens to be the third highest volcano in the country.
Be aware that not all car rental companies will rent you a car to drive to the park because of the gravel roads. Or if they do, they might charge more. When the rubber meets the gravel, the rates go up. Contrary to the sometimes horrible stuff you will read about the road (such as there being nails on the road), it's actually not too bad. It's just slow. Forget your wrist watch and learn how to tell time using shadows and you will enjoy it a lot more. On vacation like this, all you really need to know is whether it's daytime or nighttime. We took 4+ hours to drive from Anchorage to Chitina and then another 4+ hours to drive the 60 miles from Chitina to McCarthy with a few stops along the way to take photos.
The alternative to driving is to arrange a flightseeing tour from Anchorage that will fly you over the park. You can also choose to take a flight that lands in McCarthy. Though thrilling in its own way, it doesn't really compare to the joy of being closer down to the ground. Part of the experience is the journey itself and not just the destination. Moreover, smoked salmon jerky tastes much better on a bumpy ride along a gravel road while chattering with your partner than on a little airplane wearing headphones.
Keep your eyes open and you might be lucky to see an eagle or two along the way like the one in the photo below. On the way back we saw a moose and its baby.
We're here! Now what?
The park is most famous for the century old Kennecott Mines (shown below). These were one of the richest copper mines found anywhere. $200 million worth of copper was extracted during the 27 years of its operation from 1911 through 1938. In today's terms, that is the equivalent of over $3 billion. The mines are located next to the Kennicott Glacier. Both were named after an Alaska pioneer named Robert Kennicott, however the mines got the slightly incorrect name due to a clerical error which stuck on.
The buildings of the abandoned mine are very impressive especially given that they were constructed almost a hundred years ago, much before Pulte Homes and Toll Brothers even existed, and yet they are still standing today, many of them rising to several floors above the ground. They survived the harshest of Alaska winters, although after the mine closure they fell into a state of disrepair. The mine had its own power plant and a railroad for transporting the copper down to the port of Cordova. No doubt it helped to have the financial backing of the Guggenheim family and J.P. Morgan among others. Nonetheless, it is a testimony to the sheer will and fortitude of the workers who built all that from the ground up and that too in harsh conditions.
The National Park Service conducts tours of the mine which is totally recommended if you would like to learn more about the history of this unique place. The mine area is not too big and therefore you can do the tour in about an hour. From the mine site, you can also see the Kennicott glacier and the Root glacier in the distance, both of which you can hike to.
Apart from the Kennecott mines, you can also hike to Bonanza, Erie, and Jumbo mines all of which require a few hours. You can hike to the glaciers or choose to extend your trip to go further into the backcountry. We hiked out to the backcountry amidst some pouring rain. Keep your ears and eyes open for wildlife, like the little black bear we saw picking berries in the rain. This was a smaller black bear as compared to the huge brown grizzly bears that we saw on a different trip to Katmai, Alaska. Though it was only about 30 feet away, it didn't seem to pay us any attention and diligently kept picking the berries.
Once the rain abated, it gave away to some some brilliant blue skies and radiant clouds and the most beautiful rainbow we've seen in ages, on a background of white ice. This was our first time seeing a rainbow over a glacier.
Even the bear seemed happy. Though, I think it had less to do with the rainbow and more to do with the fact that he could pick berries without the rain pouring down.
Glacier hiking and ice climbing are also quite popular. The photo below shows some such climbers and hikers tackling the crevasses in the ice. Notice the scale of their human forms as compared to the glacier on which they are standing. One cannot escape noticing the vastness of scale when it comes to Wrangell-St.Elias or Alaska in general. Super-sizing generally implies a bad thing (like in more fatty calories) but this place gives the term an entirely different meaning.
Fishing is also a popular activity. The Copper River Salmon is one of the most highly prized anywhere. Apparently this is because they have to swim upstream against the strong and chilly waters of the 300 mile long Copper River and in doing so, they build up a healthy deposit of fatty acids, omega-3s, and other natural oils. Some of the Alaska natives get to catch them using fish wheels. Alaska residents sometimes get to use the dipnet method to catch them. However, if you're a mere tourist, most likely you will be using a fishing pole and catching them one at a time.
Even if you don't fish, just watching the rapid waters of the river is a thrilling experience especially when standing on a narrow rickety wooden bridge, looking down and imagining what would happen if your cellphone accidently fell into the river. That's when you realize how important backing up your data is. Ah, the impact of wilderness on modern man's mind than the other way around, for a refreshing change.
There are also opportunities to do kayaking and rafting along the rivers in the park. Many of them are conducted as part of organized tours. You will need to make these plans in advance of getting there. Check the National Park's website for a comprehensive list of activities.
What else should I know?
If you're going to Wrangell-St.Elias, it is because you have lots of time (at least a couple of days) and no tight schedules or deadlines to meet. Remember, this place is remote and if your car happens to break down on the way to or from the park, there might be a long wait especially given the lack of cellphone coverage and sparse human traffic. From McCarthy, the park is about 5 miles away and there is a shuttle that runs during the day. Keep that in mind while planning the trip else you could miss the last shuttle back and be stuck waiting till the next day.
Rain, like in most any part of Alaska, can come any time. So, a good rainjacket is absolutely recommended. Depending on where you are going and the time of the year, rain can also force you to change or abandon your plans. There are no services once you're out there so make sure you have everything you need. Charge all your camera batteries before you start on your trip. Make sure you have lots of space on your camera memory cards (you will need it). Mosquitoes can be a problem depending on the season. So,you might want to pack some insect repellent. If you want to go on a multi-day backpacking trip, you can also arrange a plane to drop you off somewhere out in the middle of nowhere and it will come back to pick you up in a few days. If you're so inclined, you can also arrange for the plane to stop by midway through your trip to replenish food and supplies. If you're not into camping and backpacking, there is some lodging available in or near the park in McCarthy. Check the NPS website.
Wrangell-St.Elias National Park is a great place to spend a few days or more. Very little crowds, lots of wilderness experiences. It's like being in a different world.
If you are interested in other Alaska trips, check out my Alaska articles.
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