Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Overview
|Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (Digital Vision/Getty)|
Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is at the top of more than one list of superlatives. At 13.2 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest U.S. national park and preserve. When combined with Glacier Bay National Park and Canada's Kluane National Park and Tatshenshini-Alsek Park, it is the biggest piece of the largest internationally protected area in the world: 24 million acres—larger than the state of Indiana. This World Heritage Site provides a crucial refuge for grizzly bear, caribou, and Dall sheep. Nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, and some of the largest mountains (by volume) in the world, are located here. The largest concentration of Dall sheep in North America live here. Enough copper and gold were found here early in the 20th century to make it one of the area's richest deposits.
The list goes on and on. And so does the land. Everything is vast. There are mountain peaks, glaciers, braided streams, and rivers. Though there is limited flora, a representative sampling of Alaskan land, marine, and airborne wildlife abounds. There is even a good taste of American mining history, preserved in the form of the Kennecott mines, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The prime time of year for visiting Wrangell-St. Elias is from June 20 to August 20, but don't think that there won't be any backcountry hardships. Wrangell-St. Elias is a mountain wilderness unlike any other. It is almost entirely without roads; there are no maintained trails in the park, and access is only by unpaved road, boat, or plane. Backcountry adventurers run the risks of hypothermia, bear encounters, dangerous river crossings, abandoned mine hazards, and more. In the event of an emergency, the chances of rescue and/or evacuation are very limited.
Proper preparation is essential and all safety precautions—including completing and registering your backcountry trip itinerary with local authorities—should be taken.
Visit Kennecott and Other Historic Sites
The historic mining town of Kennecott, now a National Historic Landmark, was purchased by the National Park Service in 1998. One of the finest surviving examples of an early 20th-century copper-mining community, Kennecott is a must-see. The high-grade copper found in the area resulted in a self-contained company town complete with a hospital, general store, schoolhouse, ballfield, skating rink, tennis courts, recreation hall, and dairy. The historic buildings in Kennecott are in various stages of collapse and disrepair. With the very recent acquisition by the National Park Service, plans for improving safety around the mill site and the removal of remaining contaminants are underway. At this time, the doors of the buildings are locked. There is a local guide company that currently has permission to lead groups through the safer parts of the buildings. Feel free to explore the outside of buildings, but remain aware of the hazards that exist. Beware of debris and unsafe structures as you explore. If early-century ghost towns really are your thing, you should also check out Chisana (pronounced "Shooshana"), where in 1913 a short but intense gold rush built "the largest log cabin town in the world."
More on historic sites within Wrangell-St. Elias NP
Enjoy the Abundant Wildlife-Viewing Opportunities
If you don't see any wildlife in Wrangell-St. Elias, you are the unluckiest person alive. With approximately 13,000 Dall sheep and plenty of mountain goats, caribou, moose, brown/grizzly and black bears, transplanted bison, lynx, wolverines, beavers, marten, porcupines, foxes, wolves, marmots, and river otters on the ground, all you have to do is step into the wild and open your eyes. Try to get above treeline in alpine areas for best spectating. Hikes to Goodlata Peak pass through an area with one of the highest concentrations of grizzlies in North America. Make the trip to the Orange Hill and Bond Creek Area for moose and Dall sheep. The Dixie Pass Trail, one of the only road-accessible backcountry walks, is a natural wildlife corridor.
Tackle a Tough Backcountry Hike
Treks into Wrangell-St. Elias require planning. While special permits are not required, a measure of common sense and preemptive survival packing goes a long way. There are some long trails that can keep you out in the bush for weeks and may require chartered flights at the start and finish. Remember: There are no maintained trails in the park (historic trails on government maps may no longer exist) and you are in a country of fabulous extremes.
If you want to explore the coastline of the park, try the 12 miles of sandy beach between Sudden Stream and Point Manby. Maybe you're more into the unparalleled views of mountains. Try the trailless two-week hike through the Chugach Mountains to Goodlata Peak. Or, are you more of a geology/history buff? The Orange Hill and Bond Creek Area (accessed by air) also features excellent wildlife viewing and views of the Nabesna Glacier and Wrangell Mountains. For the area's best fall colors in a low alpine tundra terrain, take a quick flight to Chelle Lake.
Where There Are Glaciers, There Is Also Water and Great Paddling
There are two options for paddlers: Cruise for 150 miles along the open waters of Icy Bay, or try the endless braided lengths of glacier-fed rivers tumbling toward the sea. The coastline is, in general, very exposed, so head to Icy Bay, the result of four fjords left open by retreating glaciers. You will have to charter a plane, but once in the liquid sky and within earshot of calving ice, you will be glad you made the effort. River runners will want to head inland. It will take you five to ten days to run the length of road-accessible Copper River's Class I and II waters.
Climb Any Mountain
Wrangell-St. Elias is land set aside to preserve mountains. And the mountain experiences there are most certainly ones that climbers relish. In most cases, only the most technically proficient need apply. Access is limited to plane drops, rescue operations are minimal, and the elements are brutal. If you're not up for the full-gear crunch, a flight to Jaeger Mesa leaves you a walk up Jacksina Creek and a scramble up the southern slopes of Mount Gordon to awesome views. Otherwise, try any of the most popular peaks: Mount Sanford, Mount Blackburn, and the rarely visited coastal mountains of the St. Elias Range. There are plenty of other nameless peaks that may never have been climbed.
For Two-and Four-Wheeled Explorers
There are really only two easily navigable (gravel) roads in the Wrangell-St. Elias: the 61-mile McCarthy Road and the 42-mile Nabesna Road. You won't want to take a road bike or sports car on the rough surfaces, but mountain bikes and jeeps will be a joy. In addition, for mountain bikers there are dry creeks along Nabesna Road when you want to get away from traffic. Beware of washouts and be prepared for extreme conditions—wet, mud, dust, rock, and uneven surfaces. One word of warning: With the exception of a 100-foot state-road right-of-way, most of the land along both roads is privately owned and off-limits.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication