We woke up early in the morning in Fairbanks to start our journey to the east. Our destination? The Wrangell-St Elias National Park. Characterized by its remote location, glaciers and mountain ranges, this National Park is absolutely stunning and offers the perfect amount of isolation. After a few hours of driving, we quickly realized that we had largely underestimated the travel time to and size of the Wrangell- St Elias National Park. Our original goal was to reach McCarthy, located in the center of the park. After 4 hours of driving, we only made it up to Slana, the northern entrance access point of the park.
With a surface area of 13.2 million acres, Wrangell- St Elias is the largest national park in the United States, covering a larger area than New Hampshire and Vermont together. It was created in 1980 as a way to preserve the national beauty and diverse geologic and glacial landscapes. To give you an even better perspective, it is larger than my own country, Belgium (or Switzerland for those who don’t know where Belgium is). It’s larger than an ENTIRE COUNTRY! We quickly found out that to get to McCarthy, it would have taken us another 5-6 hours. It is also the largest wilderness area in the National Wilderness Preservation System and a World Heritage Site.
Visitor Centers and Ranger Stations
The park has a few visitor centers and ranger stations. The Slana Ranger Station is the only one in the north, and also the access point to the Nabesna Road (one of the two only roads leading into the park). The Chitina Ranger Station is located on the east side of the park, and is the only access point to the McCarthy Road (the second road leading into the park). Along the McCarthy road, there is the McCarthy Road Information Station and the Kennecott Visitor Center. Finally, there is also a visitor center in Copper Center, the main town in the neighborhood of the park’s east entrance.
How to Get There
The best way to get to Wrangell-St Elias National Park is by car. This will give you more flexibility and freedom to wander around. If you arrive from Anchorage, take the Glenn Highway for 189 miles northeast. When you reach Glennallen, continue 74 more miles north to Slana to reach the northern entrance of the park. To reach McCarthy or Chitina, drive 32 miles south on the Richardson Highway (Highway 4) to the Edgerton Cutoff and then 33 miles on Highway 10 to Chitina.
From Fairbanks to Slana, drive 202 miles on Alaska Highway 2 to the Tok Cutoff, then 63 miles to Slana. From Fairbanks to Chitina, drive 94 miles on Alaska Highway 2 until you reach the Richardson Highway (Highway 4). Continue for 182 miles until you reach the Edgerton Cutoff. From there drive another 33 miles on Highway 10 to Chitina.
Busses run in the summer from Anchorage to Valdez and stop in Glenallen. Airplanes operate from Anchorage, Valsez, Tok, Fairbanks, Cordova, Yakutat and Glenallen and Chitina, McCarthy and Nabesna.
Like I said before, the travel times between places can be pretty lengthy. It is definitely necessary to take this into consideration when planning a trip to the national park. Here is a map from the National Park Service giving you an approximate idea on the length between each station:
|Copper Center Visitor Center||McCarthy Road and Kennecott- Chitina||McCarthy Road and Kennecott- Kennecott||Nabesna Road- Slana (Beginning)||Nabesna Road- Kendesnii Campground|
|Copper Center Visitor Center||X||1 h 15 min||4 hours||1 h30 min||2 h15 min|
|McCarthy Road and Kennecott- Chitina||1 h15 min||X||2 h45 min||2 h45 min||3 h30 min|
|McCarthy Road and Kennecott- Kennecott||4 hours||2 h45 min||X||5 h30 min||6 h15 min|
|Nabesna Road- Slana (Beginning)||1 h30 min||2 h45 min||5 h30 min||X||45 min|
There are 4 mountain ranges in the park: the eastern part of the Alaskan range, Wrangell, Chugach, and St Elias. Included in those four mountain ranges are nine of the sixteen highest peaks in the United States. St Elias is the second highest peak after Mount Denali in the United States (over 18,000 feet). From all the volcanic history in the area (the Wrangells are volcanic in origin), only Mount Wrangell (over 14,000 feet) is active today. It is one of the largest active volcanoes in the entire North America, and the last time the volcano erupted was in 1900, but today, only vents of steam come out of the summit. The mountain range, which goes all the way into Canada (changing into the Kluane National Park), are covered in snow the entire year, and have created many glaciers.
When to Go
The main season to visit this park is from June to September. Summers are pretty cloudy but the temperatures remain usually in the 50-60°F (10-15°C). Winter arrives very early in this part of Alaska (mid-September), and from then on, most of the services available in the park are closed. Furthermore, the two roads that enter the park – the McCarthy Road and the Nabesna Road – are not maintained during the winter. The visitor centers and ranger stations are open all summer long, but vary in opening hours. Last but not least, the park is FREE! No entrance fee required, and no national park’s pass is required either!
Renting Backcountry Cabins
Visitors can also access one of the 14 backcountry cabins that the national park has to offer. They are all located in very remote areas and are very rustic. Most of them are only accessible by air and some require reservations (the others are first come first serve) with the National Park Service. They are not very well maintained, do not have any plumbing or running water, and you have to bring your own firewood. This could be a fun option since each cabin still offers wooden bunks, a wood-burning stove and some table and chairs! If you want to sleep in one of these cabins, make sure to bring some camping gear with you in case the cabin is already taken. Also make sure to not leave any food behind and to pack your food in a bear-resistant food container! For more information, visit the National Park Service website.
On our first day, when we realized how far McCarthy was from the northern parts of the park, we decided to stay north and explore this more isolated and remote area of Wrangell- St Elias. The Nabesna Road is 42 miles long unpaved road, starting in Slana (87 miles north of Copper Center). There is no fuel available in Slana or along the Nabesna Road, so your best bet is to fill up the tank in Mentasta (18 miles north) or Chistochina (28 miles south). In order to drive on the Nabesna Road, a 4×4 vehicle is required (the bigger the better). The northern part of the park offers views of the Nutzotin, Wrangell and Mentasta Moutnains. Since the area is so isolated and doesn’t receive a lot of tourists, the chances of viewing wildlife are higher than in the eastern part of the park. There are a number of options for lodging along the way, all which can be found on the National Park Service Website.
The Nabesna Road offers some spectacular viewpoints and hiking routes. The Slana Ranger Station is located at mile 0.2, and offers audio tour cd’s of the Nabesna Road for free. At mile 12.2, you will reach the Copper Lake Trail. The trail is 12 miles long but only the first 2.5 miles are considered suitable for hiking. Starting from mile 15, and for the upcoming 3 miles, the peak of Mount Wrangell can be observed. At mile 18.9, you will reach the small parking lot for the Caribou Creek Trail, which is located at mile 19.2. This trail is 3 miles long and ends at the Caribou Creek Cabin. On your way back you will witness incredible views of the lakes and the Wrangell Mountains. If you keep driving, you will arrive at the Kendesnii Campground at mile 27.8.
From this point on it is important to precise that road conditions can worsen after this point. At mile 29.8 you will reach the Trail Creek Trail, and the creek passes through the road, so a 4×4 is recommended since the chances are high you will have to drive through water. When we went through, the water was relatively low, so it was pretty easy for our 4×4 to cross the creek. The Trail Creek Trail is 6 miles long and provides access to the backcountry. At miles 31.2 you will reach the 7 miles long Lost Creek Trail, which offers a chance to see Dall sheep.
The Jack Creek Rest Area is located at mile 35.3, offering campsites, picnic tables and a vault toilet. There is another creek running in between the Lost Creek Trail and the upcoming Skookum Volcano trail, situated at mile 36.2, whose water levels were pretty high when even for a 4×4. If you can pass this creek with the car, you will reach this 5 mile roundtrip trail that goes through an extinct volcanic system rising 3000 feet in elevation, offering spectacular views, the chance to see wildlife and impressive geology. At Mile 42.5 you will have reach the end of the road and the 1 mile Rambler Mine Trail.
The following hiking trails are along the Nabesna Road:
* are my personal recommendations
Caribou Creek Trail *
Departure: Mile 19.5. Parking at mile 18.9
Distance: Total round-trip is approximately six miles.
Time: Allow three hours
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate.
Trail Creek Trail
Departure: mile 29.8 – must park on the side of the road.
Distance: The maintained trail is about 6 miles one-way. Up to the pass (and the start of Lost Creek) is about 10 miles one-way.
Time: 8-10 hours to go all the way up to the pass and back.
Difficulty: Easy to moderately difficult, due to walking in a rocky creek bed and climbing tundra hills
Lost Creek Trail
Departure: mile 31.2
Distance: The maintained trail is about 7 miles oneway. Up to the pass (and the start of Trail Creek) is about 10 miles one-way.
Time: 8-10 hours to go all the way up to the pass and back.
Difficulty: Easy to moderately difficult, due to walking in a rocky creek bed and climbing tundra hills.
Skookum Volcano Trail *
Departure: Mile 36.8.
Distance: 2.5 miles to a high pass.
Time: 2-4 hours round-trip
Rambler Mine Trail
Departure: mile 42.
Distance: Approximately 1.5 miles round-trip
Time: 1½ to 2 hours,
Difficulty: Moderate, but short.
After spending the day hiking in the Northern part of the park, we drove south to Copper Center, where one of the visitor centers is located. This visitor center includes an exhibit hall, restrooms, an amphitheater, a cultural center, a bookstore, short hiking trails and a scenic overlook. We had rented a TIPI (yes, you read that right) close by for the night. The tipi is part of Klutina Kate’s Bed & Breakfast – a place I would highly recommend. In the morning Kate offers a family style breakfast for all the residents of this tiny bed & breakfast place. While enjoying some quiche and coffee, I had delightful conversations with other guests who shared their experiences about Alaska. If you’d rather stay somewhere else, Copper Center offers a variety of hotels, resorts, RV parks, campgrounds, Airbnb’s and lodges. For a list of restaurants and accommodations in Copper Center head to the National Park Service website.
The road from McCarthy to Kennecott
The McCarthy Road starts at Chitina (pronounced ‘Chit-na’). This tiny town can be reached by taking the Richardson Highway south from Copper Center, then going east on Edgerton Highway East and then continuing east on the McCarthy Road. The latter is a 59 miles long, narrow, winding gravel road. Fuel is only available in Kenny Lake, which is located 26 miles prior to reaching Chitina. McCarthy lies at the end of the road. From there, it is necessary to park your vehicle and take the shuttle to Kennecott (which is another 5 miles away and costs 5$ each way). There are a number of options for lodging along the way, all which can be found on the National Park Service Website.
The road to McCarthy offers some spectacular views and trails. At mile 1.4, you drive across the Copper River Bridge. Once you pass the bridge, the road becomes gravel. At mile 10.1, you drive passed Strelna Lake. Here, you have access to a 1/3 mile trail to the lake. At mile 10.6, you will drive passed Silver Lake, which also offers a short trail to the lake itself. At mile 12.3, you will reach Sculpin Lake. You can pull out on the south side of the road and walk on a 0.25 mile trail to reach the lake.
At mile 14.5, you will reach Kotsina Trail. This trail provides access to backcountry hiking trails such as the Nugget Creek Trail (2.5 miles into Kotsina trail) and the Dixie Pass Trail (3.8 miles into Kotsina trail). At mile 17, you get some good viewpoints of the Kuskulana River and the bridge. You can cross the river and bridge at mile 17.2. This bridge, built in the winter of 1910, is a one lane bridge where oncoming traffic has the right of way. Once you reach the other side, you can park your car and admire the views (as well as use the bathroom).
At mile 45.5, you will reach Long Lake, which is filled with sockeye salmon from September to April. At mile 58.1, you will start viewing the Kennecott Glacier and River. Approximately one mile further, at mile 59.4, you will reach the end of the road. It is here that you park your car and walk or take the shuttle into McCarthy and Kennecott. McCarthy is approximately 0.5 miles away from the footbridge, and offers a variety of services such as restaurants, flightseeing tours, air taxis, lodging options and a museum. Kennecott will blow you back in time with its old structures and left-over artifacts from the mining period.
* are my personal recommendations
Departure: downtown McCarthy, just past the historic hardware store
Distance: 5 miles one-way, 10 miles round-trip
Time: 4-6 hours round-trip
The Wagon Road & Toe of the Kennicott Glacier *
Departure: From near the McCarthy Museum or from Kennecott Mill Town.
Distance: 4.5 miles one-way from McCarthy to Kennecott Mill Town.
Time: 1-3 hours one-way
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Root Glacier/Erie Mine Trail *
Departure: Kennecott Mill Town.
Distance: 4 miles round-trip from Kennecott to the glacier
Time: 2-6 hours (or longer, if desired)
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Jumbo Mine Trail
Departure: Start form the Kennecott Mill town, on the Root Glacier Trail. After about a 1/2 mile, the Jumbo Mine Trail splits to the right.
Distance: Approximately 5 miles one-way, 10 miles round-trip.
Time: 6-8 hours round-trip
Bonanza Mine Trail
Departure: Start from the Kennecott Mill Town, on the Root Glacier Trail. After about a 1/2 mile, the Bonanza Mine Trail splits to the right.
Distance: Approximately 4.5 miles one-way, 9 miles round trip.
Time: 6-8 hours round-trip
Erie Lake and “The Knoll”
Departure: You can access this from Kennecott Mill Town, via the Root Glacier/Erie Mine Trail. Requires route finding and moderate trip-planning. First five miles are on a trail and the rest is on a rocky route.
Distance: Approximately 9 miles one-way, 18 miles roundtrip
Time: 2-3 days or more.
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous.
Wildlife in the park
Depending on the time of the year, different types of animal will emerge in different parts of the park. In the spring, many animals leave the forest and go higher up into the mountains. Common on the mountainside are Dall sheep and mountain goats. The park has one of the largest concentrations of Dall sheep in the entire northern continent, with some 13,000 sheep living on the mountainsides. Sometimes, they are really far up the mountains, and only appear as little white dots. I needed to use binoculars to see them more clearly, so bring those along on your trip!
Large animals are hard to spot on either roads, but if you pay close attention and know what signs to look for, the chances are high you will see some of them. The best way to spot wildlife is to stop regularly, pay attention to the tracks of animals and use binoculars. Moose, caribou, bison, wolves and bears are usually spotted on the bottom of the mountains and close to lakes and streams. The fur of moose can get close to the same brown-reddish color of the willow stems you pass while driving, which they use to camouflage themselves and blend into nature.
Grizzly bears and black bears spend much time around the water trying to catch salmon. Grizzly bears are light brown or black and can be up to nine feet tall when standing on both feet. You can find them throughout the park but they hide well. They are very curious animals, so take the necessary precautions in case you encounter a bear. Unless provoked or surprised, they will usually not attack you, but it’s always better to be prepared and careful. Bears usually eat ground squirrels, roots, nuts, berries, rodents and salmon. The Copper River is a breeding area for salmon, lake trout, steelhead, rainbow trout and grayling. Other animals on the ground include arctic ground squirrels, red squirrels, foxes, snowshoe hares, porcupines and beavers. They are often seen on the McCarthy Road and usually appear out of nowhere (own experience included), so be careful when you drive!
The Wrangell-St Elias National Park is also home to a variety of owls, ravens, bald eagles, geese, grosbeaks, swans, gulls and more, but is also the migratory route for many bird species. Along the coastal areas of the park, the chances are high that you will spot whales, sea lions, otters and seals.
Whatever your goal or purpose is in the beautiful Wrangell- St Elias National Park, make sure to come prepared, and be safe. This park is truly incredible in so many ways and you really just kind of have to witness it for yourself to believe it. The lack of human activity in the area will make your feel completely connected to the wilderness, and the geologic and glacial scenery will leave you perplexed. Regardless of what you end up doing in the park, you will bring back an experience you will surely never forget.