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Alaska's Giant of Ice and Stone
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By John G. Mitchell Photographs by Frans Lanting



Solitude seems as tangible as the mountains in immense Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. This first in a series on American Landscapes surveys a wilderness of unyielding harshness and unbridled majesty.




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Some people like their landscapes tamed and tidy. Some folks don't. Some like them wild, remote, large, and lonely—say, like Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in southeast Alaska. Here is a landscape that could swallow all of Switzerland. It could swallow you too, if you'd let it.

At the park's headquarters near Copper Center—four hours by car from Anchorage, five if you take some time with the roadside views—a new visitor center had just opened when I dropped by. It was empty. So was the parking lot. Over at the administration building, Gary Candelaria, the superintendent, said an accurate head count of visitors was impossible because Wrangell-St. Elias has no toll booths or entrance fee. "We're not about numbers of visitors," he said. "We're about the preservation of natural ecosystems." Still, his best guess, for visitors, was between 30,000 and 60,000 a year. That top figure is what Great Smoky Mountains National Park might expect on a summer weekend. Moreover, a visitor can't really experience this park the way one might driving through Yellowstone or Yosemite. There is no through here, only over. "It's a flyover sort of park," Candelaria was saying. "It's so spread out. To get any real sense of the place, you have to go up in the air."

At Glennallen, just up the road from Copper Center, charter pilot Lynn Ellis talked for a while about the scale of the place. "Once in a while," Ellis said, "we get someone who thinks you can see the whole park in a couple of hours. 'Well,' I say, 'I've got a plane that can do 140 miles (230 kilometers) an hour for four-and-a-half hours before refueling. And even then, you won't see the half of it.'"

No wonder. At 13.2 million acres (5.3 million hectares), Wrangell-St. Elias is far and away the largest unit in the entire National Park System, nearly six times the size of Yellowstone. With Canada's Kluane National Park and Tatshenshini-Alsek Park next door, and the United States' Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve just around the corner, Wrangell-St.Elias and its neighbors embrace a United Nations World Heritage site that is the largest internationally protected wildland on Earth. 

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Plan an adventure to the largest national park in the U.S. with these handy travel tips.


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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The first successful ascent of Mount St. Elias, at 18,008 feet (5,498 meters) the fourth highest peak in North America, was accomplished on July 31, 1897 by an Italian nobleman, Luigi Amadeo of Savoy, Duke of Abruzzi, and a team of nine Italian alpinists. Following a route across the Malaspina and Seward Glaciers largely pioneered by a National Geographic Society expedition seven years earlier, the duke's party planted its nation's flag on the summit after an arduous trek through rain, fog, and snow. Described as a brooding, enigmatic individual, the duke on later expeditions made a close, but unsuccessful, run for the North Pole and then topped the heights of the Ruwenzori Range in central Africa in 1906.

—Abigail Tipton

Did You Know?


Related Links
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
www.nps.gov/wrst/
Visit this National Park Service site for information on recreational opportunities, hunting restrictions, weather, history, and much more. 

Hubbard Glacier Photos
www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/forest_facts/photogallery/hubbard_photos.html
Follow the Hubbard Glacier from May 20, 2002 to August 26, 2002 as it advances into Disenchantment Bay and closes off Russell Fiord.

Alaska Visitor Information
www.vacationalaska.com
Planning a visit to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park or any of the other parks in Alaska? This site lists the highlights of each park from descriptions of glaciers to animals one might encounter.

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Bibliography
Field, William O., ed. Mountain Glaciers of the Northern Hemisphere. Vol. 2. Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, 1975.

Hambrey, Michael, and Jurg Alean. Glaciers. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Molnia, Bruce. "Glaciers of Alaska," Alaska Geographic (June 2001), 1-112.

Naske, Clause-M., and Herman E. Slotnick. Alaska: A History of the 49th State. University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Orth, Donald J. Dictionary of Alaska Place Names. Geological Survey Professional Paper, 567. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1967.

Wayburn, Peggy. Adventuring in Alaska. Sierra Club Books, 1998.

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NGS Resources
Brower, Kenneth. "An Alaskan Treasure," National Geographic Traveler (May/June 1996), 80-93.

Grove, Noel. "Wrangell St. Elias National Park: Alaska's Sky-High Wilderness," National Geographic (May 1994), 80-101.


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