Photograph by Frans Lanting
Nature's impressionism paints Wrangell-St.Elias with dazzling colors during its short-lived fall season.
By Saadia Iqbal
It may be a cliché but in this case, immensity truly transcends imagination. Often called "the mountain kingdom of North America," Alaska's Wrangell-St.Elias National Park covers 13.2 million acres (5.3 million hectares) of premier mountain wilderness, and harbors three mountain ranges: the Chugach, Wrangell, and St. Elias. The park boasts the continent's largest assemblage of glaciers, which in turn, have carved dozens of canyons, some bordered by rock walls thousands of feet high. You will also find hanging glaciers, waterfalls, remote valleys, wild rivers, and jagged, scarce-visited mountains. And a multitude of wildlife including wolves, bald and golden eagles, moose, Dall mountain sheep, mountain goats, and grizzly bears also live within the park's borders.
When To Go
Warmer temperatures and long evenings with midnight sun make summer a popular time to visit. Around Anchorage, summertime temperatures range in the comfortable mid-60s and 70s (15°C to 20°C). But in wintertime temperatures usually hover between 10 and 25 degrees above zero (-12°C and -4°C).
Fallthough short-livedis also a gorgeous time to travel, with trees covered in gold and orange and mountaintops dusted with snow. In winter however, dining and lodging options outside Anchorage may be limited as many businesses close during the off-season.
Anchorage, the state's largest city, is served by major national and some international airlines including Alaska Airlines, Delta, United Airlines, and Continental. In addition, Hawaiian Vacations offers charter flights between Anchorage and Honolulu two or three times a week.
If you're looking to save money on airfare, check the "Travel-Transportation" section of the classifieds in the Anchorage Daily News (www.adn.com); several local travel agencies have discount fares listed. A couple of good ones are One Stop Travel, Easy Travel, and Navigant International.
Wrangell-St. Elias is just a four hour drive from Anchorage. The Visitor Center is at Mile 105 on the Richardson Highway, seven miles (11 kilometers) south of Glennallen. There you can get help for planning your trip, buy books and topographic maps, or see a video on the park.
The northern entry to the park is the unpaved 45-mile (72-kilometer) Nabesna Road. Motorists are advised to check for updated road conditions before making the drive as sections of it are occasionally washed out during summer rainstorms. The Park Service maintains the small Slana Visitor Center just up Nabesna Road from the junction. The station provides information about road conditions and backcountry travel. Other seasonal ranger stations are in McCarthy, Kennicott, Chitina, and Yakutat.
The more beaten track is McCarthy Roadalso unpavedwhich stretches 60 miles (100 kilometers) and follows an old railroad bed from Chitina up to the Kennicott River. Before setting out make sure that your car is equipped with a working jack and a properly inflated spare tire, or you may be stranded by potholes, old railroad ties, and occasional railroad spikes.
The twin towns of McCarthy and Kennicott are located in the geographic center of the park. McCarthy provides an important central start point, and serves as base camp for most visitors. Facilities include guest lodges, a bed and breakfast, a bar, and restaurants.
During peak season (June through August), rental car reservations should be made as early as two months in advance. All the major rental companies operate from Anchorage and offer rates of about $50 a day with unlimited mileage.
Getting Around the Park
Visitors are generally content to hang out in McCarthy, take hikes to the nearby Kennicott and Root Glaciers, or travel some four miles (seven kilometers) to the historic Kennecott copper-mining camp. However, many of Wrangell-St. Elias's natural wonders are accessible only by traveling the backcountry trails. The Skookum Volcanic Trail (Mile 38 of the Nabesna Road) offers a variety of interesting features, from wildlife and geology to breathtaking landscape.
"Flightseeing tours" are also increasingly popular. Many claim this is the only way to get an accurate sense of the immensity and grandeur of the park. Wrangell Mountain Air has scheduled service connecting Chitina with McCarthy, while Ellis Air Taxi and McCarthy Air will fly you from Glennallen or Anchorage to McCarthy. Security Aviation offers charter air service between Anchorage and McCarthy.
What to See and Do
Hiking and Camping
If you aren't intimidated by the park's shortage of defined trails, hiking and camping can be rewarding. The perpetual daylight during hiking season (late July to early August) means you can walk for as long as you can last. Most public land is open to camping, though there are restrictions in the more populous areas.
Get hold of camping information, weather, and trail conditions from a ranger before setting out. Always carry the ten essentials: map, compass, water bottle, first-aid kit, flashlight, matches (or lighter), knife, extra food, sunglasses (especially if you're hiking on snow), and extra clothing (a full set in case you fall into a stream), including rain gear. And don't forget to familiarize yourself with safety tips for travel in bear country.
Root Glacier is the only glacier where fully supervised day hikes are available. For information about hiking, contact the Alaska Public Lands Information Centers in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Tok (for contact information checkout "Related Links"). The park headquarters provides information about hiking, camping, road access and attractions.
Kennicott-McCarthy Wilderness Guides leads a variety of hikes in the Kennicott area including mine tours, glacier treks, ice climbing, and off-roading.
You may rent bikes from Glacier View Campground at the end of McCarthy Road. Though mountain-biking opportunities are limited in the park, two dry creek beds along Nabesna RoadLost Creek and Trail Creekare ideal for mountain biking. They provide great views of the upper Copper River basin. Fifteen-speed mountain bikes are recommended for the rough roads.
Kayaking and Rafting
Copper Oar Rafting, Keystone Raft, and Kayak Adventures offer everything from half-day trips to expeditions lasting several days on the Copper River. Other fun trips include a two-to- three-hour float on the Kennicott, or kayaking among seals, sea lions, and sea otters in Icy Bay and Yakutat Bay.
Remote but popular fly-in fishing destinations include Tebay, Summit, Rock, Ptarmigan, Copper, and Tanada Lakes. All anglers age 16 or older must have an Alaska state fishing license. To get one, contact the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
History buffs will enjoy the old towns of Kennicott and McCarthy. Both towns played a significant role in the development of Alaska and Copper Valley. Once more than 600 miners and mill workers lived in Kennicott, and McCarthy was a lively place with hotels, pool halls, restaurants, saloons, dress shops, and even a red-light district. Kennicott was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1978. To visit, you'll have to cross the Kennicott River on a footbridge. On the east bank the road forks after a quarter of a mile. The right fork leads to McCarthy; the left fork leads to Kennicott. In McCarthy you'll find a store, gift shops, lodge, guides, air taxis, and shuttle service to Kennicott.
Fourteen sparsely appointed public-use cabins are scattered throughout the park and are available on a first-come first-served basis. Bring basic supplies, including sleeping bags and cooking utensils. (For contact information checkout "Related Links".
Anchorage has a wide range of lodging options, though many may be more expensive during the tourist season. There are four hostels, however, with lower rates. There are also a number of bed and breakfasts. Be sure to make lodging reservations far ahead for July and August visits. If you plan to stay longer than a few days, you should check out "Rooms for Rent" in the classified section of the Anchorage Daily News, or look under "Boarding Houses" or "Rooming Houses" in the Yellow Pages.
What To Take
Even in summer, weather conditions in the North can change suddenly, so be well prepared for rain and cold at any time. Buy camping equipment and clothing that are water resistant, warm, and weighty.
Dried or freeze-dried foods are light, easy to prepare, and less attractive to animals. A plastic water bottle is essential; but you'll need a water filter even in remote backcountry areas. A small camp stove is the only way to ensure hot food and drink on the trail. Firewoodif available is often wet, and campfires may be prohibited. Look for a stove that is lightweight and burns a variety of fuels. But remember that you can't bring fuel on commercial aircraft.
The official site of the National Park Service. The site has useful information for visitors such as bear safety tips and contact information.
McCarthy Ventures, LLC
Read about the history of McCarthy, and get sightseeing tips from this website.
Plan your trip step-by-step with interactive features, maps, and useful links.
Alaska Public Lands Information Center
Get detailed information about outdoor activity in Alaska. You can also call them at (907) 271- 2737.
Traveling to Alaska
The site lists major airlines serving the state, and provides information about getting to Alaska by air or by car.
Anchorage Daily News
Browse the classified ads for room and car rentals.
McCarthy and the old Kennecott Copper Mine
Information and photos of Kennecott and McCarthy.
The following companies lead rafting trips, mountaineering, glacier hikes and other activities in the park:
St. Elias Alpine Guides
Flight services in and around Wrangell: