Insider's Guide to Wrangell - St. Elias National Park & Preserve

Wrangell - St. Elias National Park.
Wrangell - St. Elias National Park. National Park Service, Alaska Region
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Entire books could be written about the superlatives of southeast Alaska's Wrangell - St. Elias National Park and Preserve. At over 13 million acres, it’s the largest by far in the U.S., and bigger than the entire country of Switzerland. Of its 150 glaciers, one of them, the Malaspina, is larger than Rhode Island. Four major mountain ranges converge here and include the tallest coastal mountains in the world, encompassing nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, four of them above 16,000 feet. The park features the continent's greatest collection of glaciers and has the biggest non-polar icefield in the world. Along with two neighboring parks, the region proudly boasts the largest contiguous roadless area left on Earth.

Backpacking anywhere in Wrangell requires serious trip planning and an intense focus on self sufficiency. Routes often start off as trails for the first couple of miles, then become unmarked and unmaintained. Travel is slow. Expect to traverse steep scree slopes, endless boulder fields and glacial moraines, tiptoe through crevassed glaciers, bushwhack through thickets of dense alder and willow, and ford endless 33° streams. Route finding with a map and compass is an essential skill out here, as is self-rescue and wilderness first aid. Any kind of rescue is days away at best. Hiring a local guide can be preferable for many groups, however there are several guide books that detail hiking in the park specifically, a worthy investment.

Classic Adventures

Looking out to 18,008' Mount Saint Elias from Icy Bay. Mount Saint Elias is the second highest peak in both the US and Canada, as it shares a border with both.
Looking out to 18,008' Mount Saint Elias from Icy Bay. Mount Saint Elias is the second highest peak in both the US and Canada, as it shares a border with both. National Park Service, Alaska Region

That said, the intrepid are rewarded with solitude, adventure, and humbling, breathtaking vistas in areas that few humans will ever set eyes upon. As a general rule, routes above tree line, about 3,000 feet, lend themselves to easier travel and the best views. These areas are often accessed by chartering a flight to bush landing strips. And let's be honest, landing a plane on bumpy tundra or a pebbled shore to begin a hike is undeniably cool. However, there are few easier day hikes to be had. If time is limited, the Nabesna Road Area has several excellent moderate day hikes in magnificent landscapes with mountain passes, alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, numerous sheep and bear viewing, and old mining ruins. Both Caribou Creek and Skookum Volcano Trail are highly recommended choices. A good longer route in this area is to combine Trail Creek and Lost Creek for an outstanding 20-mile, 2-4-day loop that climbs a 6,000-foot pass.

McCarthy Road gives visitors access to exquisite scenery and vast wilderness and is another excellent place from which to start adventurers. This 60-mile dirt road is remote, narrow, winding and unmaintained, but is usually passable for 2WD vehicles in the summer. It begins in Chitina, and winds deep into the heart of Wrangell and ends at the Kennicott River, a half-mile short of the town of McCarthy. A short, easy day hike is to the Toe of the Kennicott Glacier. It's 2.5 miles out-and-back and ends at a moraine and meltwater lake. Continue exploring the glacier for more mileage. Bonanza Mine is a 9-mile round trip that climbs 3,800 feet to mining ruins with Alaska-sized views of the Chugach Mountains, Mt. Blackburn, and the Kennicott Glacier. Two longer routes that deserve serious consideration is Nugget Creek or Dixie trail. Both of these routes take about 3-4 days and offer some of the best, most user-friendly ways to get into real backcountry from the road. Nugget Creek treks to a rustic cabin, mine ruins and a glacier. The Dixie Trail goes along a creek to a high alpine pass with expansive views and a virtual guarantee of wildlife sightings.

Rafting some of the most pristine, least-traveled rivers in North America should be on the bucket list of every outdoor adventurer. A one-day trip starts off paddling a glacial lake through icebergs and watching glaciers calve right off the bow, then negotiating Class III rapids for a few hours. For the hardcore, take a bush plane in, then spend up to eight days paddling Class III rapids, sleeping on remote, pebbled beaches and spotting moose, bear, sheep, and eagles from the boat. There are plenty of companies that can arrange such trips in McCarthy.

Secrets of the Park

Views from McCarthy Road.
Views from McCarthy Road. Sewtex

Climbing and mountaineering have a long history in the park, and again, there are whole guide books for the various ranges. However, here are a few 4-star routes that may pique some interest. Note that pretty much all mountaineering starts with a ski-plane ride to a landing strip on a glacier. The North Face of 13,860-foot Ahtna Peak is a striking and beautiful climb in the Wrangells off of the Nabesna Glacier. The 6,800-foot climb is highlighted by thousands of feet of blue alpine ice.

The North/North West Ridge of the 16,390 ft. Mount Blackburn is the crown jewel of the Wrangells. This 9,000-foot climb starts at the head of the largest interior valley glacier on the continent. It's known for bad weather, steep snow climbing and many bergschrunds and crevasses to navigate.

The Standard Route on 13,845 ft.Mt. Regal is often overlooked by climbers, but for skiers, it's heaven. The lower two-thirds consist of stable, low-angle glaciers that are epic for skiing.

Along Nabesna road, there are several waterfalls that freeze up, and of course there are endless glaciers and icebergs that ice climbers can sink their crampons into.

Backcountry skiing is certainly a secret of the park. But with endless alpine glaciers, big faces, ski-able summits, powder-filled couloirs, and everything in between, there's a lifetime of descents to make. Talk to guides in McCarthy.

Immerse Yourself

Autumn colors in Wrangell - St. Elias National Park.
Autumn colors in Wrangell - St. Elias National Park. Brian Petrtyl / NPS

Any backpacking trip in Wrangell - St Elias is immersive, but the Goat Trail is classic. The name is slightly misleading, as the route is little more than glorified animal track. It follows a historic gold-prospecting route between the Wrangell and St. Elias ranges. The adventure is pure Alaska: start with a plane ride to the Skolai landing strip, a dirt clearing in the tundra at 4,500 feet. From there, hikers climb up and over the 6,000-foot Chitistone Pass, then down through the deep Chitistone Gorge to follow the braided Chitistone River. In 20-25 miles, the trail climbs 2,800 ft.,  descends 4,900 ft., and passes steep cliffs and waterfalls, crosses unmarked tundra and a few challenging streams, skirts massive moraines, and traverses a huge, slightly sketchy talus slope. Be on the lookout for black and grizzly bears, wolves, Dall sheep, wolverine, red fox, and mountain goats.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

  • Be conservative with distance/time estimates. Since most of the hiking is off-trail, travel is much, much slower.

  • In June, the sun sets around 11pm, and rises at 4am, bring an eye mask for better sleep.

  • The Aurora Borealis is often seen in the park! The best time to view it is between midnight and 2am, from September - April.

  • Snow is possible any month of the year, be prepared.

  • The park has 14 very rustic cabins open to the public. Most are first-come, first-served, and are very popular during July and August. Bring camping gear just in case. There are three cabins that must be reserved: Viking Lodge, Caribou Creek, and Nugget Creek Cabin. No cabins have plumbing, firewood, or supplies.

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