Wrangell-St. Elias is actually the wild (extended) version of Denali Park. The Park covers 20,500 square miles, more than twice the area of Israel (including East Jerusalem), and most of it is a combination of mountain ranges, glaciers and rivers.
In fact several mountain ranges converge here: the volcanic range of Wrangell Mountains in the north, the coastal range of St. Elias Mountains in the south, and the Chugach Mountains in the west. For those of you following at home, we’re talking three big ranges, and accordingly this park is home to 16 of North America’s 20 highest peaks. Luckily, the American authorities settled for the name Wrangell–St. Elias and did not add the Chugach to the already long name.
McCarthy – the main base of activity
The main base of activity is a tiny town called McCarthy situated at the heart of the Park. McCarthy developed alongside the Kennecott copper mines that operated in the early 20th century. The mines were abandoned in the early 1930’s, but the town lives on.
Despite a certain growth in tourism in recent years, McCarthy is still considered an undeveloped tourist destination because access is difficult. As a result, the town manages to preserve its unique nature, and resemble old Wild-West towns. During the winter, very few residents live here (“20 souls including dogs” is the unofficial version), but during the summer many temps come to work for the travel companies, and the number rises to 150 people or slightly more.
How do I get there?
McCarthy is connected to the outside world by a dirt road called the McCarthy Highway, which was built on the railroad track used to transport copper ore from Kennecott mines. There’s only one problem: when they built the road, they didn’t fully dismantle the railroad.
So on occasion, especially after heavy rains, besides craters and potholes (which you will find in any Alaskan dirt road) there are also 100-year-old railroad sleepers that pop out of the ground. Coincidentally (or not), the first sign you see when entering McCarthy is of the local tire repair shop.
Rental companies aren’t exactly excited about this road, and most rental contracts explicitly specify that you cannot drive the rental vehicle on the road to McCarthy. The solution is taking a light plane into McCarthy, or a shuttle (a commercial vehicle that comes once a day).
Activities in the area
From McCarthy you can take tours in the nearby Kennecott mines, guided tours on Root Glacier, scenic flights over the Park or independent trips. Most of the Park is completely wild and not at all toured, which makes it a paradise of treks and long rafting trips. Treks usually start with a ride in a light plane and a drop off at the heart of the Park, and the pickup point and time at the end of the trek are predetermined with the airline (free tip: you don’t want to be late for pickup, it’s a long way back).
All in all, a visit here may be a logistical challenge and a planning headache, but the town itself and the Park around it are one of Alaska’s most unique experiences. Worth the effort.
And if you’re still hesitating, here’s a better explanation. Enjoy!
- Wrangell Mt. Air
- Bonanza Mine Trail
- The McCarthy Highway
- Nabesna Road
The main airline in the region. Offers three flights a day between Chitina and McCarthy, and a huge variety of gorgeous scenic flights over the Park.
Warning: if you go by their office, a cute Australian sheep dog will come up to you and ask you nicely and politely to throw him the ball. Do not be tempted, because he won’t let go of you throughout your stay.
(He’s actually a great dog. Don’t mind me).