Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Alaska

Wrangell St. Elias offers some of Alaska’s most unique experiences. If real wilderness is what drew you to Alaska to begin with, this is the place for you. 
Backpacker in Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Alaska

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

This huge park (20,500 sq. miles) at the east corner of Alaska, is as wild and rugged as they come. The area is the meeting ground for several mountain ranges: the volcanic Wrangells to the north, the coastal St. Elias Mountains in the south, and the Chugach in the west. Not surprisingly, 16 of North America’s 20 highest peaks are found within the park’s boundaries, along with countless glaciers, massive rivers and a healthy wildlife population.

Mccarthy & Kennicott

The major hub in this park is a tiny town named McCarthy, situated at the heart of the Park. McCarthy developed alongside the Kennecott copper mines that operated here in the early 20th century. The mines were abandoned in the 1930’s, but Mccarthy lives on. The town of Kennicott is still mostly-abandoned, but many of the original buildings have been reconstructed by the park service. The town is also home for one of Alaska’s famous lodges, the Kennicott Glacier Lodge.

Despite a certain growth in tourism in recent years, access to Mccarthy is still difficult and the area is far from becoming overrun by tourists. As a result, the town is able to preserve its authentic wild west feel. A few tough locals live here year-round (“20 souls including dogs” is the unofficial version), and most of the action is during summer months.

Getting there

McCarthy is connected to the outside world by the unpaved Mccarthy Road, built along the remains of the old Kennecott Mines railroad track. Unfortunately the railroad was not completely dismantled when the road was constructed, resulting in an occasional railroad spike popping from the dirt and risking tires. Craters, potholes and mudslides are not uncommon either, especially after heavy rains.

Even though the road has been improved and is being regularly worked on, rental companies are still being cautious. Most rental contracts in Alaska forbid driving on unpaved roads, and some companies go as far as forbidding the McCarthy Road specifically. However, a few local companies operate a fleet of SUVs which are allowed on the road (and other gravel roads in the state) – it just costs a little more. Other means of transportation to Mccarthy is via air (flights depart Chitina 3 times a day) or by a daily shuttle.

Things to do

A number of local operators based in McCarthy and Kennicott offer tours to the nearby Root Glacier, scenic flights over the Park or guided historical walks in the Kennecott townsite. If you want to go hiking alone, you could go up the mountains to the deserted Bonanza and Jumbo mines (quite challenging, awesome views). Another option is the Root Glacier trail, following the side moraine of the glacier for a few miles.

Most of the Park is completely wild and undeveloped, which makes it a paradise for long backcountry trips. Most backcountry adventurers opt to start their trip into the park with a bush flight, getting dropped off at their chosen location.

All in all, Wrangell St. Elias offers some of Alaska’s most unique experiences. If real wilderness is what drew you to Alaska to begin with, this is the place for you.

Nabesna Road

A remote dirt road, the Nabesna Road is in the north side of the park (not connected to Mccarthy and Kennicott). If the weather is friendly, this area offers some remarkable views of the Wrangells (13,000-16,500 feet). A few hiking trails can be found along the road, although none of them is very well maintained (and some are used mostly by hunters). A good choice for a hike is the dormant Skookum Volcano, near the end of the road. If you have 3-4 hours, it’s highly recommended.

One thing to keep in mind: driving the Nabesna Road involves a few water crossings that are typically pretty shallow. However, if the weather is rainy, be cautious as the crossings could get a bit too tricky.