On my quest to visit all of the 63 national parks, I keep making my way back to Alaska. With a total of 8 national parks within this massive state, and only 3 of them being accessible by car, getting to ‘collect ’em all’ is a challenge… but a great excuse to keep coming back. Last fall I brought 9 people along with me to visit Denali National Park and Kenai Fjords National Park. Perhaps you already read that itinerary, but if not click here to get the full scoop on how you can do the same trip.
When I wrote up the itinerary for that trip, I had my eyes on Wrangell-St. Elias. This park is America’s LARGEST park at 13.2 MILLION acres. To put things into perspective, you could fit 6 Yellowstones inside of Wrangell-St. Elias. If you have ever been to Yellowstone and experienced its size, that simple fact alone should have just made you pass out. This park is infrequently visited because it is OUT THERE. This is one of the wildest areas of North America and the majority of the park is untouched. About a quarter of the park is covered in glaciers, and there really is only one road in…. and it takes 4 hours to drive and is unpaved. This park is true, rugged Alaska. Because of the ruggedness and distance to this park, I had to cut it from my first itinerary to Alaska. There was no way I could find lodging for this size of a group, and it would be hard to haul us all out there. So…. I planned another trip. Just 10 months after my first trip to Alaska. This group of people was smaller, just 6 of us. We jammed inside an elderly Nisaan mini van and rattled our way out to the park, with or without brakes or tire pressure. You may remember my post on My Top 12 National Parks, where I list my favorites in order. But I can tell you now…. there is a brand new favorite: my 47th national park, Wrangell-St. Elias. If the sheer size and ruggedness of this park isn’t enough to capture your attention… here are 5 more reasons to check out this amazing park:
5. Mountains and a Whole Lotta Ice
The landscape in Wrangell-St. Elias is breathtaking. Four mountain ranges all meet up in the park: the Chugach, Wrangell’s, Saint Elias Mountains, and the eastern end of the Alaska Range. Within the park is 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, with St. Elias being the second tallest in the United States right under Denali at 18,008 feet. Glacial rivers and lakes spot the land with chunks of giant ice off in the distance, representing some of the country’s largest glaciers. There is a 7,000 foot wall of ice… yes, A 7,000 FOOT TALL WALL OF ICE that just kinda chills in the background of the scenery and despite seeing its true massive size I CANNOT COMPREHEND IT. Bald eagles gather in the dozens, and all of your other typical Alaskan wildlife are free to roam on this massive land. If you are a sucker for some of the best views (like I am) than there is little that can compare to the complete natural and rugged beauty of Wrangell-St. Elias.
4. McCarthy and Kennicott (considered near-ghost towns but full of amazing people)
Let me paint you a picture of how to get to these towns. After driving down the very long McCarthy dirt road, you will end at a foot bridge. This is where you leave your car behind and walk about a mile to the town of McCarthy. If you walk for 5 miles then you’ll reach the historic town of Kennicott. There is minimal lodging in McCarthy and Kennicott, and also minimal lodging on the other side of the foot bridge. In general, this is not an area that hosts huge amounts of people at one time. We lodged at the Kennicott River Lodge in Cabin #3, and we all fell in love with this location. The cabin was perfect and it has the best view of the glaciers and massive ice wall. It also was just 2 minutes before the walking bridge, so we could easily make our way to McCarthy and back home with no trouble, all while leaving our car back at the cabin.
McCarthy is quaint, and exactly the type of town I was wanting it to be. The locals here own dogs that all gather in one precious dog pack, and I kept imagining me living there with my pup as a part of the McCarthy Pack. The best place to get food (although there aren’t many options, which is a part of it’s charm) is The Potato. This locally-owned and completely off the grid restaurant has some of the best food I’ve ever tried and an extremely impressive beer selection (especially for being in the middle of nowhere, I was seriously impressed). Between the 6 of us, we tried almost everything on the menu and loved it all.
Kennicott is five miles away from McCarthy and is a captivating ghost town left behind from the days of Alaska’s historic mining era. You can easily reach Kennicott from McCarthy via the shuttle van that drives back and forth throughout the day. Since the National Park Service took over the mines in 1998, many have been restored and they can now be toured safely. Make sure to stop at the Meatza Wagon to get yourself some great food.
3. The (not so) Simple Journey Out There…
One of the best parts of visiting Wrangell St. Elias is the actual journey out there. Yes, you can cheat and take a tiny plane BUT the best way to go there (in my opinion) is by road. We drove from Anchorage, which easily took about 8 hours (we stopped halfway at Copper Center and stayed at an adorable AirBnb).There are great hikes between Anchorage and the McCarthy road that you can tag onto your itinerary to get your legs moving and lungs working in between sitting in the car for a while (. Along the way is some of the most beautiful scenery you will ever see. Fun highlights along this drive include the Matanuska Glacier, Copper River Bridge (this is where we saw many fishermen with their catches and dozens of bald eagles looking out for an easy meal), the single lane Kuskulana Bridge, and the never ending opportunity to see wildlife along the way.
Many sources will warn people against taking the McCarthy road due to it being broken down and horribly maintained, but this is an old warning and the road has had many updates and is now just a regular gravel/dirt road. We had zero problems driving our half broken mini van down the entirety of the road.
Hikes Along the Way….
Before fully leaving Anchorage, hit up Flat Top Mountain, one of my favorite hikes in Alaska, and one of the best known ones (for good reason).
About an hour into your drive you can stop at Lion’s Head Trail, for a quick steep incline that boasts a fantastic view.
After passing Copper Center you can hike to the Liberty Falls Trail, where the view of the waterfall isn’t great BUT the view at the end of the trail overlooking the mountains and lakes is phenomenal.
*There are SO MANY trails along the way, but many are difficult and long, and if your main purpose is to get to McCarthy, these three trails won’t take up a whole lot of time but will give you some great lasting memories.
2. Rowdy Rivers
If you know me, you know that I enjoy a good rowdy time on a river… and Alaska is no exception. While visiting Wrangell St. Elias we had the honor to raft the jökulhlaup, a glacial outburst phenomenon that happens in this park ONCE a year (and we just so happened to be there for it). Although the timing of this happening is unpredictable, it typically occurs at some point in July. Basically what happens is there is a glacier that melts off into a lake, but this lake is damed up by ice. As the year progresses, the glacier run off fills the lake up, up, up, and up. Once the lake level gets to a certain height the actual ice dam floats UP, thus causing the entire huge lake to drain out into the Kennicott river. This catastrophic glacier event can cause the Kennicott river to go from 2,000 cfs to above 20,000 cfs in a matter of a day. If you don’t know, that’s friggin FAST. And for people who like to play on fast water, it’s basically a dream and turns into a huge party for the entire community. When we got word that the jökulhlaup was happening we saw people heading to the river with surfboards and rafts, and we set out for our own white water adventure on the river with McCarthy River Tours. And yes, the water was cold…. a chilling 30 degrees. That first blast to the face on the first rapid took my breath away.
Aside from white water rafting, Wrangell St. Elias is the perfect place to go packrafting. This is where you hike with your raft folded up on your back, and raft when you can. McCarthy River Tours and Kennicott Wilderness Guides offer so many different river adventures, including multi-day packrafting trips where you’re dropped off in the backcountry via a tiny plane and you are guided through pure wilderness, enjoying areas that barely anyone has ever laid eyes on. That is my plan for my next visit to this wonderful park.
1. Glacier Hiking and Ice Climbing
The first thing we noticed when we pulled into our lodging at the cabins at the Kennicott River Lodge was the GIANT glacier and ice wall that just kinda looms in the background. We had a perfect view of this from our cabin, which is one of the reasons why these cabins were just so amazing. The thing I was most excited to do in Wrangell St. Elias was ice climb, and we were going to climb on that glacier that we could lazily stare at from our cabin porch.
We set out with Kennicott Wilderness Guides and went on a hike through the historic mining town. The trail led us (after some time) straight to Root Glacier. The knowledge of our guide, Avery, was unmatched. Something that really stood out to me while in this park was all of our guides were badass females… I loved it. Once we got to the actual ice we put on giant mountaineering boots and very sharp crampons, both provided by KWG, and then we just magically walked on ice (okay not magically, it does take some effort and you have to be careful to not catch your toe on the ice). Avery set the anchors and we all took turns climbing up the ice like graceful winter fairies (some more graceful than others). That entire experience was such a surreal day and I loved every minute of it.
And that’s that! Those are my 5 main reasons why this park is my favorite National Park (so far). If none of these points convince you to go, you probably hate nature or something. For everyone else, if you’re looking for an Alaskan adventure that is (literally) off the beaten path, Wrangell St. Elias is your perfect next stop.