Alaska Vacation Recap: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
This is the third trip recap of our 2017 vacation to 4 of Alaska’s national parks. Park Chasers also posted a series called “Project Alaska” on how to plan an Alaskan vacation without a travel or cruise agent. Check out today’s recap of our visit to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, then see all of our other posts on Alaska’s amazing National Parks.
About Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
One of the park rangers we met at the Copper Center, AK Visitor’s Center in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park commented “Our park is like a mini-Alaska. Just about everything you can find in the state, you can also find here.” Even though we only stayed near the park for a day and a half, we couldn’t agree more.
To understand Wrangell-St. Elias, the statistics say it all:
- At 13,175,799 acres Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the largest National Park in the entire National Park Service. The area of the park could encapsulate roughly six Yellowstone National Parks and is larger than Switzerland.
- Because of its unique ecosystem, the area is also an International Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- While Denali reigns above all, Wrangell-St. Elias ranks as one of the best climbing areas in the world. Mt. St. Elias (18,008 feet), the second highest mountain in the United States can be found here, along with 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States are found within the park.
- Mount Wrangell, visible from many of the nearby highways is one of the largest active volcanos in North America. Steam vents billow from the summit on many chilly Alaskan mornings.
- Glaciers cover more than 25% of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Three of these glaciers are record-breaking. The Nabesna Glacier is the world’s longest interior valley glacier, stretching over 75 miles long. The Malaspina Glacier covers an area larger than Rhode Island and is North America’s largest piedmont glacier (formed at the base of a mountain and not enclosed by a valley). With 6 miles of glacier face touching the ocean, the Hubbard Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier in the world.
- Found deep within the park, the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark is another unique feature of the park. Listed on the National Register of Historic places, the buildings of the mining camp is thought to be the best preserved example of 20th century gold and copper mining in the world.
Creating a Wrangell-St. Elias Itinerary
When planning to visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, it’s best to be honest up front: There’s no way to see everything without a week or two of dedicated time in the park. Even then you’ll only be scratching the surface of what the area has to offer. Most visitors plan to see one or two key parts of the park on their visit, and then plan second and third trips back to see different areas. The itinerary we had focused on the front country Copper Center Visitor’s Center and the Matanuska Glacier outside of the park boundaries. We easily could have also planned to:
- Drive the 59 mile long McCarthy Road and stay a day or two in the Kennecott mining district. Tour the town of McCarthy, featured on Discovery Channel’s Edge of Alaska and day hike to the toe of the Kennicott Glacier.
- Take a boat shuttle to the Yakutat and Coastal areas at the southern edge of the park and sea kayak among some of the world’s largest glaciers.
- Charter a flight seeing tour from one of the surrounding communities to take us into the heart of the park. The different hiking and backpacking itineraries you could plan are nearly endless.
Here’s our itinerary from our July 2017 visit to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park:
Arrived mid-day after traveling along the Glenn Highway from Portage, AK. Stopped along the way to view the Matanuska Glacier, the largest glacier accessible by car in the United States. As we approached the communities of Glennallen and Copper Center, we took advantage of many of the pullouts for views of Mt. Drum and the Wrangell Mountains. Checked into the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge for dinner. The evening ranger programs are held in the hotel and a good chance to orient yourself to the park.
Woke up early to be at the Copper Center Visitor Center when it opened. Collected our national park passport stamps and a photo with the park sign. Toured the exhibit halls (there are three!) and watched the 20 minute movie in the theater for a good overview of the park. Attended the morning “bluffs talk” with a park ranger and learned about how climate change continues to dramatically impact Wrangell-St. Elias. Hiked the Boreal Forest Trail along the bluffs of the Copper River.
Departed the park for the short ride back to the Matanuska Glacier. Met up with our guide from NOVA Alaska Guides for our 3 hour guided hike out on the Matanuska. The hike included equipment and taught us everything you need to know about safely climbing on the Mighty Mat. After the hike we drove roughly 2 hours to downtown Anchorage for the next stop on our trip.
Other Travel Notes
- Compared to other gateway communities around Alaska’s national parks, there are limited places to stay around Wrangell-St. Elias. Camping is widely available, but most sites are first-come, first serve in the area. If you need firm reservations, a hotel might be the best option.
- There are large areas of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park that continue to be privately held within the park boundaries. Areas of the park are also open to subsistence hunting. If you intend to camp or hike in the backcountry, be sure that you confirm your route with a ranger first.
- Many rental car companies prohibit traveling on the McCarthy Road. Be sure to check your rental agreement and know the limits of your vehicle before you attempt the drive.