Alaska’s Wrangell St. Elias National Park is the largest national park in the U.S. It is filled with rugged terrain, towering mountains, and diverse wildlife. There are a range of outdoor activities to enjoy, including hiking, camping, and viewing wildlife. Its cultural and historical significance, combined with its natural beauty, make it a unique destination. So, let’s take a deeper look to answer the question, “Is Wrangell St Elias National Park worth visiting?”
Wrangell St. Elias National Park is absolutely worth visiting if you appreciate vast wilderness, breathtaking landscapes, and a chance to surround yourself in both natural and cultural wonders. The park’s grandeur and the range of activities it offers make it a must-see destination for any adventurous traveler.
Location and Overview
The park is located in the southeastern part of the state, near the border with Canada. Covering an immense area of over 13 million acres, it holds the distinction of being the largest national park in the United States. Its vast size is a testament to the pristine wilderness it encompasses, making it a unique and significant destination for those seeking an authentic Alaskan experience.
Transportation Options & Visitor Centers
Although this park is not as easily accessible as some other national parks, it is well worth the trek. You can access the park via the McCarthy Road, which is a gravel road extending from Chitina. While it’s navigable by most vehicles during the summer, be prepared for rough terrain. Consider renting a 4-wheel drive or high-clearance vehicle for a smoother ride.
The park’s main visitor center, the Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center, is located in Copper Center, just off the Richardson Highway. Here, you can gather essential information, maps, and permits for your visit. The facility also offers educational exhibits, providing valuable insights into the park’s natural and cultural history.
In the Kennecott Historic Mining District, you’ll find the Kennecott Visitor Center. This center is a great resource for learning about the area’s mining heritage and offers guided tours that delve into the history of the Kennecott Mines.
As for facilities within the park, there are basic amenities like restrooms and picnic areas available. However, due to the park’s remote nature, it’s essential to come prepared with food and supplies, as options for purchasing items are limited within the park itself.
Additionally, keep in mind that weather conditions can vary, so be ready for sudden changes and always carry appropriate gear, clothing, and safety equipment when exploring this vast and untamed wilderness.
Within Wrangell St. Elias National Park, you’ll encounter a breathtaking array of natural landscapes. Towering above are the Wrangell and St. Elias mountain ranges, which include some of the highest peaks in North America, like Mount St. Elias. These majestic mountains dominate the skyline and create an awe-inspiring backdrop to your visit. The landscape is also covered with rich valleys and rivers, glaciers, and geothermal activity, including a history of volcanoes.
Valleys, Rivers, and Glaciers
The contrasting beauty beyond its towering mountains is spectacular. The park’s expansive valleys, cradled between the rugged peaks, hold a serene charm of their own. Here, you’ll encounter lush meadows and peaceful riverbanks that seem like they belong to a different realm.
The Copper River, a mighty waterway, winds its way through the park, shaping the landscape as it goes. Its blue waters mirror the surrounding wilderness, and its banks full of a wide array of plants and animals. The river also provides some great opportunities for adventures like kayaking, rafting, and fishing in pristine surroundings.
But perhaps the most captivating feature of the park’s landscape is its vast network of glaciers. These icy giants, such as the Malaspina Glacier and the Hubbard Glacier, exhibit the raw power of nature as they flow, carving valleys and sculpting the terrain. Witnessing these massive ice formations up close is an experience unlike any other. They offer a glimpse into the ever-changing geological processes that have shaped this land over millions of years.
Volcanic History & Geothermal Activity
Wrangell St. Elias National Park has a rich volcanic history, with several prominent volcanoes and volcanic features contributing to its unique landscape. One of the most notable volcanic features in the park is Mount Wrangell, an active shield volcano. It stands as one of the tallest volcanoes in Alaska, reaching over 14,000 feet in elevation. Mount Wrangell has been active in geologically recent times, with eruptions occurring as recently as the early 20th century.
The park’s volcanic history is marked by eruptions that have shaped the land over millions of years. In fact, volcanic activity in the region has been responsible for the formation of numerous mountains, valleys, and volcanic plateaus. There are numerous geothermal features, including hot springs and fumaroles, which are vents emitting gases and steam. These geothermal areas are a testament to the ongoing geologic processes beneath the park’s surface.
Many think of volcanoes as a bad thing. Well, there are some very positive aspects on the ecosystem. These volcanic eruptions have contributed to the park’s rich soils and fertile landscapes. For example, volcanic ash has enriched the soil, supporting the growth of vegetation in the area.
Interestingly, the park also serves as a valuable site for scientific research related to volcanology and the study of geological processes. Researchers study the park’s volcanic features to better understand the history and behavior of volcanoes in this part of Alaska.
Top Activities in the Park
Hiking in Wrangell-St Elias NP
The park has a vast network of hiking trails that cater to all skill levels of hikers. Whether you’re an experienced trekker seeking challenging backcountry routes or a casual hiker looking for a scenic stroll, there’s a trail to fit your skill or preference. Explore alpine meadows, glacial valleys, or climb to high vantage points for a great view of the majestic landscapes. Here are some of the key hikes to consider:
- Kennecott Mines Trails: Start your adventure with the scenic trails around the historic Kennecott Mines. The Root Glacier Trail is a popular choice, offering access to the Root Glacier itself. You can hike right onto the glacier, exploring its icy features. The Bonanza Mine Trail takes you through a forested area, providing a glimpse into the park’s mining history.
- Donoho Lakes Trail: For a moderate day hike, the Donoho Lakes Trail is an excellent choice. This trail winds through lush forests, crossing streams, and eventually leads to the stunning Donoho Lakes, located in the alpine tundra. The landscape here is a perfect spot for a picnic or rest.
- Goat Trail: If you’re up for a more challenging adventure, consider the Goat Trail. This trail takes you up the slopes of Goat Mountain, offering incredible views of the Kennicott Valley and Root Glacier below. The views at the top are amazing!
- Bonanza Mine Trail: As one of the longer hikes in the park, the Bonanza Mine Trail takes you on a journey through dense forests and across tundra slopes. Along the way, you’ll encounter remnants of the historic mining era and enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.
- Wrangell Viewpoint Trail: This relatively short but steep trail leads to a spectacular viewpoint overlooking the vast Wrangell Plateau and the Wrangell Mountains. It’s a perfect spot for sunrise or sunset photography.
- Backcountry Backpacking: For the more adventurous hiker, Wrangell St. Elias offers a variety of backcountry hiking and backpacking opportunities. Permits are required for overnight stays in the backcountry, but experienced hikers can explore remote areas of the park, encountering wildlife and experiencing true wilderness solitude.
Camping and Campsites
Camping in or near Wrangell St. Elias National Park offers you a chance to truly connect with the wilderness and more fully enjoy the landscapes of the park. Note, there is only one designated campground inside the park but there are some other great options nearby.
Kendesnii Campground is the only designated campground inside the park. It offers a tranquil setting along the banks of the Copper River, providing stunning views and easy access to outdoor activities like fishing and hiking. It features both developed and primitive campsites.
If you’re seeking a more adventurous camping experience, consider obtaining a backcountry camping permit. This allows you to venture deep into the park’s wilderness, where you can camp beside glaciers, pristine lakes, or in remote valleys.
Flightseeing Tours & River Rafting
Flightseeing tours provide a unique perspective as you soar above the park’s vast expanse of rugged mountains, sprawling glaciers, and pristine wilderness. From the comfort of a small aircraft, you can witness impressive views of Mount St. Elias and the immense ice fields. The advantage of a flightseeing tour is being able to see some of the most remote areas of the park that are inaccessible.
River rafting, on the other hand, gives you a chance to navigate the glacial waters of the Copper River and other scenic waterways. The thrilling rush of Class I to Class IV rapids, depending on your chosen route, adds an adrenaline-filled dimension to your journey. As you paddle through beautiful landscapes and navigate the twists and turns of the river, you’ll also have the chance to spot wildlife along the banks and experience the pristine beauty of the park up close.
Wildlife to See
The wildlife here is abundant. More than many parks across the US, you will have a chance to see all types of rare animals. Here’s a list of these special creatures and where you can best spot them:
- Dall Sheep: Look for Dall Sheep on the rocky cliffs and slopes of the park’s mountains, especially along the McCarthy Road and the Nabesna Road.
- Grizzly Bears: Grizzly bears can be spotted in the open tundra areas of the park, particularly in places like Toklat River, the Slana River, and the Copper River.
- Black Bears: Black bears are often found in forested areas throughout the park, particularly around the Chitina River and along the McCarthy Road.
- Moose: Keep an eye out for moose in the park’s wetlands, such as those around Willow Lake, Slana River, and the Chitina River corridor.
- Caribou: The caribou herds often migrate through the park. Check out the area around the Nabesna Road and Slana River for potential sightings.
- Wolves: Wolves are elusive but can occasionally be seen in the park’s open areas, particularly around Toklat River and the upper Chitina River.
- Coyotes: Coyotes are adaptable and can be encountered in various habitats throughout the park, including near roads and open fields.
- Red Foxes: Look for red foxes in the park’s forests and meadows, especially near the Chitina River.
- Bald Eagles: Spot bald eagles near rivers and lakes, such as the Copper River and Willow Lake, where they often hunt for fish.
- Migratory Birds: Keep an eye out for a wide variety of migratory birds in the park, especially during the spring and fall. Birdwatching is excellent along rivers and wetland areas.
- Salmon: Witness the annual salmon runs in the park’s rivers, including the Copper River and the Chitina River, during the summer and early fall.
History and Culture
One of the unique aspects of the park is its history and cultural diversity. One of the prominent aspects is its mining history, which shaped the landscape and communities of the region. The park preserves this heritage by maintaining the remnants of the Kennecott Mines, which were once the richest copper mines in the world. You can explore the well-preserved mining structures and artifacts, providing a noticeable link to the area’s industrial past.
Additionally, the park recognizes and honors the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples, primarily the Ahtna Athabascan people, who have inhabited the region for thousands of years. Their ancestral ties to the land are celebrated through various interpretive programs, exhibits, and partnerships with the Ahtna Heritage Foundation. This not only showcases their rich history but also fosters a deeper understanding of the park’s cultural past.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park provides you with a unique adventure in one of America’s most untouched and captivating wild terrains. You will love the towering peaks, vast glaciers, intriguing history, and wide array of wildlife.
The park also provides ample opportunities for hiking, camping, viewing wildlife, flightseeing tours, river rafting, and exploring its significant cultural and historical heritage.
So, if you’re looking for one of the most wild and captivating adventures across the US, this park is sure to deliver. Now, if anyone asks you, “Is Wrangell St. Elias National Park worth visiting?” you’ll know the answer!
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How many days do you need in Wrangell-St. Elias?
To explore the main highlights and enjoy some hiking or wildlife viewing, a 3-4 day visit can be satisfying. However, if you plan to delve deeper into backcountry exploration, consider a longer stay of a week or more.
When to visit Wrangell-St. Elias?
The best time to visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is in summer (June to August). This is a popular time to visit due to milder weather and longer daylight hours, making it ideal for hiking and outdoor activities. However, late spring and early fall offer fewer crowds, vibrant fall foliage, and opportunities to witness wildlife and the salmon runs.