Wrangell-St. Elias – Does the Park Live Up to the Hype?


“Incredible. You must see Wrangell-St. Elias National Park to believe it. Number and scale loom large here, magnified by splendid isolation.”

So says the park brochure, but we had intentionally tempered our expectations. Incredible mountains were a given, but only if you could see them. And as we’re learning, sunny days with good visibility are few and far between in Alaska, even in the middle of summer.  

Arranging a visit to Wrangell-St. Elias NP required some sleuthing. There’s a road to McCarthy, gateway town to the park (estimated year-round population 26), but the drive from Anchorage takes eight hours, with the final 60 miles on a very rough, unpaved and slow-going road. Rental car companies say it’s a no-no.

Once you get close, non-residents must park their vehicles in a gravel lot outside of town, walk across the river on a pedestrian bridge, and wait for a shuttle bus to transport them the rest of the way.

The other option, which we selected, is to hire an air taxi service for the trip to McCarthy – still not so easy. The first leg was a one hour flight on an eight-seater plane from Anchorage to Glennallen, then a three-seater plane (plus the pilot) for the one hour flight to McCarthy. The second leg was aboard the “mail plane” that flies twice a week, weather permitting.

Our travel day to McCarthy was chilly, wet and downright dreary. No photo ops for the first leg – second half was better.

Skies remained overcast with occasional showers for several hours after we checked in at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge, but in the late evening, we got a glimpse of one of the four mountain ranges located within the park.

The next morning, we woke up to this spectacular sight, which was especially sweet because we had no idea this huge mountain was hiding behind the clouds.

Ten minutes after this photo was taken, the mountain disappeared back into the clouds for a few hours. We later learned that it’s Mount Blackburn, fifth highest peak in the U.S., with an elevation of 16,390 feet.

We had plenty of things to keep us entertained during our three-day visit to Wrangell-St. Elias NP. The undisputed highlight was a 90-minute flight-seeing tour. We got lucky with a sunny day and good visibility.

Flight-Seeing Part 1 – Lakes, Rivers and Valleys
Flight-Seeing Part 2 – Glaciers and Bagley Ice Field
Flight-Seeing Part 3 – Heading Down on a Different Route
Flight-Seeing Part 4 – Almost Back to the Airstrip

It was worth every penny! Breathtaking views and mind-boggling stats:

  • Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest national park in the U.S. at 13.2 million acres – six times the size of Yellowstone.
  • It’s home to Mount St. Elias, second highest peak in the U.S. at 18,008 feet, and nine of the 16 highest peaks in the U.S.
  • The park contains about 150 glaciers, or 35% of all remaining glaciers in the U.S.
  • Wrangell-St. Elias had about 75,000 visitors in 2019 (only 16,000 in 2020), making it one of the least visited national parks, even pre-COVID.

Other Highlights

1. Hiked to Root Glacier

Root Glacier was visible, sort of, from the lodge where we stayed. It was a relatively easy five mile round trip hike to the toe of the glacier. We opted out of the glacier climb once we got there, but it was a popular activity among the somewhat younger crowd.

A moraine is the stuff that gets left behind when a glacier recedes. This one is huge – several miles long, several miles wide and hundreds of feet thick. Looks like a huge pile of dirt, but it’s mostly ice, obscured by rocks and other debris, that’s been disconnected from the glacier and the forces that would continue moving it downhill, so here it sits, slowly melting in place.

2. Toured the Kennecott Mill Town

In operation between 1911 and 1938, the Kennecott mines at McCarthy extracted nearly $200 million in copper. The four mines high on the mountainside used an aerial tram to send buckets filled with ore down to the mill town for initial sorting and processing. From there, the next step was a 196-mile train ride to the coastal town of Cordova, where the material was loaded onto ships bound for a smelter in Tacoma, Washington.

Due to declining demand for copper in the late 1930s, the mines closed in 1938, and company managers left behind equipment and documents in the belief that operations would soon resume when business conditions improved. But that never happened. Instead, Kennecott became a ghost town and the many buildings slowly deteriorated in the harsh conditions.

Considered the best remaining example of early 20th century copper mining in the U.S., the property was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986, but time continued to exact a steep toll. Enter the National Park Service in 1998 with an ambitious agenda to preserve the history and the site. Twenty-plus years later, some buildings have been restored and others are in the works.

Other structures haven’t fared as well.

Visitors can do a self-guided tour of the restored buildings. Many contain information boards, old photos and company documents – it’s a wealth of history that requires about a full day to digest. Kudos to the National Park Service for a great job in making this story available to the public.

The success of the mine largely hinged on the happenings inside one essential building – the concentrator mill.

The purpose of this 14-story building was to separate the copper (and silver, in some cases) from the material it was embedded in. The equipment and processes were quite sophisticated for the times and resulted in a phenomenal 98% recovery rate of all copper contained within.

The building looks pretty sad and dilapidated, but apparently it’s safe to go inside, because visitors can sign up for a two-hour tour. Our guide was a repository of information, and we highly recommend the tour.

Honestly, I didn’t retain much information about the functions of the various equipment at the mill, but I left with an appreciation for the long hours and dangerous conditions endured by the workers.

3. Checked Out McCarthy

We squeezed in a visit to the little town of McCarthy, which is located about 4.5 miles downhill from where we stayed in Kennecott. If you happen to be in the area, it’s a quick and easy side trip.

A Note about Our Accommodations

It would be an understatement to say that lodging options in or near Wrangell-St. Elias NP are limited. The most convenient choice is the Kennicott Glacier Lodge, and I can’t say enough good things about it. Despite the remote location, this family-owned establishment provides guests with a first class experience, including delicious meals, at a reasonable cost (by Alaska standards).

Travel Back to Anchorage

Our visit was short, but just the right amount of time to keep us comfortably busy. Our return travel day was sunny and picture perfect, and both flights back to Anchorage featured beautiful views. We were amazed to see what we missed on the inbound trip!

Wrangell-St. Elias NP is a special place. My personal favorite so far!

Categories: AlaskaTags: , , , ,

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