Incredible. You must see Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve to believe it.
Everything about this place is massive and awe inspiring. Number and scale loom large here, magnified by splendid isolation and a primordial indifference. Even in Alaska, a state famous for its size, Wrangell-St. Elias stands out. It is by far the largest of US national parks – six times the size of Yellowstone.
“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” -Wallace Stegner
The mountain barrier is so high it captures storms sweeping in from the ocean and holds them hostage creating some of the fiercest weather on earth. More than 60 feet of snow can fall in a year in the mountains creating some of the worlds heaviest snowpack.
Native people have lived here for millenniums and often have names for peaks that lie nameless on our maps. The peaks’ sheer numbers quickly squash any urge to learn their names. It is enough to just settle back and appreciate their beauty, mass, and rugged grandeur. Four major mountain ranges meet in the park, which include nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. The Wrangells huddle in the northern interior. The Chugach guard the southern coast. The Saint Elias Mountains rise abruptly from the Gulf of Alaska to thrust northward past the Chugach on toward the Wrangells. The eastern end of the Alaska Range-mapped as the Nutzotin and Mentasta mountains-forms part of the preserve’s northern boundary.
A landscape dominated by shield volcanoes among the most massive on the planet including Mount Churchill the source of North America’s two most explosive eruptions in the last 2,000 years and Mount Wrangell, 14,163′. The Wrangells are volcanic in origin, but only Mount Wrangell remains active (last report erupting in 1900) and a steam plume is still often visible near the summit.
Four major mountain ranges converge here: the volcanic Wrangells, the Alaska, the Chugach, and the St. Elias—tallest coastal mountains in the world. Together they contain 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, 4 of them above 16,000 feet. There are more than 150 glaciers; one, the Malaspina, is larger than Rhode Island. In 1980 Wrangell-St. Elias and adjoining Kluane National Park Reserve in Canada, along with Glacier Bay NP and Tatshenshini in British Columbia, were designated a United Nations World Heritage site. Creating the world’s largest international protected wilderness.
“Wilderness is not a luxury but necessity of the human spirit.” –Edward Abbey
Probably the best way to appreciate it, if there actually is a best way, is to fly over it and see mountains beyond mountains, glaciers after glaciers, rivers upon rivers. On the recommendation of a pilot I met in Palmer I booked a flightseeing tour with Wrangle Mountain Air to make an attempt to take in as much of this vast land as possible. The 70-minute flight out of McCarthy (more about this quirky town later) just barely gave one a glimpse into the parks grandeur. The photos posted here, taken from the air, will hopefully whet your appetite to actually see this place in person; it is amazing and was a great way to wrap up my summer in Alaska.
“I believe we have a profound fundamental need for areas of the earth where we stand without our mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.” – Howard Zahniser
Vast and rugged as it is, the park is not exactly a fortress. Two roads lead into small communities, remnants of the gold- and copper-mining towns that thrived in the early days of the 20th century.
This visit I was only able to drive one of these access roads into the park, probably the more famous of the two roads as it terminates at McCarthy – made famous by the “Edge of Alaska” documentary television series. In preparation for this venture into wildness I watched the first few episodes of season 1 and I have to say things have obviously changed a bit since the filming. Either that or the filmmakers were very selective in what they showed to the ardent viewers! There were times along the road that I came to appreciate just what the filmmakers were trying to portray – like the submerged RV in the Copper River….
The ranger station at the start of the McCarthy road gives out free “McCarthy Road Audio Tour” cds and it was very informative giving information about various points of interest along the road. Kudos to the National Park Service for providing these unique and useful interpretive resources.It took me a full three hours to drive the 60 dirt miles to the footbridge and end of the road with numerous stops along the way for photographs and just to enjoy the views. Not much wildlife that day along the road except a pair of Trumpeter Swans in one of the many ponds. I made it to the end just in time to catch my shuttle on the other side of the bridge for my flightseeing trip.
“It is imperative to maintain portions of the wilderness untouched so that a tree will rot where it falls, a waterfall will pour its curve without generating electricity, a trumpeter swan may float on uncontaminated water — and moderns may at least see what their ancestors knew in their nerves and blood.” – Bernard De Voto
The town of McCarthy was named after prospector James McCarthy who subsequently died after being thrown from his horse into the river that bares his name. McCarthy came into its heyday after copper was discovered in nearby Kennecott and the towns of McCarthy and Kennecott coexisted for 27 years during the copper mining operations. Kennecott was a company town where everything revolved around the mining operations. McCarthy provided the miner with all the “entertainment” they could have asked for. Today’s McCarthy provides a jumping off point for visitors to the park with adventure companies, a restaurant, tourist shops and basic supplies. Even so, it retains its character and rough and tumble feel as you walk the dirt street through “town”.
Kennecott is located about 5 miles via dirt road can be accessed by walking or riding the shuttle from McCarthy. Vehicles that made the 60 mile dirt trek from Chitina have to be left behind at the footbridge ½ mile before McCarthy. In its heyday there were over 800 people living and working Kennecott the copper mines. It had not been an easy place to start such vast mining operations. In 1907 construction had begun on the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad that would haul men and supplies from Cordova on the coast to Kennecott. The CRNW Railroad was jokingly called the “Can’t Run and Never Will” due to the seemingly impossible route over rivers, mountains and active glaciers. Contrary to this belief, four years later the rail was set and trains began to run into Kennecott. The current dirt road that leads into the park is along the old railbed that had been abandoned and the rails and many of the ties removed. Spikes can still be found along the route by the lucky traveler although not as frequently as reports would lead you to believe.
By 1938, after selling a staggering $200 million in copper ore, the rich copper supplies had been depleted and the town and railroad ceased operations. Because of the high transportation costs in such a remote location the mill town was abandoned along with almost everything in it left there. Although a few groups attempted to resume mining operations the high costs of transportation and the remoteness of the area proved to be too much and the town lay quiet until tourism replaced mining in the 1970’s.
As early as the 1930’s there was interest in preserving the land as a National Park. Ernest Gruening, Director of U.S. Territories said of the area: “The region is superlative in its scenic beauty and measures up fully and beyond the requirements for its establishment as a National Monument and later as a National Park. It is my personal view that from the standpoint of scenic beauty, it is the finest region in Alaska”. But it wasn’t until 1978 that then President Jimmy carter declared the area a National Monument because of its cultural and scientific significance (remember the Antiquities Act?). And in 1980 with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act the area became part of the 13.2 million acre Wrangell St Elias National Park.
“Like music and art, love of nature is a common language that can transcend political or social boundaries.” – President Jimmy Carter
After viewing the vastness from the air and exploring McCarthy and Kennecott on foot it was time to hit the trail. I had checked in to the ranger station the day before to pick up information and was surprised to learn that dogs are allowed in the park – not only in the parking lots and campgrounds like the majority of other National Parks, but on trails and in the backcountry. I had to ask several times to be sure it was true but the answer was always the same….. “yes, you can take your leashed dog on the trails”. So off Cory and I went hiking away from the abandoned mining buildings of Kennecott toward Root Glacier. It was an absolutely marvelous trail with spectacular views. In about 2.5 miles we were standing on the glacier staring off into the mountains of the park.
Wrangell is not an easy or forgiving place, it requires a high degree of self-reliance and even on this well traveled trail that was true. It is not that the land is hostile, merely indifferent and infinitely demanding. In this case it was the prolific soapberries available this time of the year. Well winter is coming and soapberries are a favorite food of the bears as they prepare for the harsh winter. It was quite unnerving as we kept hearing from other hikers “watch out for the bears” and we saw our first bear from the trail as we climbed off the glacier. There were two young men that decided to hike with us in this area as Cory and I must have looked like we knew what we were doing in bear country! Getting past that spot it wasn’t much farther until we saw a mother bear and two cubs happily eating soapberries – right along the trail that we would have to travel in order to get back. Waiting them out and watching them walk the trail in our direction before strolling off into the brush was an adrenalin rush. Cory and I hurried (he obviously knew as his pace was much quicker that it usually is and he didn’t even stop to sniff the very fresh bear scat in the middle of the trail) past this spot and continued back to Kennecott.
It was good that the bear delay wasn’t much longer as we almost didn’t catch the last 7:00 shuttle back to the bridge. I saw 5 bears while hiking around Kennecott on this day and I decided that I would much rather see them through the windshield or from a boardwalk than on the trail!
The dirt road back to Chitina only took two hours on the way back without any stops and traveling quite a bit faster as it was nearly 10:00 at night after a long day. From the paved section between Chitina and Kenny Lake (where my RV site was located) the sun was setting behind the mountains creating a fitting end for a beautiful day.
This magnificent park has the power to captivate the souls of those that venture into it. I will definitely be back and want to explore the North District and the other dirt road leading into the vast spaces.
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” ― Henry David Thoreau