Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is our nation’s largest national park, but most people have never heard of it. It encompasses 13.2 million acres including the Wrangell, St. Elias, Chugach, and Alaska Ranges, 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, and countless glaciers. Although it is over twice the size of Denali, it receives only around 70,000 visitors per year as opposed to Denali’s over 500,000 (these are pre-pandemic numbers). Accessibility plays a huge role in that statistic. Most of the park is backcountry, without roads or direct access, so the vast majority of visitors will only see the perimeters of the park.
Copper Center Area
Copper Center Visitors Center is along the Richardson Highway. This is by far the most easily accessible entryway into the park. There are short hiking trails, a book store, and a theater featuring a film about the park. Park rangers are available to give advice about backcountry planning and daily ranger programs. The Ahtna Cultural Center is next door with a museum and information on the native people of this part of Alaska.
The Nebesna Road begins at mile 60 on the Glenn Highway and explores the northern part of Wrangell-St. Elias. The road is an unpaved, unmaintained gravel road that leads 42 miles into the park. There are no services (fuel, food, lodging), so a trip here requires preparation and self-reliance. The Slana Ranger Station is a good source for road conditions.
Yukutat and Coastal Area
Yukutat is a native village in southeast Alaska that is about 10 miles from the park boundary. There’s no direct access to the park here other than by boat or plane. Hubbard Glacier is the main attraction for this area of the park. It is the United State’s longest tidewater glacier and a popular stop on cruise ship itineraries. The glacier flows 76 miles from Mt. Logan in Canada’s Yukon Territory, into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and terminates in the Gulf of Alaska. With a glacier face that is 6 miles wide, it’s an impressive sight.
Kennecott and McCarthy Area
This is the area of the park that most visitors will see. Although this area offers the most variety of lodging, dining, and activities it is still not easy to get there. The drive from Anchorage is about 8 hours and the last 59 miles is along the infamous McCarthy Road which was constructed over old railway tracks and is gravel. Only a few rental car companies allow travel along the road, so be sure to check before heading out. Once you get to the park boundary, you must park your car and then take a local shuttle into Kennecott or McCarthy. Alternative methods of getting to this area of the park are by flying from Chitna or by shuttle from Anchorage.
Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark
One of the most interesting areas of the park is the Kennecott mill town and mines. If the area seems remote today, just imagine what it was like in the early 20th century. In the summer of 1900, prospectors discovered copper ore deposits alongside Kennicott Glacier. Once mining began, the problem of getting vast amounts of copper and silver out of the valley became apparent. Within a few years, the Kennecott Copper Corporation was formed and investors (the Gugenheim and J.P. Morgan families) funded the construction of a railway in order to move the lucrative copper out of Alaska.
Mining in Kennecott was shut down in 1938 but in the three decades it was in operation, Kennecott and McCarthy became bustling towns. Miners and their families lived there full-time. There was a school for the children, a post office, and a hospital that had Alaska’s first xray machine. For entertainment, Kennecott had movie nights, holiday celebrations, dances, and concerts.
After the mining company stopped operating, Kennecott and McCarthy became ghost towns. Few people remained and the buildings fell into disrepair. In 1998, the National Park Service acquired the buildings and land of Kennecott and began restoration. Today, you can tour many of the buildings and see artifacts from over a century ago.
Is it Kennecott or Kennicott? The town and mining corporation of Kennecott was named for Kennicott Glacier, but someone inadvertently replaced the I with an E, hence the spelling variation.
There are several day hikes around Kennecott including the hike along Root Glacier and hikes to the abandoned mine entrances.
St. Elias Alpine Guides also has backcountry hiking, rafting excursions, and mountain climbing adventures. They can assist with the logistics of planning your own backcountry trip.
What’s your favorite Alaska national park?