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Alaska Visitors Guide

Biggest of the big: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Kennecott Mines

  • Author: Bailey Berg
  • Updated: April 27
  • Published April 27

On June 16, 2018, the 20th anniversary of the National Park Service acquisition of the Kennecott properties, McCarthy and Kennecott community members joined present and former park staff to cut the ribbon to formally open new exhibits inside nine of the restored buildings at the national historic landmark. (Photo by Mike Townsend / NPS)

At 13.2 million acres, it’s the largest national park in the United States and covers roughly the same area as the next two biggest national parks combined (Denali and Gates of the Arctic, both also in Alaska). It’s difficult not to talk about the area in superlatives, as that sheer amount of acreage holds a lot: four major mountain ranges; the second- and third-highest peaks on the continent; nine of the 16 highest peaks in the U.S.; incredibly diverse wildlife; and the nation’s largest glacial system.

For true adventure seekers and wilderness lovers, the park acts as a kind of El Dorado. A place rife with opportunities to play — from backpacking, fishing and camping to rafting, hiking and climbing — and see the wilderness in all its glory.

How to get there

Only two roads, both dirt, lead into the park: McCarthy Road and Nabesna Road. Of the two, the 60-mile long McCarthy Road is the one far more traveled. You’ll know when the Edgerton Highway merges with McCarthy Road in Chitina because it will go from pavement to dirt road atop what was once a railroad track. It’s a slow trek, with blind corners and potholes, but the scenery makes up for it: spectacular views of distant mountains, the Copper River raging below and the impressive Kuskulana River Bridge, which spans a vertigo-inducing gorge. The road ends at the Kennicott River and from there you cross the river on a footbridge and can either shuttle or walk the half mile to McCarthy or 4.5 miles to Kennicott.

Alternatively, Copper Valley Air offers bi-weekly flights from Anchorage and Gulkana to McCarthy (907-822-4200, coppervalleyairservice.com). Wrangell Mountain Air does three daily flights from Chitina into the park (800-478-1160, wrangellmountainair.com).

What to see and do

Within 35 years, the Kennecott Mines went from being an established mining camp — pumping out copper around the clock — to a ghost town. For decades, the mill sat empty and abandoned, until 1998, when the National Park Service purchased the mill, power plant and many other camp buildings from private owners and began restoring them. There are tours of the mill, a 14-story behemoth that was used to process ore through a multistage process. The tour is worth it for the glaciers and mountain view from the top floors and the opportunity to check out the massive, nearly 100-year-old machinery. (St. Elias Alpine Guides is one company that guides tours of the mine, steliasguides.com.) There’s also oodles of information about the history of the mines and the people that once worked there at the Kennecott Visitor Center.

While it could be argued that both towns are museums in and of themselves, the actual museum, located in what was once a railway depot, does a good job of showing the history from the town’s inception in the late 1800s to today. You can see old photographs, artifacts, a miniature model of historic McCarthy and a diorama of the Bonanza Mine.

Guided visitors explore Root Glacier in 2015, near Kennecott. The glacier joins the Kennicott Glacier near the Kennecott Mine site in Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve. (Erik Hill / ADN)

Past all the wagon-red buildings of the mining camp on the far end of town is the start of the Root Glacier Trail. It’s an easy 4-mile round trip jaunt out to one of Alaska’s most accessible glaciers. Even from a distance, you can look for the blue pools and streams speckled across the top of the glacier and admire the nearby peaks. If you intend to walk on the ice, wear appropriate footwear.

Guided wilderness adventures

Companies like Kennicott Wilderness Guides and St. Elias Alpine Guides offer hiking, ice climbing, packrafting and multiday trips through the spruce forests, alpine tundra, glacier fields and canyons of the park.

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