Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is big. Really big.
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, 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 slow going, 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; 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 four flights a week from Anchorage and Gulkana to McCarthy (907-822-4200). Wrangell Mountain Air does three daily flights from Chitina into the park (800-478-1160).
What to see and do
Kennecott Mines: 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. You can take a tour 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. There’s also oodles of information about the history of the mines and the people that once worked there at the Kennecott Visitor Center.
McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum: 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.
Root Glacier Trail: 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 and take appropriate safety measures.
Guided wilderness adventures: Companies like Kennicott Wilderness Guides, McCarthy River Tours & Outfitters and St. Elias Alpine Guides offer hiking, ice climbing, packrafting and multi day trips through the spruce forests, alpine tundra, glacier fields and canyons of the park.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the frequency of Copper Valley Air flights from Anchorage and Gulkana to McCarthy.