Many people who live in “the lower 48” have never heard of our nation’s largest national park. Wrangell-St. Elias is massive, covering more acreage than six Yellowstones combined! It’s an enormous wilderness that encompasses 18,000-foot mountain peaks, tidewater glaciers that calf into the sea, and resident wildlife like moose, bear, Dall sheep, and elk.
One active volcano melts snow from its summit, while extensive glaciers scour the landscape around it. From fishing in Icy Bay to catching a live one in a mountain river, visitors can experience the park’s charms from the air, by sea or by foot, absorbing the entire “Alaskan Experience” in one national park.
History of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
The vast wilderness of Southeastern Alaska was only known to local Ahtna tribes, as the first recorded people here since 1000 AD. The first explorers from outside the area were Russian fur traders in 1741, but the Ahtna people fought hard to keep their land, running out all intruders until the gold rush in Klondike Territory brought miners through the region.
Seeing the natives’ tools made of copper, the miners began exploring for mineral’s source, and eventually engineer Stephen Birch opened the Alaska Copper and Coal Company at Kennecott in 1903 to take copper sulfide from the ground.
Just five years later protection for the region was suggested by the US Forest Service, but it wasn’t until 1969 that a proposal to make the wilderness “Wrangell Mountain Scenic Area” was put forth. This was considered one way to allow resource development while offering recreation and some preservation. The state of Alaska did not agree and the measure was thrown aside.
In 1978 the Wrangell–St. Elias National Monument was named, but many Alaskans felt the action was nothing more than a federal land grab, with no funding set aside for park operations. However, within two years Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve was founded, with 8,147,000 acres set aside as national park land and 4,171,000 acres as a preserve.
Why Visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Your RV?
As with many of the larger national parks, there are few roads within Wrangell-St. Elias. However, RVs can travel many miles on each of the two pathways through the park. The visitor center at Copper Center offers several trails to hike right from their spacious parking lot.
Bringing your motorhome or travel trailer this far into the Alaskan wilderness would truly be a trip of a lifetime! Park at one of the entrance centers and enjoy hiking and fishing from your door!
Places to Go
Here’s a look at just some of the places you can visit while in the park.
Copper Center Visitor Center
A campus-like setting with several buildings housing the ranger station, a theater, book store and the Ahtna Cultural Center lies just off the Richardson Highway. This is a great place to give travelers an overview of this enormous national park.
Check on road conditions, get permits and utilize the expertise of the park rangers regarding exploration and wildlife activity in the area.
Ahtna Cultural Center
A fascinating display of the history, art and community of the local Ahtna people is located within the Copper Center Visitor Center.
A 14 story old copper mine and mill sits abandoned in the Alaskan backcountry. This relic is worth the effort it takes to get there, and visitors can enjoy a guided tour or stay at a mountain lodge close by.
The southern entrance to the park is a small town serviced by the Alaskan State Ferry System in the summer. It provides a launching pad for visitors to enjoy tidewater glaciers, sea kayaking, fishing and wildlife viewing.
The town of McCarthy sits close to the Kennecott Mines, with a vibrant history and a colorful presentation today. There are three or four restaurants (including a coffee house) and several lodging options in this small surprising village.
Things to Do
There’s plenty to do at the park, and you’re bound to never have a dull moment. Here’s a look at some activities.
Ranger-led tours occur during the summer months from three different locations:
- Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center at Copper Center
- Slana Ranger Station
- Kennecott Visitor Center
In addition, St. Elias Alpine Guides takes visitors through the Kennecott Mines on a paid tour.
The sheer enormity of Wrangell-St. Elias makes it a backpacker’s dream to explore. However, it is very rugged and undeveloped land, so be prepared for the difficulties that can come with that. Some backpackers hire a guide who is familiar with the region or take a small plane into a specific area within the park.
Only suggested for the most experienced mountaineer, this park offers amazing landscapes of ice fields, foothills, and peaks. Climbers must be well-prepared with the appropriate equipment and experience because rescue help is very limited.
Float trips with or without guides are available on several rivers with Class III rapids, and sea kayaking on Icy Bay can be accessed via bush planes. Please remember the planes are small, so most travel with inflatable kayaks.
Hunting is allowed in Wrangell-St. Elias by permit. Hunters must be well versed in the state regulations, as out-of-state hunters must be accompanied by a guide in order to hunt some species.
Wrangell-St. Elias has an enormous array of fish species, including salmon, trout, grayling, Dolly Varden and whitefish. Fishing here requires an Alaskan state fishing license, and limits vary by species and area. You might even end up with an extra fishing buddy!
All of the campsites within Wrangell-St. Elias are primitive, although most have access to water. Some are off the beaten path, whereas others are along well-traveled routes. Here is a map and list of all public land campsites.
When to Visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Summer is the prime season to enjoy hiking and touring the park and Kennecott Mines. However, winter brings its own set of skills for those who enjoy snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Since many wish to view Wrangell-St. Elias by air, any season is a great time to book a flightseeing tour!
Where RVers Can Stay
As there are only two roads within the park, there are no campgrounds that allow RVs. However, several private campgrounds outside of park boundaries have hookups and dump stations. You will find the greatest number of these near the Copper Center region.
Getting to and Around Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Arrival at the park is limited to a few modes of travel. Drive the Richardson Highway to Copper Center (the visitor center is right off the highway), then continue down the Richardson to Highway 10 (toward Kenny Lake) and one of the park’s entrances. Or drive north of Glennallen, taking the Glenn Highway to the town of Slana and the Nabesna Road entrance. Bush planes or boats will lead visitors to the southern entrance of the park at Yakutat in Icy Bay.
There are only two roads within Wrangell-St. Elias: the Nabesna Road on the north side of the park is usually passable by two-wheel drive vehicles up to mile marker 29. After that four-wheel drive is strongly suggested. The second and much more popular path into the park is by McCarthy Road.
Most normal passenger vehicles can access this road. However, a 60-mile portion was built over existing railroad beds and it is a slow trip (about 35 mph). Otherwise, there are shuttles from the town of Glennallen or from Chitina.
The vast wilderness of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is home not only to stunning landscapes, topography and wildlife, but it encapsulates the American sense of adventure. Where else can one climb from sea level to 18,000 feet, venture down rushing mountain streams or hike across immense ice fields within the same boundaries? This park is Webster’s definition of expansive grandeur.
Have you ever wanted to go to the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park? Leave a comment below.