A national park that ranges from sea level to above 18,000 feet, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is one of the National Park System’s wilderness wonderlands. With a staggering 13.2 million acres of wilderness, it is the largest park in the park system that, combined with the adjoining Kluane National Park in Canada, protects nearly 20 million acres of mountain wilderness. Here, people live off of the land in the old ways among the mountain valleys that are lined with glaciers at the headwaters of every stream and pitted with the tunnels of historic mining sites.
A complete cross-section of Alaska’s wildlife ranges here. This is the home of the Copper River and its famous salmon spawning run. And ranging its wild lands are dall sheep, mountain goats, caribou, moose, and bears, which feed on the sparse vegetation of the park. It is also a park of extremes. The largest subpolar ice field, the Bagley Icefield, adorns the coast. It includes the Malaspina Glacier, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island, and the Nabesna Glacier, which at 80 miles long is the longest non-polar valley glacier. Mount Wrangell is one of the largest active volcanoes in North America.
Access is limited, ensuring the wild character of this national park, and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the nexus of four mountain ranges, which includes nine of the 20 highest peaks in North America: the Wrangells, Chugach, St. Elias, and Nutzotin and Mentasta mountain ranges.
The place to begin a weekend at Wrangell St. Elias is the Copper Center Visitor Center. Situated close to access points from Anchorage and Fairbanks, it’s a critical first stop for forays into the park to assess weather conditions, wildlife activity, and potential closures and other warnings. Because the park is so remote, it is extremely important to provide yourself with the best and most recent information about the park. Within the complex is a bookstore, exhibits, and the Ahtna Cultural Center, which educates and preserves the history and culture of the Ahtna people, who first inhabited this area.
While you’re here, saunter along the Breal Forest Trail or the Copper River Bluff Trail, short half-mile hikes that showcase the stunning scenery surrounding the visitor center: the Wrangell Mountains and the Copper River. Time permitting, plan to hike the Tonsina River Trail, an easy 4-miler to a bluff overlooking the Tonina River. More spectacular is the Liberty Falls Trail, 2 miles round trip, with steep sections of scrambling to a broad view of the Wrangell and Chugach mountain ranges. Note that these trails are not within park boundaries, but they are privately maintained. There are many lodging options in the Copper Center area, but all of them are also privately owned. Along Richardson Highway, try the Dry Creek Recreation Site at mile 117.5, Grizzly Gifts Campground at mile 93, or Squirrel Creek Recreation Site at mile 79.5. In downtown Copper Center, Klutina Charters Campground and Grove's Klutina River Charters offer tent and RV sites.
This is where your trip diverges, and you must choose. From the visitor center there are two access roads that enter Wrangell St. Elias National Park: McCarthy Road to Kennecott, which cuts through the middle of the park wilderness, and Nabesna Road to the north. These routes are long from the visitor center in Copper Center; in a weekend, you will not be able to tackle both.
Nabesna Road in the park’s northern reaches ventures into the Wrangell, Mentasta, and Nutzotin mountain ranges. The primitive road is unpaved, and the wilderness here little traveled by others—perfect for backcountry hikers. Between mile markers 15 and 18 are scenic overlooks of peaks of the Wrangell Mountains, including Mount Wrangell, the park’s only active volcano and one of the largest in North America. Plan to pull over throughout this stretch for photos. Day hiking options include Lost Creek, which offers an opportunity to see the dall sheep, wildflowers, and beautiful vistas of the surrounding mountains. Also, the upper basin offers good backcountry campsites. Skookum Volcano Trail is another good option, a deep dive into the park’s geologic history, and the Rambler Mine Trail at the end of the road offers excellent views of the Nabesna River and Nutzotin Mountains at this historic site. Camping is available along Nabesna Road—be sure to watch for private land. Viking Lodge Cabin, a public use cabin, is a highlight. So is Kendesnii Campground, with 10 sites along the lakeshore with the opportunity for birdwatching, canoeing, and fishing.
McCarthy Road traverses the park’s interior to Kennecott, the center of the park’s culture and history, and Kennecott was once a mining town with a robust copper mining industry. The Kennecott Copper Mine was once the world's largest, and for approximately 30 years it nourished small community of miners and their families. The site was acquired by the National Park Service in 1998 and is now administered as a National Historic Landmark. It is a must-visit spot for those looking for a perspective on what it was like to live in this environment a century ago.
While Nabesna Road is best for backcountry adventurers, McCarthy Road is better developed for long drives and scenic overlooks. Paralleling the Chitina River, views abound to the Chugach Mountains to the south and the Wrangell Mountains to the north. Chitina is the gateway to the Copper River watershed, and it offers restaurants and shopping for road-weary travelers. Scenic overlooks near the confluence of the Copper and Chitina rivers offer fantastic opportunities for photographers, one of many along McCarthy Road’s 60 miles. Other highlights include the Gilahina Trestle, an 890-foot railroad trestle, and the Kuskulana Bridge and river canyon.
The reward and the end of McCarthy Road is Kennecott and the glaciers that loom nearby. The Kennicott Glacier's 43 miles extend like a tongue of ice from the base of Mount Blackburn, and the Root Glacier Trail is an easy day hike that leads to Root Glacier just to the west. Numerous outfitters in Kennecott offer guided day hikes on the ice; be sure to take advantage. A couple of trail alternatives begin in Kennecott, as well: the Jumbo Mine Trail, leading to a historic bunkhouse and panoramic views, and the Bonanza Mine Trail, a similar trail to the Bonanza Mine bunkhouse. Lodging options near Kennecott include the Kennicott Glacier Lodge. The few alternatives in the area include Jumbo Creek Camping Area, a primitive area near Kennecott, and the Copper River Campground at mile 1.6 near Chitina.
With so much open wilderness, a weekend is hardly enough to fully explore Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. A true test of the park’s magnitude will be found while backcountry camping. Nevertheless, the pristine Alaskan wilderness found along McCarthy and Nabesna roads is more than enough to satisfy a weekend of wonder and wander in the Alaskan bush.