Strategically located near the mouth of the Stikine River, Wrangell is one of the oldest towns in Alaska. Now home to about 2,500 residents, Wrangell is the only town in Alaska to have existed under three flags and be ruled by four nations: Tlingit, Russia, England, and the United States.
About Wrangell (Tlingit: Shtax’héen)
Wrangell is located on the northwest tip of Wrangell Island, 155 miles south of Juneau and 89 miles northwest of Ketchikan. The picturesque harbor town in the Inside Passage – not to be confused with Wrangell-St Elias National Park in Southcentral Alaska – is known for its Tlingit culture, wildlife viewing, and exploration on the beautiful Stikine River.
Things to do
Tlingit Culture and History
Tlingit people have been living in the area for thousands of years and examples of their culture and history are prevalent in Wrangell. The town is home to an impressive collection of totems with more than a dozen scattered throughout town that can make for a pleasant walk. One of the most popular totems is the killer whale totem that adorns Chief Shakes Grave.
One of the most enchanting spots is also the location of the best collection of totems: Chief Shakes Island, a grassy islet in the middle of the boat harbor that is reached by a pedestrian bridge. The tiny island with its totems, tall cottonwoods, and eagles usually perched in the branches is a quiet oasis compared to the hum of the fishing fleet that surrounds it. In the middle is Shakes Community House, an excellent example of a Tlingit tribal house that contains tools, blankets, and other cultural items. Just as impressive are the six totems surrounding the tribal house, all duplicates of originals carved in the late 1930s.
Just north of town is this Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park, where you can see primitive rock carvings believed to be 8,000 years old. From Evergreen Avenue, less than a mile from the ferry terminal, a boardwalk leads you past a series of interpretive displays that explain the history of the carvings and then descends to the beach. From there you turn right and walk north about 50 yards and - with your back to the water - look for the carvings on large rocks, resembling spirals, birds, fish, whales, and faces. Check a tide book before you arrive because there are almost 50 petroglyphs in the area, but most are submerged at high tide.
Wrangell’s interesting Tlingit, Russian, and gold mining history can be experienced at the Wrangell Museum. The museum is home to a collection of over 3,000 photos and negatives depicting the area’s history, beginning with the gold rush, and an exhibit on early exploration by Russian and English settlers. Also on display are a four hand-carved Tlingit houseposts dating back to the late 1700s and a collection of spruce and cedarbark baskets.
In late June through August, one of Southeast Alaska’s largest pink salmon runs enters Anan Bay and heads up Anan Creek, located 30 miles southeast of Wrangell on the mainland. From an observatory and photography platform at Anan Wildlife Observatory, you can safely watch eagles, harbor seals, black bears, and brown bears feasting on the spawning humpies. This is one of the few places in Alaska where black and brown bears coexist at the same run – or at the very least put up with each other.
Anan Creek is a 20-minute floatplane flight or an hour boat ride from Wrangell and many tour operators in town offers full-day tours to the observatory. The more adventurous will book the U.S. Forest Service’s Anan Bay Cabin, which is only a mile hike from the observation platform.
Wrangell celebrates Alaska’s bears in late July at Alaska Bearfest, a five-day festival with events including a symposium on bear management and interaction, photography workshops, music and art events, and boat trips to Anan Wildlife Observatory to see and photograph the black and brown bears.
For those interested in viewing wildlife on the water, the waters surrounding Wrangell are rich with marine wildlife including humpback whales, orcas, Steller sea lions, sea otters, and harbor seals. Local tour operators offer whale watching and marine wildlife tours during the summer. Tour operators also lead trips out to LeConte Glacier, North America’s southernmost tidewater glacier.
Wrangell is also a top destination for birders, welcoming the largest concentration of bald eagles in the Inside Passage in spring and hundreds of thousands of migrating birds to the Stikine River Delta in May and June. To celebrate spring and the return of the migrating birds, Wrangell hosts the Stikine River Birding Festival in late April/early May.
River Boat Tours
The beautiful, wild Stikine River begins in the high peaks of interior British Columbia and ends some 400 miles later just north of Wrangell in the Stikine River delta. It is the fastest navigable river in North American and is characterized by a narrow, rugged shoreline, craggy mountains, and glaciers. Many charter boat operators offer trips on the Stikine, often using a jet boat to spend a day traveling up the river. One of the most popular stops is Shakes Glacier with its icebergs spilling into Shakes Lake.
One look at a nautical chart of Wrangell will have sea kayakers dreaming of its islands and protected waterways. Experienced kayakers can paddle across the vast Stikine River flats while beginners can enjoy paddling around the harbor, over to Petroglyph Beach, or to Dead Man’s Island. Outfitters in town rent kayaks and offer guided trips.
The waters surrounding Wrangell are a fisherman's paradise and the town is well equipped with charter fishing operators who offer day trips and multi-day fishing adventures. The action often begins in late April or May when king salmon are the first to begin spawning. Along with salmon, anglers fish for trophy halibut that can weigh more than 100 pounds along with red snapper, ling cod, and sea bass.
Musket Meadows Golf Course
Wrangell's golf course may be a USGA-certified nine-hole, par 36 course, but it is uniquely Alaskan. It was carved from a rainforest and is surrounded by the natural beauty of the ocean and snow-capped mountains. Players are rarely alarmed when a bear comes bounding across a fairway, and then there is the club’s Raven Rule: if a raven steals your ball you may replace it with no penalty provided you have a witness. The course also features a 250-yard driving range.
Staying in Wrangell
Several accommodation options are available in Wrangell including an inn, B&Bs, guest houses, and vacation rentals.
Getting to Wrangell
Non-stop air service on Alaska Airlines connects Wrangell to Anchorage, Juneau, Petersburg, Ketchikan, and Seattle, and air taxi service is also available for connections to other Inside Passage communities. The Alaska Marine Highway ferry provides regular service to Wrangell from other coastal communities. Small and medium-sized cruise ships also stop in Wrangell during the summer.
The Tlingit people have lived in the area for thousands of years. The town of Wrangell, one of Alaska's oldest settlements, was settled by Russian traders in 1834. Wrangell's heyday was as a jumping-off point for three major gold rushes up the Stikine River from 1861 to the late 1890s. Back then, Wrangell was as lawless and ruthless as Skagway and at one point Wyatt Earp, the famous Arizona lawman, filled in as a volunteer marshal for 10 days before moving on to Nome. Wrangell's most famous visitor, however, was John Muir, who came in 1879 and again in 1880