Strategically located near the mouth of the Stikine River, Wrangell is one of the oldest towns in Alaska. Now home to 2,058 residents, the town is the only one to have existed under three flags and be ruled by four nations: Tlingit, Russia, England and the United States.
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.
Things to do
Wrangell’s interesting early history can be experienced at the Wrangell Museum in the Nolan Center, one of the Inside Passage region’s newest museums. Another side of Wrangell’s history can been seen in its impressive collection of totems; more than a dozen are scattered throughout town. 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. A community house also stands on the property. This quiet oasis is a great place to spot bald eagles perched in surrounding cottonwoods. Kiksadi Totem Park is located on Front Street. The park was dedicated in 1987 by Sealaska Native Corporation with the first traditional totem rising in Wrangell in more than 40 years.
Located just north of town is Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park, where you can see primitive rock carvings believed to be at least 1,000 years old. There are almost 50 in the area, resembling spirals, birds, whales and faces, but you need to hunt around to find most of them. Another interesting walk from the downtown area is Mount Dewey Trail. This half-mile climb leads to a small clearing on top of a hill overlooking Wrangell and the surrounding waterways.
The most popular day trip from Wrangell is to Anan Wildlife Observatory. Located 30 miles southeast of Wrangell on the mainland, Anan Creek is the site of one of the largest pink salmon runs in the Inside Passage. From the viewing platforms at the observatory, you can watch eagles, harbor seals, black bears and a few brown bears chowing down on the spawning salmon. Almost every tour operator in town offers a guided trip there. Contact the Tongass National Forest for more information.
The beautiful, wild Stikine River in the Stikine-LeConte Wilderness Area and the fastest navigable river in North American, is characterized by a narrow, rugged shoreline and the mountains and hanging glaciers that surround it. It is a popular boat cruise and the Wrangell Visitor Center can provide a list of operators who run trips up the river.
Anan Wildlife Observatory
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 on Anan Creek, you can safely watch eagles, harbor seals, black bears and a few 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 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 a full-day excursion 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 area.
Wrangell celebrates all the bears of Alaska for five days in mid-July with the Bearfest Festival
. Festival events include a bear 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 that feast on the pink salmon running in Anan Creek.
Chief Shakes Grave
Wrangell has an impressive collection of totems with more than a dozen scattered through town that can make for a pleasant walk around town. One of the most popular totems is the killer whale totem that adorns Chief Shakes Grave.
Chief Shakes Hot Springs
The beautiful and 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. 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 Chief Shakes Hot Springs, where visitors can first admire Shakes Glacier spilling into Shakes Lake and then soak in one of the two bathing huts built over the hot springs nearby.
Chief Shakes Island
This small grassy islet, located in the middle of the boat harbor and reached by a pedestrian bridge, is the most enchanting spot in Wrangell. The tiny island with its totems, tall cottonwoods and the half dozen 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 high-caste 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.
Muskeg 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 rain forest 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.
Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park
Just north of town is this 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.
One look at a nautical chart of Wrangell will have sea kayakers dreaming as islands and protected waterways abound. Experienced kayakers will 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 that often include transportation so you begin in wilderness setting in a remote corner of Wrangell Island.
The waters surrounding Wrangell are a fisherman's paradise and the town is well equipped with charter fishing operators who offer day trips, overnights and multi-day fishing adventures. Action often begins in late April or May when king salmon are the first to begin spawning and Wrangell stages its annual King Salmon Derby from mid-May to mid-June. Along with salmon, anglers fish for trophy halibut that can weigh more than 100 pounds along with red snapper, ling cod and sea bass.
Stikine River Birding Festival
During the last week of April, Wrangell celebrates its annual Stikine River Birding Festival
. The five-day festival is a celebration of the arrival of spring and includes an art fair, fish fry dinners and even a golf tournament at Muskeg Meadows. Perhaps the biggest draw, though, are the bald eagles and thousands of shorebirds. The largest spring concentration of eagles in the Inside Passage occurs along the Stikine is enjoyed by hundreds of birders during the festival in specially arranged boat cruises.
Completely renovated in 2004 when it relocated in the Nolan Center, Wrangell now has a museum worthy of its extensive and colorful history.