At 13 million acres, this is the largest national park and preserve in the United States
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest unit of the U.S. National Park System and, with its trademarks of high peaks and massive glaciers, one of the most spectacular. Wrangell-St. Elias stretches from one of the tallest peaks in North America, Mount St. Elias (18,008), to the ocean. Within this wild landscape people have been living off the land for centuries and still do today.
Designated as a national park in 1980, Wrangell-St. Elias sprawls across 13.2 million acres in the Southcentral region of Alaska. It abuts against Canada's Kluane National Park and together their 20 million acres represent one of the largest wilderness areas left in the world, the reason the two parks were recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage site in 1979.
One of the park's most noteworthy historical features is the now-deserted Kennecott Mine town site, a National Historic Landmark. After copper was discovered in the area in 1900, a group of wealthy investors formed the Kennecott Copper Corporation (named when a clerical worker misspelled Kennicott), built the Copper River and Northwest Railroad including its famous Million Dollar Bridge, established the company town of Kennicott and from 1911-38 made more than $100 million mining some of the richest copper veins the country has ever known. Since no gambling or drinking were allowed at the company town, McCarthy quickly sprang up nearby as a place where miners would find 'wine, women and song,' in its saloons, restaurants, hotels, and pool halls. A number of the buildings from that era still stand in both Kennicott and McCarthy, making the area the best remaining example of early 20th century copper mining.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is often called the “mountain kingdom of North America,” as the Chugach, Wrangell and St. Elias ranges converge in an area the size of six Yellowstone National Parks. The St. Elias Range merges with the Wrangells in the heart of the park and then arcs eastward past the Canadian border where it forms the highest coastal range in the world. Within the park's borders are nine of the 16 highest peaks in the country, including the second highest, Mount St. Elias (18,008 feet), Mt Bona (16,421 feet), Mount Blackburn (16,390 feet) and Mount Sanford (16,237 feet). From its glaciated roof of mountains and peaks, the park's terrain descends to the north as treeless tundra and then boreal-forested uplands. To the south the glaciers extend from the mountains almost to the tidewaters of the Gulf of Alaska.
Wildlife includes Dall sheep and mountain goats in the alpine region, caribou around the Wrangell Mountains to the north and moose in the bogs and brushy areas of the lowlands. Bison were released in Copper River Valley in 1950 and along the Chitina River in 1962 and remnants of those herds remain today. Black and brown bears roam throughout the park. Within 60 miles of Chitina, the McCarthy Road ends at a foot bridge across the Kennicott River.
Beyond exploring the old mining towns, other activities include backpacking and hiking, mountain biking, birding, camping, sportfishing and hunting, horseback riding, whitewater rafting and kayaking, mountaineering and ice climbing, wildlife viewing and flightseeing. In the winter visitors arrive to cross-country ski, snowmobile and snowshoe.
Visitor facilities and services in Wrangell-St. Elias are limited when compared to Denali National Park and especially more traditional national parks in the contiguous U.S. The main visitor center is the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitor Center (907-822-7250) open all year at Mile 106 of the Richardson Highway near Copper Center. The center features a video theater, natural history exhibits, bookstore and a large 3-D interactive map display. Outside a short nature trail leads to spectacular views of the Wrangell Mountains.
In the historic train depot at the Kennecott Mill Town is the park's Kennecott Visitor Center (907-554-1105) where visitors go to pick up maps and brochures, check out historical displays or join a ranger-lead history walk of the company town. Other visitor centers include the Chitina Ranger Station (907-823-2205) at the end of the paved Edgerton Highway, the McCarthy Road Information Station at Mile 59 McCarthy Road and the Slana Ranger Station (907-822-7401) at the beginning of the Nabesna Road.
There are few maintained foot trails in Wrangell-St. Elias. but the park is laced with old mining roads, historical horse-packing trails and other avenues to its interior. Many trails require bush-plane travel to reach their remote locations, but three routes - Dixie Pass, Nugget Creek and Bonanza Mine - can be reached from the McCarthy Road. There are also 13 public-use cabins located within Wrangell-St. Elias. Most of the cabins were old mining, trapping, or hunting cabins and have been restored by the National Park Service. Almost all of the cabins are available to everyone on a first-come, first-served basis, and most of them are accessible only by a bush plane.
For most visitors exploring the remote corners of the park or scaling a peak is often accomplished through one of the many guiding companies that stage expeditions in Wrangell-St. Elias. Outfitters offer a range of activities from glacier walking and whitewater rafting to flightseeing trips and drop-offs into the alpine heart of the national park.
There are no entrance fees to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve or for any of its visitor centers or ranger programs.
The Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitor Center near Copper Center can be reached from Anchorage on the Glenn Highway and from Fairbanks and Valdez via the Richardson Highway. Only two unpaved roads penetrate this massive park. The 42-mile Nabesna Road reaches the northern portion of the park and the 60-mile McCarthy Road leads directly into the heart of the park. Local air taxis and flightseeing tours leave from airstrips in Glennallen, McCarthy and Chitina. A scheduled van service provides transportation between Glennallen and McCarthy.
For a list of commercial outfitters and charter air operators with permits for the park contact the Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center (907-822-7440) or visit the Kennicott/McCarthy community page.