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 high peaks and massive glaciers, it is also one of the most spectacular. Wrangell-St. Elias stretches from one of the tallest peaks in North America, Mount St. Elias at 18,008 feet, out to the ocean on the Gulf of Alaska.
Things to Do
Due to its sheer size and mountainous terrain, access to much of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is limited to hearty adventurers who fly into the park for backcountry hiking, mountaineering, and rafting. Visitor services in this national park are limited when compared to other major parks like Denali National Park and Preserve, but visitors who are willing to put in the extra time and effort to access this spectacular national park will find endless opportunities for hiking, camping, rafting, glacier trekking, wildlife viewing, and stepping back in time into Alaska’s mining history.
Visitors who want to explore the park from the road system have three main access points: the Copper Center Visitor Center on the west side of the park, the Nabesna Road on the north side of the park, and the McCarthy Road/Kennecott Mine in the center of the park. Each area offers its own unique set of experiences and adventures.
Copper Center Visitor Center
The park’s main visitor center is the Copper Center Visitor Center at Mile 106 of the Richardson Highway, near the town of Copper Center. The center features a theater, natural history exhibits, a bookstore, and a large interactive map display. Next to the visitor center is the Ahtna Cultural Center, housing exhibits, a museum, and information on the Ahtna Athabascan people. Outside of the visitor center, a short nature trail leads to spectacular views of the Wrangell Mountains.
There are campgrounds, lodging options, hiking trails, and access to great fishing in the surrounding areas near Copper Center, Glennallen, and Gakona. These towns border Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve but are not within the park. Visitors who would like to enter the park can drive one hour south from the Copper Center Visitor Center to the town of Chitina to access the park from McCarthy Road.
McCarthy Road and Kennecott Mine
One of the most popular areas in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark and the nearby town of McCarthy. From Chitina, the McCarthy Road travels 60 miles along a mostly dirt road through the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park to the quirky town of McCarthy. Driving the scenic McCarthy Road usually takes about two hours, but most rental car companies don’t allow rentals on this road due to the rough conditions. Air charter operators in Chitina offer 30-minute flights to McCarthy for those that are not able to drive.
The McCarthy Road ends at the Kennicott River, where visitors can take a footbridge across the river and then walk, bike, or catch a shuttle to the small own of McCarthy, ½ mile away. McCarthy is the jumping off point for adventures into the park, with several outfitters offering guided hiking, rafting, glacier trekking, flightseeing, and camping trips into the park.
From McCarthy, visitors can catch a shuttle van for the five mile ride out to Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, the site of a historic copper mine that was in operation from 1911 - 1938. The National Park Service offers guided tours of the huge mill building, bunkhouses, a train depot, worker's cottages, and the power plant. The white-trimmed red buildings stand out against the dramatic mountain-and-glacier backdrop at the mine site. A lodge and restaurant are located in this historic area, featuring breathtaking views of the Root Glacier and mountains. Just beyond Kennecott Mine is access to several hiking trails, including the Root Glacier Trail, which leads directly to the surface of the Root Glacier, and the Jumbo Mine and Bonanza Mine Trails which climb steeply to fascinating mine ruins perched high in the mountains.
The park's Kennecott Visitor Center is located in the historic train depot, where visitors can pick up maps and brochures, check out historical displays, or join a ranger-led history walk of the ghost town and mine buildings.
The north end of the park can be explored by driving the Nabesna Road, a 42-mile unpaved road that starts at Mile 60 of the Glenn Highway, about an hour south of Tok. The Nabesna Road is nestled in a valley with views of the Wrangell, Mentasta, and Nutzotin Mountains. The road provides access to several hiking trails, campgrounds, public use cabins, and wildlife viewing opportunities. The drive takes about 1.5 hours one-way, and visitors should be prepared for rough road conditions and creek crossings. The Slana Ranger Station is located at the start of the Nabesna Road and is a great place to stop before venturing down the road. At the end of the road is a privately-owned lodge and access to the Rambler Mine Trail.
A wide variety of outfitters offer guided multi-day backcountry trips into the park that include a combination of camping, hiking, rafting and packrafting, mountaineering, ice climbing, glacier trekking, hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing. Experienced independent adventurers can arrange flights with air charter operators to be dropped off and picked up in the park for endless opportunities for exploration.
Wildlife is abundant in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and 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.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is often called “the mountain kingdom of North America,” as the Chugach, Wrangell, and St. Elias Mountain 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 sixteen highest peaks in the country, including the second highest, Mount St. Elias at 18,008 feet, Mount Bona at 16,421 feet, Mount Blackburn at 16,390 feet, and Mount Sanford at 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.
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. The corporation built the Copper River and Northwest Railroad, including its famous Million Dollar Bridge, and established the company town of Kennicott. From 1911-38, the mine made more than $200 million from some of the richest copper veins the country has ever known.
Since no gambling or drinking were allowed at the company town, the town of 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.
Designated as a national park in 1980, Wrangell-St. Elias sprawls across 13.2 million acres in the Southcentral region of Alaska. The park borders Canada's Kluane National Park and together their 20 million acres represent one of the largest wilderness areas left in the world. For this reason, the two parks were recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site in 1979.
Facilities and Camping
There are few maintained hiking trails in Wrangell-St. Elias, but the park is laced with old mining roads, historic horse trails, and other avenues to its interior. Many trails require bush-plane travel to reach their remote locations, but several trails are located along the road system into the park from McCarthy Road and Nabesna Road.
There 14 public use cabins located within Wrangell-St. Elias. Most of the cabins are old mining, trapping, or hunting cabins and have been restored by the National Park Service. Almost all of the cabins are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and most of them are accessible only by a bush plane. Four cabins are reservable in advance and three are accessible by hiking from the road system. There are designated camping areas off the Nabesna Road. Backcountry camping is permitted throughout the park. Additional privately-owned campgrounds are located off of McCarthy Road.
Wrangel-St. Elias National Park and Preserve has six visitor centers: the Copper Center Visitor Center at mile 106.8 of the Richardson Highway, the Slana Ranger Station at the beginning of the Nabesna Road, the Chitina Ranger Station at the beginning of the McCarthy Road, the McCarthy Road Information Station at mile 58.6 of the McCarthy Road, the Kennecott Visitor Center in Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, and the Yakutat District Office in Yakutat.
The Copper Center Visitor Center is 190 miles from Anchorage on the Glenn Highway, 250 miles from Fairbanks, and 110 miles from Valdez on the Richardson Highway. Only two unpaved roads enter 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 into the park leave from airstrips in Glennallen, McCarthy, and Chitina.
For more information, visit the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve website.