We know Alaska is big, so it’s no surprise we have the largest national park in the United States. Established in 1980 for its natural beauty and historic value, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is home to 9 of the 16 of largest mountains in North America. And, when you combine Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is 13.2 million acres with neighboring Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge and Canada’s Kluane National Park, it’s a huge part of the world’s largest continuous conservation unit! Download the National Park Service’s McCarthy Road audio tour (for Android phones only, or download a pdf of the script instead) before your trip for a specially narrated journey.
Day 1 Drive to Glennallen
From Anchorage take the Glenn Highway east to Glennallen. On your nearly 190-mile drive, you can explore Palmer and Alaska’s historic farming colony, take in sweeping views of Matanuska Glacier from the Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Site, or stop for lunch at one of the lodges along the way.
From Fairbanks, drive south along the Richardson Highway to Glennallen – about 250 miles. Check out the Trans Alaska Pipeline crossing over the Tanana River at Big Delta and explore Big Delta State Historical Park, site of an old roadhouse that was used during the construction of the Richardson Highway in 1919.
Overnight at a lodge or campground in Glennallen.
From Glennallen, take a short drive south to Copper Center and Kenny Lake, where you’ll pick up the Edgerton Highway past the waterfalls at Liberty Creek to Chitna where you’ll start down the McCarthy Road.
The McCarthy Road was originally the rail bed for the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, which carried ore from the copper mines in Kennicott. It’s still fairly common to pick up a rail spike in your tire, so you may want to consider bringing an extra spare on this trip, just in case. While it’s only 60 miles from Chitna to the end of the road in McCarthy, you’ll want to take your time on the gravel road, stopping to look for salmon in the world-famous Copper River along the way.
While the road ends just short of the small town of McCarthy – you’ll have to walk or bike about a half-mile across a pedestrian footbridge to get to town – you’ll want to spend some time there before you continue on to the historic town of Kennicott, site of a huge abandoned copper mind approximately 5 miles from McCarthy. Copper was discovered at Kennicott in 1900. The Kennecott Copper Corporation established processing mills and a company town near the mine site. While the mine closed in 1938, many of these iconic structures remain today as a National Historic Landmark managed by the National Park Service. While the mining buildings are currently closed to the public this summer, the hiking, biking, and photographic opportunities are endless.
Not interested in driving? Call ahead. Small charter flights are available from Chitna to McCarthy instead.
Camp overnight in McCarthy or stay in a lodge in McCarthy or Kennicott.
Spend the day exploring Kennicott, or – to get a sense of the sheer size of the park – take a flight seeing tour to see the 18,008-foot Mt St. Elias (the country’s second highest mountain, after Denali) and the Nabesna Glacier (the largest non-polar valley glacier). Float one of the park’s many rivers or try a hand at glacier hiking along the Root Glacier. Camp overnight in McCarthy or stay in a small, local lodge.
After a leisurely breakfast, start your way homeward. As you head toward Chitna, keep an eye out for old wooden railroad trestles and other bridges from earlier days, as well as spectacular views of the Copper River and the Wrangell Mountain Range. Stop for a hike at the Bureau of Land Management’s Tosina River trail before reaching Glennallen.
Optional side trips if you have an extra day or two:
Nebesna Road: From Glennallen start towards Tok along the Tok Cutoff, taking a side trip to explore the northern access to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The start of the approximately 40-mile long Nabesna Road is near Slana, approximately 75 miles from Glennallen. This is a road to watch for wildlife as well as views of Mount Sanford and the Copper River Valley. The National Park Service has a narrated audio tour for the Nabesna Road highlighting what you’ll see as you head down the road. Campgrounds are available, so consider making this an overnight extension.
Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge: From the Tok Cutoff, continue past Slana and on to Tok, turning southeast along the Alaska Highway to the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. Tetlin’s nearly 700,000 acres are home to Alaska’s “Big 5” – bears, moose, caribou, Dall Sheep, and wolves – as well as more than 120 resident and migratory bird species. While currently closed, stop by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s visitor center (MP 1229 of the Alaska Highway) and explore the parabolic dunes –geologic oddities made from wind-blown glacial flour.
Stay overnight in Tok or in a nearby campground before heading home to Anchorage or Fairbanks.