Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve

Location: Southeastern Alaska

Park Tally: 36/59

Orientation: Located on the border of Canada, Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is a wild and isolated place. It is the largest national park in the country (13 million+ acres) and the world’s largest international protected wilderness when joined with neighboring parks. Wrangell-St. Elias ranges in elevation from sea level to above 18,000 feet, with snow-capped mountain peaks looming in every direction. Four major mountain ranges converge here and include the tallest coastal mountains and the biggest non-polar icefield in the world. There is nothing small about Wrangell-St. Elias and visiting the area will leave any person is absolute awe!

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Wrangell-St. Elias is famous for its copper mining history, volcanic activity, abundant glaciers, soaring mountain peaks, varied wildlife and endless opportunities for adventure. You can access the park via road (though beware of the potholes!) or bush plane. We opted to fly into McCarthy with Wrangell Mountain Air and based ourselves out of the historic Kennicott Glacier Lodge. Our flight in from Chitina was absolutely breathtaking, with our pilot passing over countless glaciers, mountains and braided rivers.

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Most iconic view: There are simply too many amazing views in Wrangell-St. Elias to name just one. Though, Root Glacier is a place that quickly comes to mind due to its accessibility, location and sheer beauty. Root Glacier can be experienced via an easy-moderate 4-mile (roundtrip) hike from the mining town of Kennecott. The trail leads to the toe of Root Glacier and visitors can opt to walk out on the glacier if they have adequate experience and equipment (crampons, micro-spikes etc.), or various glacial walking tours can be booked with local guiding outfitters. You won’t be able to miss the views of Mount Blackburn (16,390 feet) and you may even bump into some wildlife.

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Accessible activity:  The quaint town of Kennecott is known as the center of the park’s culture and history. The Kennecott Copper Mine was once the world’s largest and ran for approximately 30 years (it was abandoned in 1938). During those years of operation, over a billion pounds or ore valued at $100-300 million was hauled out of Kennecott. The National Park Service acquired the site in 1998 and it is now administered as a National Historic Landmark. Kennecott is a must-visit for anyone looking for a glimpse into what it was like to live in a remote mining town a century ago.

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For the adventurous:  Wrangell-St. Elias is overflowing with opportunities for adventure. Mountaineers, ice climbers, skiers and glacier explorers are drawn to the park’s rugged high-country that is covered year-round with snow. Glacial fed rivers weave through the park, allowing for backcountry paddling and rafting experiences. There are surprisingly few maintained trails in Wrangell St. Elias, allowing skilled hikers the freedom to explore untouched wilderness areas and truly have an “off-the-beaten-path” experience. No matter how you plan to adventure in the Wrangell-St. Elias, be sure to be prepared for extreme conditions and consider using a guiding/outfitting company. Checking in with park rangers is also a great way to learn about current backcountry conditions and permit requirements.

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Best photo opportunities: The best way to capture the sheer scale and size of Wrangell-St. Elias is via a flight-seeing tour. We couldn’t put our cameras down as we soared above seemingly endless glaciers, intertwined rivers and snow-capped mountain peaks. Requesting a morning or afternoon flight will likely provide better lighting for photography, though our midday flight was still breathtaking.

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Quick facts

  • Wrangell-St. Elias was established as a national park on December 2, 1980.
  • There are four distinct Alaska Native groups with ties to the lands of Wrangell-St. Elias – the Ahtna, Upper Tanana Athabascans, Eyak, and Tlingit people.
  • Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest national park in the entire system, bigger than the entire country of Switzerland and the size of Yellowstone National Park six times over!
  • In 1978 the park was designated an international World Heritage site with Kluane National Park (the first bi-national designation). Glacier Bay National Park and Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park were added in 1993 – making it the world’s largest international protected wilderness.
  • Wrangell-St. Elias consists of 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States and boasts 60% of the glacier ice in the country.
  • Mount Wrangell (14,163 feet) is one of the largest active volcanoes in North America, and Mount St. Elias (18,008 feet) is the second highest peak in the Unites States (after Denali at 20,320 feet).
  • Wildlife found within the park include dall sheep, mountain goats, caribou, moose, bears, salmon, trumpeter swans, sea lions, harbor seals, and more.
  • Dora Keen was not only the first women, but the first human to summit Mount Blackburn (16,381 feet) in May of 1912. She is known as one of the great alpinists.
  • No you didn’t spot a spelling error in this guide, Kennicott is spelled two different ways. Kennicott Glacier, Kennicott River and the Kennicott Glacier Lodge were named after American naturalist Robert Kennicott. The historic mining town of Kennecott was actually misspelled during its official dedication and to this day retains the original spelling.
  • In 2016, Wrangell-St. Elias had a total of 79,047 visitors.

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