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Wrangell-St. Elias is a world unto itself. And that world isn't far removed from the ice ages.
Four mountain ranges meet in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. This coastal park, at 20,625 square miles the nation's largest national park. Nine of the country's 16 tallest peaks are here, topped by Mount St. Elias at 18,008 feet. Bagley Ice Field is the continent's largest subpolar ice field, and Malaspina Glacier is larger than Rhode Island.
The park is home to a lot of black and brown bears, caribou, sheep and goats, and the Copper River system adjoining it is one of the richest in salmon. To the southwest is the Chugach National Forest. To the southeast are Tongass National Forest and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, as well as Canada's Kluane National Park.
The red wooden buildings of Kennecott Mine, once the richest copper mine in the world, sit above the rock-covered Kennicott glacier. Long ago, a handwriting mistake led to the different spellings of the mining company's name and those of the glacier and river. Gold mining at McCarthy, Chisana and other locations around what is now the park added to the area's legends.
The park's biggest hamlets are McCarthy and Kennicott, four miles apart and both across the river from the end of the road. Hardy vehicles can be driven to Nabesna, an old mining settlement on the north side of the park.
Wrangell-St. Elias is nestled next to Canada in what might be considered Alaska's "mainland." The park is partly bordered by the Tok Cutoff of the Glenn Highway (Highway 1), the Richardson Highway (Highway 4) and the Gulf of Alaska. The main destination town, McCarthy, is 240 miles directly east of Anchorage. Valdez, on Prince William Sound, is at the southwestern edge of the park.
The big attractions are the ghost-town mining-camp atmosphere, the red-painted mine buildings themselves, and Kennicott and Root glaciers, and Mounts Drum and Sanford. Cruise liners pass Malaspina and Hubbard glaciers.
Weather / What to wear
The weather can change quickly, so layered clothing is most appropriate. The country is isolated, rough, generally out of cellphone service and full of bears. Medical help may be far away, and hikers should travel with companions.
The average July low-high temperature range at McCarthy is 41 to 71. The record low in January is 58 below. Check the daily weather and the forecast at Alaska.com's weather page.
Brown bears live here. Also, keep an eye open for moose, mountain goats, bald eagles and small mammals such as foxes and beavers. Along the coast, watch for migrating shorebirds in the spring and fall, sea lions and sea otters.
Flightseeing, rafting on the Copper River, cycling, hiking on such remote routes as the Goat Trail, glacier trekking on Root Glacier, wildlife viewing.
How to get to Wrangell-St. Elias
From Anchorage: Drive east on the Glenn Highway 189 miles to Glennallen, then south 33 miles to the Chitina turnoff, 34 miles thence to Chitina and 62 miles to McCarthy. From Fairbanks: South 150 miles on the Richardson Highway (4) to Glennallen; then south 33 miles to the Chitina turnoff, 34 miles east to Chitina and 62 miles east to McCarthy.
From Valdez: North 82 miles on the Richardson Highway to the Chitina turnoff; 34 miles east to Chitina and 62 miles more to McCarthy.
From the Alaska Highway: South on the Tok Cut-off (Highway 1) to Slana, 66 miles, to a ranger station and the road to Nabesna, or keep going 70 miles to Glennallen (see above).
Visitors who drive the McCarthy Road have to stop at the river. A footbridge leads a quarter-mile or so to McCarthy.
The National Park Service suggests a speed of about 20 mph on the McCarthy Road because of its roughness, soft shoulders and old rail spikes that work their way to the surface of the road, which follows an old railroad grade. Tire repair service is available at the end of the road. Many car rental agencies declare the road off-limits; check with yours for restrictions.
From Anchorage, round-trip fares for a planeload of five passengers with baggage works out to a little over $300 apiece. Air taxis may also be hired in Gulkana, near Glennallen. Flights may be arranged to Yakutat for people who want to approach Malaspina and Hubbard glaciers.
Eating / Lodging
Public camping is allowed just about anywhere in the park except on the many private and Native corporation lands. (Adventurers should get permission before crossing or using those lands.) A developed campground sits at the end of the road, and there is a backpackers' campground up the Root Glacier from Kennicott.
Lodging and dining are available in McCarthy, as well as at the Kennicott Lodge in Kennicott.