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An Overlander’s Guide to Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve 

 June 24, 2024

By  Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve BadgeWrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest national park in the United States, offers overlanders an unparalleled opportunity to explore 13.2 million acres of pristine Alaskan wilderness.

This vast expanse, larger than Switzerland, encompasses towering mountain ranges, expansive glaciers, and a diverse array of ecosystems. From the coastal regions to the interior tundra, the park presents a challenging yet rewarding destination for adventure seekers.

Established in 1980 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Wrangell–St. Elias is not just a natural wonder but also a testament to Alaska’s rich mining history and indigenous cultures.

This comprehensive guide provides essential information for planning an overlanding trip to this remarkable destination, known for its rugged landscapes, abundant wildlife, and opportunities for unparalleled solitude and exploration.

Overview of Wrangell–St. Elias National Park

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, aerial viewEstablished in 1980 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve is a testament to nature’s grandeur. Encompassing an astounding 13.2 million acres, it stands as the largest national park in the United States, dwarfing many small countries in size.

The park is home to four major mountain ranges: the Wrangell, St. Elias, Chugach, and the eastern part of the Alaska Range. Within these ranges lie 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, including Mount St. Elias, the second-highest peak in both the U.S. and Canada.

Wrangell–St. Elias boasts an impressive array of glaciers, including the Malaspina Glacier, larger than the state of Rhode Island. The Nabesna Glacier, stretching over 75 miles, is recognized as the world’s longest interior valley glacier.

The park’s ecosystems are remarkably diverse, ranging from lush temperate rainforests near the coast to arid alpine tundra in the interior. This variety of habitats supports an equally diverse array of wildlife, including grizzly bears, moose, caribou, and over 200 species of birds.

Wrangell–St. Elias is not just a natural wonder but also a place of rich human history. The park preserves the legacy of indigenous cultures that have inhabited the area for thousands of years, as well as the remnants of the copper mining boom of the early 20th century.

The park’s vast expanse and remote location make it an ideal destination for overlanders seeking solitude and untamed wilderness. With only two roads penetrating its borders, Wrangell–St. Elias offers a true sense of exploration and discovery for those willing to venture off the beaten path.

Access Routes to Wrangell–St. Elias National Park

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, beautiful fieldsAccessing Wrangell–St. Elias requires careful planning due to its remote location and vast size. The park’s limited road access and challenging terrain make it essential for overlanders to thoroughly research and prepare for their journey.

Road Access

There are two primary road routes into Wrangell–St. Elias: the McCarthy Road and the Nabesna Road. Both routes offer unique experiences and access to different areas of the park, but they also present their own challenges for overlanders.

The McCarthy Road spans 60 miles from Chitina to the small town of McCarthy, serving as the main access point to the park’s south-central region. This gravel road follows the old Copper River and Northwestern Railway bed, offering scenic views and a glimpse into the area’s mining history.

The Nabesna Road, a 42-mile route starting at Slana on the Tok Cut-Off Highway, provides access to the park’s northern sector. This road ends at the historic Nabesna Gold Mine and offers spectacular views of the Wrangell Mountains.

Both roads are primarily gravel and can be rough, especially after rain or during spring thaw. High-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles are strongly recommended, and drivers should be prepared for potential tire damage and limited services along these routes.

Air Access

For those seeking quicker access or looking to reach more remote areas of the park, air travel is an excellent option. Small aircraft services operate from Anchorage, Fairbanks, and other Alaskan cities, flying into McCarthy or other backcountry airstrips within the park.

Air taxis can provide access to otherwise unreachable areas of the park, offering unique opportunities for backcountry exploration. However, weather conditions can impact flight schedules, so flexibility in your travel plans is advisable.

Water Access

For experienced outdoor enthusiasts, rafting or boating on the Copper River provides an alternative and adventurous entry point to the park. This method of access requires significant skill and preparation, as the Copper River is known for its swift current and challenging conditions.

Several guiding companies offer rafting trips on the Copper River, combining transportation with a unique wilderness experience. These trips typically start from Chitina and can range from day trips to multi-day expeditions.

Seasonal Considerations

Access to Wrangell–St. Elias is heavily influenced by seasonal conditions. The primary visitor season runs from June to September, when roads are generally clear and most services are operational.

Winter access is limited and requires specialized equipment and experience in extreme cold-weather travel. Overlanders planning a winter visit should be prepared for temperatures well below freezing and limited daylight hours.

Lodging Options for Wrangell–St. Elias National Park

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, glacierWrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve offers a range of accommodation options to suit various preferences and adventure styles. From comfortable lodges to remote backcountry camping, overlanders can choose accommodations that best fit their desired experience in this vast wilderness.

Lodges and Cabins

Several lodges and cabins are available in the vicinity of McCarthy and Kennicott, providing comfortable accommodations with proximity to park attractions. These options range from rustic wilderness lodges to more upscale accommodations, offering amenities such as hot showers, comfortable beds, and on-site dining.

The Kennicott Glacier Lodge, located in the heart of the historic Kennicott mill town, offers stunning views of the Wrangell Mountains and easy access to guided tours and hiking trails. Other options include Ma Johnson’s Hotel in McCarthy, various wilderness lodges along the McCarthy Road, and remote fly-in lodges for those seeking a more secluded experience.

Designated Campgrounds

For overlanders preferring a more immersive outdoor experience, the park offers several designated campgrounds. These campgrounds are primarily located along Nabesna Road and McCarthy Road, providing basic amenities such as pit toilets, fire rings, and bear-proof food storage lockers.

The Kendesnii Campground, situated at Mile 27.8 on Nabesna Road, offers 10 sites suitable for tents or small RVs. Along McCarthy Road, informal camping areas can be found, though they typically lack facilities and require adherence to Leave No Trace principles.

Backcountry Camping

Backcountry camping is permitted throughout most of the park, offering unparalleled opportunities for solitude and wilderness immersion. When backcountry camping, visitors must follow Leave No Trace principles and be well-prepared for self-sufficient, remote camping.

It’s crucial to properly store food and scented items to avoid attracting wildlife, particularly bears. Campfires are generally allowed below treeline, but visitors should check current fire restrictions and use established fire rings when available.

RV Camping

While RV camping options within the park are limited, some private campgrounds near the park boundaries can accommodate RVs. The Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge, located just outside the park, offers RV sites with full hookups.

Overlanders should note that most park roads are not suitable for large RVs, and services such as dump stations and electrical hookups are not available within the park. It’s advisable to be self-contained and prepared for dry camping if bringing an RV into the park.

Reservation and Planning

Reservations are strongly recommended for lodges and cabins, especially during the peak summer season from June to August. While backcountry camping doesn’t require reservations, it’s advisable to check with the park’s visitor centers for current conditions, bear activity, and any area closures before setting out.

Regardless of the chosen accommodation, all visitors should be prepared for variable weather conditions and have appropriate gear for Alaskan wilderness. It’s also important to have a solid plan for food storage and waste management to protect both wildlife and the pristine environment of Wrangell–St. Elias.

What To Do at Wrangell–St. Elias National Park

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, hiking on the glacierWrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve offers a diverse range of activities suitable for various skill levels and interests. From leisurely nature walks to extreme mountaineering, the park provides unique opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts and adventure seekers alike.

Hiking and Backpacking

Hiking is one of the most popular activities in Wrangell–St. Elias, with trails ranging from easy walks to challenging backcountry routes. The Root Glacier Trail, a moderate 4-mile round trip hike near Kennecott, offers stunning views of the glacier and surrounding mountains.

For more experienced hikers, the Skolai Pass Trail provides a challenging multi-day trek through diverse landscapes. Always check trail conditions at the visitor center and be prepared for weather changes and wildlife encounters.

Mountaineering

Wrangell–St. Elias is a paradise for experienced mountaineers, boasting 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. Mount St. Elias (18,008 ft) and Mount Wrangell (14,163 ft) offer world-class climbing opportunities for those with advanced skills and proper equipment.

Climbers should be well-versed in glacier travel, crevasse rescue, and extreme weather survival. It’s highly recommended to use the services of authorized guide companies for these challenging ascents.

Fishing

The park’s rivers and lakes provide excellent conditions for salmon and trout fishing. The Copper River is renowned for its red salmon runs, while smaller streams offer opportunities for catching grayling and Dolly Varden.

Fishing in the park requires an Alaska fishing license, and specific regulations apply to different areas. Be sure to check current fishing regulations and practice catch-and-release when appropriate.

Historical Exploration

The Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark offers fascinating insights into the area’s copper mining history. Guided tours of the mill town and mines provide a glimpse into early 20th-century industrial life in this remote region.

In addition to Kennecott, numerous ghost towns and abandoned mining sites are scattered throughout the park. Always respect these historical sites and do not remove any artifacts.

Glacier Trekking and Ice Climbing

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, melting glacierWrangell–St. Elias is home to some of the largest glaciers in North America, offering unique opportunities for glacier trekking and ice climbing. The Root Glacier near Kennecott is popular for guided ice-climbing experiences and glacier walks.

These activities require specialized equipment and knowledge of glacier safety. It’s strongly recommended to join a guided tour unless you have extensive experience in glacier travel.

Wildlife Viewing and Photography

The park’s diverse ecosystems support a wide variety of wildlife, making it an excellent destination for wildlife viewing and photography. Dall sheep, mountain goats, caribou, moose, and both black and grizzly bears can be spotted throughout the park.

Always maintain a safe distance from wildlife and use binoculars or telephoto lenses for closer views. Be particularly cautious around bears and moose, which can be dangerous if approached too closely.

Flightseeing

Flightseeing tours offer a unique perspective on the park’s vast landscapes and inaccessible areas. These tours provide breathtaking views of massive glaciers, towering peaks, and the park’s diverse terrain.

Several air taxi services offer flightseeing tours from McCarthy, Glennallen, and other nearby communities. Weather conditions can affect flight schedules, so flexibility in your plans is advisable.

Rafting and Kayaking

The park’s rivers offer exciting opportunities for rafting and kayaking, ranging from calm floats to challenging whitewater. The Copper River and its tributaries are popular for multi-day rafting expeditions.

Due to the remote nature of these rivers and the potential for dangerous conditions, it’s recommended to join a guided trip unless you have extensive wilderness river experience. Always check river conditions and be prepared for self-rescue situations.

Stargazing at Wrangell–St. Elias National Park

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, aurora borealis, northern lightsWrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve offers unparalleled stargazing opportunities due to its remote location and minimal light pollution. The park’s vast open spaces and clear mountain air create ideal conditions for observing the night sky in all its glory.

On clear nights, visitors can witness an awe-inspiring display of stars, with the Milky Way stretching across the sky in breathtaking detail. The park’s northern location also makes it an excellent spot for viewing the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, particularly during the fall and winter months.

The best time for stargazing is during the darker months from September to April when nights are longer. However, keep in mind that summer nights in Alaska are very short, with continuous twilight around the summer solstice in June.

Popular stargazing locations within the park include the Kennecott area, the McCarthy Road, and various backcountry camping sites. For the best experience, allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness for at least 20-30 minutes and use a red light to preserve your night vision.

Consider bringing binoculars or a portable telescope to enhance your stargazing experience. The park occasionally offers ranger-led astronomy programs, providing insights into the constellations and celestial phenomena visible from this unique vantage point.

Wildlife at Wrangell–St. Elias National Park

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, bald eagleWrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve is home to a diverse array of wildlife, offering visitors exceptional opportunities for observation and photography. The park’s varied ecosystems, from coastal areas to alpine tundra, support a wide range of species adapted to the harsh Alaskan environment.

Large Mammals

The park is renowned for its population of large mammals, including both black and grizzly bears. Moose are commonly seen in wetland areas and near lakes, while wolves roam the park’s vast wilderness.

Caribou herds migrate through the park, and lucky visitors might spot them in the tundra regions. Dall sheep and mountain goats can be observed on the park’s steep, rocky slopes and mountain ridges.

Avian Species

Wrangell–St. Elias is a birdwatcher’s paradise, with over 200 species of birds recorded in the park. Bald eagles are a common sight, often seen soaring over rivers or perched in tall trees.

Peregrine falcons nest on cliff faces within the park, while various species of owls inhabit the forested areas. Migratory birds, including sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans, pass through the park during spring and fall migrations.

Marine Life

The park’s coastal areas provide opportunities to observe marine mammals. Harbor seals and sea lions can be spotted along the coastline and on offshore islands.

Whales, including humpbacks and orcas, occasionally visit the park’s coastal waters. The best time for whale watching is typically during the summer months.

Wildlife Viewing Tips

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, mountain goatDawn and dusk are generally the best times for wildlife viewing, as many animals are more active during these periods. Patience and quiet observation are key to successful wildlife spotting – consider bringing binoculars or a spotting scope to view animals from a safe distance.

Always maintain a safe distance from wildlife, particularly bears and moose which can be dangerous if approached too closely. The National Park Service recommends staying at least 300 feet away from bears and 50 feet from all other wildlife.

Seasonal Wildlife Activities

Wildlife viewing opportunities change with the seasons in Wrangell–St. Elias. Spring brings the return of migratory birds and the emergence of bears from hibernation, while summer offers the best overall wildlife viewing conditions.

Fall is an excellent time to observe animals preparing for winter, with opportunities to see caribou migrations and bears fattening up on berries and salmon. Winter provides unique opportunities to spot animals against the snow, though many species are less active during this time.

Responsible Wildlife Viewing

When observing wildlife, it’s crucial to minimize your impact on their natural behaviors and habitats. Never feed wild animals, as this can alter their natural foraging habits and create dangerous human-wildlife conflicts.

Be aware of your surroundings and make noise while hiking to avoid surprising animals, particularly in areas with limited visibility. Always pack out all trash and food scraps to avoid attracting animals to camping areas or trails.

Best Time to Visit Wrangell–St. Elias National Park

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, hiking to the glacierThe most suitable time for overlanding in Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve is typically during the summer months, from June to September. This period offers more favorable weather conditions, increased accessibility to park roads and trails, and longer daylight hours for exploration and activities.

June brings the summer solstice, with nearly 24 hours of daylight in some parts of the park. This extended daylight allows for longer hiking and exploration times, but be prepared for potential mosquito activity during this month.

July and August are generally the warmest months, with daytime temperatures ranging from 60°F to 70°F (16°C to 21°C). These months offer the best conditions for hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities, but they are also the busiest in terms of visitor numbers.

September marks the beginning of fall, bringing cooler temperatures and the possibility of early snowfall at higher elevations. This month offers the additional benefit of vibrant autumn foliage, particularly in the park’s forested areas.

Winter visits (October to April) are possible for experienced cold-weather travelers but require extensive preparation and specialized equipment. During this period, temperatures can drop well below freezing, and daylight hours are significantly reduced.

Spring (May) can be a challenging time to visit due to muddy conditions as snow melts, but it offers unique opportunities to witness the park coming to life after winter. Be prepared for variable weather conditions and limited access to some areas during this transition period.

Surrounding Communities

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Kennecott MinesSeveral communities near Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve offer essential services and cultural experiences for overlanders. These towns serve as gateways to the park, providing amenities, accommodations, and opportunities to learn about the region’s rich history and culture.

McCarthy

McCarthy is a small, historic town located at the end of the McCarthy Road, serving as a primary gateway to the park. The town offers a range of accommodations, from rustic cabins to comfortable lodges, as well as dining options and basic services for visitors.

McCarthy’s rich history as a frontier mining town is evident in its well-preserved buildings and local museums. Visitors can join guided tours to learn about the area’s gold rush history and the town’s unique character.

Kennicott

Kennicott, located just 5 miles from McCarthy, is home to the famous Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark. The town offers guided tours of the historic copper mines and mill buildings, providing insight into early 20th-century mining operations in Alaska.

Kennicott serves as a starting point for many hiking trails and glacier tours within the park. The Kennicott Glacier Lodge offers comfortable accommodations with stunning views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers.

Chitina

Chitina, situated at the junction of the Edgerton Highway and McCarthy Road, offers basic amenities and serves as the last stop for supplies before entering the park via McCarthy Road. The town has a small grocery store, gas station, and several accommodation options.

Chitina’s location at the confluence of the Copper and Chitina rivers makes it a popular spot for salmon fishing and river rafting. The town also has a rich Native Alaskan heritage, with opportunities to learn about Ahtna Athabascan culture.

Tok

Tok is a larger town located at the junction of the Alaska Highway and the Tok Cut-Off, serving as a common stopover for travelers heading to or from the park. The town offers a range of services, including hotels, RV parks, restaurants, and shopping facilities.

Tok is known as the “Sled Dog Capital of Alaska,” hosting several dog mushing events throughout the year. The town’s visitor center provides valuable information about road conditions, weather, and attractions in the surrounding area.

Glennallen

Glennallen, while not directly adjacent to the park, is an important hub for visitors approaching from the west. The town offers a range of services, including lodging, dining, fuel, and groceries, as well as a National Park Service visitor center with information about Wrangell–St. Elias.

Glennallen’s location at the junction of the Glenn and Richardson Highways makes it a strategic stopping point for overlanders. The town also serves as a base for flightseeing tours over the park and the Copper River Basin.

FAQs About Wrangell–St. Elias National Park

Q: Is a permit required for park entry?

A: General entry does not require a permit, but specific activities such as backcountry camping and fishing may necessitate permits.

Q: Are there entrance fees?

A: The park does not charge an entrance fee.

Q: What type of vehicle is recommended for overlanding in the park?

A: A high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle is advised due to the rugged terrain and unpaved roads.

Q: Is cellular coverage available within the park?

A: Cellular coverage is limited. It is advisable to carry a satellite phone or emergency communication device.

Q: Are fuel stations available within the park?

A: Fuel availability is limited. It is recommended to fill up in larger towns before entering and carry additional fuel for extensive exploration.

Q: Are guided tours available?

A: Several outfitters offer guided hiking, climbing, and historical tours within the park.

Q: What precautions should be taken regarding wildlife?

A: Carry bear spray, make noise while hiking, and properly store food. The park provides bear safety orientations.

Q: Is fishing permitted in the park?

A: Fishing is allowed with an Alaska fishing license. Additional permits may be required for certain areas.

Q: Are park roads suitable for recreational vehicles?

A: Some roads accommodate RVs, but many do not. Research specific routes and consider renting a more suitable vehicle for in-depth exploration.

Q: What is the protocol for wildlife encounters on roads?

A: Reduce speed, maintain distance, and do not approach or feed wildlife. Wildlife always has the right of way.

Final Thoughts About Wrangell–St. Elias National Park

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, lakesideWrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve offers overlanders an exceptional opportunity to explore one of North America’s most pristine wilderness areas. The park’s vast expanse, diverse ecosystems, and rich cultural history provide a unique and rewarding experience for well-prepared visitors.

From towering mountains and massive glaciers to lush forests and expansive tundra, the park showcases the raw beauty of Alaska in its most magnificent form. Each visit to Wrangell–St. Elias promises new discoveries and unforgettable experiences, whether you’re scaling icy peaks, exploring historic mining towns, or simply soaking in the grandeur of the landscape.

The park’s remote location and challenging terrain demand respect and thorough preparation from overlanders. Proper planning, including researching road conditions, weather patterns, and necessary permits, is crucial for a safe and enjoyable adventure.

Wrangell–St. Elias offers a rare opportunity to experience true wilderness on an epic scale. The park’s size and diversity mean that even frequent visitors can always find new areas to explore and fresh challenges to tackle.

Conservation plays a vital role in preserving this pristine environment for future generations. Visitors are encouraged to practice Leave No Trace principles and be mindful of their impact on the delicate ecosystems within the park.

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Willow Lake at sunsetThe surrounding communities add depth to the Wrangell–St. Elias experience, offering glimpses into Alaska’s rich cultural heritage and frontier spirit. Taking time to explore these towns and interact with locals can greatly enrich your overlanding adventure.

While the park can be challenging, it rewards visitors with unparalleled natural beauty and a profound sense of wilderness. The memories and experiences gained from an overlanding trip to Wrangell–St. Elias are sure to last a lifetime.

As you plan your journey to this remarkable corner of Alaska, remember that flexibility and a spirit of adventure are key. Weather conditions, wildlife encounters, and the sheer scale of the landscape may require adjustments to your plans, but these elements also contribute to the unique character of Wrangell–St. Elias.

Ultimately, an overlanding adventure in Wrangell–St. Elias is about more than just visiting a national park – it’s about immersing yourself in one of the last great wildernesses on Earth. By approaching your visit with respect, preparation, and an open mind, you’ll be rewarded with an experience that truly embodies the spirit of adventure and exploration.

As you depart Wrangell–St. Elias, you’ll carry with you not just memories, but a deeper appreciation for the raw power and beauty of nature. The park’s vast landscapes, diverse wildlife, and rich history will continue to inspire and call you back, long after your tires have left its rugged roads.

Have you visited Wrangell–St. Elias National Park? If so, what did I miss in this overlander’s guide?

Share your thoughts in the comment section below. Thanks for your input! It is greatly appreciated!

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland


Dark Sky Overland is an overland lifestyle brand that was created to support the various trips I take to National Parks and other designated Dark Sky Parks within the United States. It was also born out of a strong desire to simplify life after my wife of over 24 years passed away from a three year battle with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC). You can learn more about my story at https://darkskyoverland.com/about/.

Patrick @DarkSkyOverland

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