At 13 million acres, Wrangell St. Elias National Park holds the title of the largest National Park in the United States. For some perspective on just how big that is, you could fit six Yellowstone’s in Wrangell St. Elias! With over 20,000 square miles of mountain wilderness, it boasts 25% more land than Switzerland. Encompassing four different mountain ranges, the park is home to 9 of the 16 tallest peaks in the United States. It is also home to one of the highest concentrations of glaciers in North America with over 33% of the park covered in ice.
Designated as an international World Heritage site, it is connected to three other national parks. Combined with Glacier Bay National Park, Kluane National Park, and Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park, there are 24.3 million acres of protected lands, making it one of the largest protected ecosystems in the world. Despite being one of the most easily accessed national parks in Alaska, Wrangell St. Elias is the 8th least visited National Park. This makes a great place to add to your Alaska itinerary and escape the crowds! In Wrangell St. Elias, you can climb mountains, step on glaciers, step back in history, and drive through beautiful landscapes. Read on to learn all the details to plan your visit.
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Navigate This Article
- Wrangell St. Elias National Park Overview
- Wrangell St. Elias Visitor Centers
- How to Get to Wrangell St. Elias National Park
- Where to Stay in Wrangell St. Elias National Park
- What to Do in Wrangell St. Elias National Park
Wrangell St. Elias National Park Overview
Where is Wrangell St. Elias?
Wrangell St. Elias is located in south central Alaska. It is 3.5 hours from Anchorage, its closest major cities are Glenallen to the West and Valdez to the south. There are two roads leading into the park, McCarthy Rd. and Nabesna Rd., these roads were originally built for mining operations.
Wrangell St. Elias became a National Park in 1980 when President Carter designated 13.2 million acres of land to be protected. Though sparsely populated due to the extreme nature of the landscape and temperatures, people have lived in this area for thousands of years. Natives of this area are the Upper Ahtna, or “headwaters people”. These people subsisted on Dall’s Sheep, Moose, Caribou, and other small mammals hunted in the winter. In the summers they subsisted on salmon. Fish were caught using dip nets until the 1900s when they moved to utilizing fish wheels. A replica of a fish wheel can be seen at the Copper Center visitor center.
In the 1900s, the gold rush brought thousands of prospectors to Alaska. When copper was discovered in the Chitina River Valley, investors like JP Morgan and Guggenheim were drawn to create a syndicate to create a mine. A railroad was built in 1911 from the port in Cordova to Kennecott to transport ore. At the height of operation, Kennecott Mill and Mine employed over 600 men, many of them immigrants. McCarthy, founded in 1906, became the support town to Kennecott. There were strict rules at the Kennecott Mill and housing so McCarthy became a true sin city for workers, offering gambling, alcohol, prostitution, and more. At one time, McCarthy was the largest city in Alaska! Mining continued until 1938 when both yields and market price dropped.
The best time to visit Wrangell St. Elias National Park is from mid-May through the beginning of September. Visitor services like shuttles are not in operation outside of these windows. Wrangell St. Elias experiences long winters and a large amount of snowfall. Roads are unmaintained and largely inaccessible after significant snowfall. There is generally snow on the ground by the end of September. During the winter high temperatures hover around 5-7 degrees Fahrenheit with lows dropping to -50 degrees F! Summers are short but generally warm with temperatures reaching into the 80s at times. August can be a wet month. We spent six days in the park in the beginning of August and experienced rain for a large portion of four of the days. You should be prepared for any weather.Â
Yes! Wrangell St. Elias is one of the most dog-friendly National Parks we have visited. Dogs are allowed in the town of McCarthy and Kennecott and they are allowed on trails. Dogs are also allowed on both shuttles and ride for free!
Kennicott vs. Kennecott?
There is much confusion over the spelling of Kennecott. Kennicott Glacier was named in 1899 for Robert Kennicott, the scientific director of the Western Union Telegraph Expedition. In 1906, the mining company began using the spelling Kennecott. Today, the spelling Kennecott is used to refer to the mine and mill, while the spelling Kennicott is used to refer to the town.
Wrangell St. Elias Visitor Centers
The main visitor center for Wrangell St. Elias National Park is located in Copper Center off the Richardson Highway. This is where you will find the National Park sign as well as exhibits and a movie theater. Stop here on your way to McCarthy Road to talk with a ranger for more information about the park plus pick up souvenirs.
A second visitor center is found at the Kennecott Mill. Here you can talk with a ranger and have an opportunity to pick up souvenirs. You can find more information about ranger led tours through Kennecott. You can contact the visitor center at (907) 822-7250 before you visit for more detailed information about times for ranger-led programs. In addition to the two visitor centers, there are also ranger stations in Chitina at the beginning of McCarthy Road and Slana at the beginning of Nabesna Road.
How to Get to Wrangell St. Elias National Park
The Wrangell St. Elias Visitor Center in Copper Center is located 3 Â½ hours from Anchorage. Taking the Glenn Highway, you will turn south at the Richardson Highway and travel 10 minutes. There are only two roads into the park, Nabesna Road, and McCarthy Road. Both roads are dirt, be advised that some car rental companies in Alaska do not allow you to take cars on dirt roads. If this is the case for you, you will have to shuttle from Anchorage or take an air taxi into the park. To travel Nabesna Road, you will backtrack 10 minutes to rejoin the Glenn Highway and head north. If you wish to head to McCarthy Road, head south.
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To reach the McCarthy/Kennicott area of the park, you will travel south on the Richardson Highway to the Edgerton Highway, from there, head east where you will start the McCarthy Road. This road is 59 miles mostly dirt to the town of McCarthy. There is no fuel and limited services along the road so be sure to fill up and stock up before starting your drive. McCarthy Road was created in 1971 when the old railway bed was filled with gravel. Notable stops are the Kuskulana Bridge and Gilahana Trestle. The NPS has an audio tour to follow along on your journey.
Nabesna Road starts at mile 60 of the Glenn Highway. 4×4 and high clearance are recommended to drive past mile 28 of this route. The road is unpaved and only occasionally maintained by the Alaska DOT. If you have a capable vehicle however, this can be an exciting off the beaten path adventure. There are opportunities for hiking, wildlife viewing, and stunning views of mountains on a clear day.
The drive is 42 miles each way, there are no services so be sure you are stocked up and self reliant. Road conditions are generally decent up until mile 28 but from here the road can deteriorate. Some of the best views of the St. Elias range are from mile 15-18. There are three creek crossings at mile 29, 21, and 34. These are often dry creek beds but can have flowing water in spring and after heavy rains. Check in at the visitor center or the Slana Ranger Station for up to date road conditions. The NPS has an audio tour to follow along on your journey.
Yakutat and Coastal Areas
The Yakutat area is accessible only by boat or plane. These 155 miles of coastline are little explored but allow opportunities for a truly off the beaten path adventure. For more information on planning a trip to this region you can visit the National Park Service website.
When driving to McCarthy/Kennecott, you will have to park your vehicle before the footbridge. There are no free parking options here. Parking is $10 at the footbridge or $5 Â¼ mile away. Google Maps may route you over another bridge into the town of McCarthy. Know that this bridge is privately owned and citizens of the town pay yearly for access to this bridge. If you have a motorcycle or bicycle, you can walk it across the footbridge for quicker access into the town of McCarthy and Kennecott. Otherwise you will have to walk or utilize the shuttle system.
From the footbridge to McCarthy is 1 mile and from McCarthy to Kennicott is 5 miles. During the summer, there are two privately owned shuttle services that will take you to each place. In true Alaskan fashion, there are no prices or schedules posted online, you have to find out at the footbridge! Shuttle buses operate about every half hour to hour. There is a bit of a rivalry between shuttle services so prices are subject to change. Costs range from free to $15 roundtrip. When we visited in 2022, one shuttle was free but left you with a 30 minute layover in McCarthy while the other shuttle was $5 with a direct trip to Kennicott. You can call (907) 406-9599 for up to date information on the Blackburn Heritage shuttle bus.
Where to Stay in Wrangell St. Elias National Park
Camping is available for RVs near the end of McCarthy Road at Base Camp Kennicott for $30. There are pit toilets but no hookups or water. Reservations are not required and there is plenty of space. If you are tent camping, you can camp near Root Glacier at the Jumbo Creek Campground for free with an incredible view! If you are driving Nabesna Road, there are several free options for boondocking, these sites are first come first served. At mile 27.8 on Nabesna Road is the Kendesnii Campground which hosts 10 free primitive sites.
McCarthy and Kennicott are small so lodging is limited, you will want to plan in advance if you require overnight accomodations. The two main options are Ma Johnson’s and Kennicott Glacier Lodge. More lodging options can be found on the Copper Valley Chamber website.
Ma Johnson’s is a historical hotel located in downtown McCarthy. It is dubbed as a living museum and the hotel has aimed to keep things authentic. There are no electrical outlets in the rooms however there are secure places to charge devices. There is one bathroom/shower for every two rooms. Rooms are $279-$359/ night and can be booked here. Shuttle from the footbridge and breakfast are included.
Kennicott Glacier Lodge
The Kennicott Glacier Lodge is located directly across from the visitor center on Main Street, Kennicott. This is the closest option to access everything in the Kennicott area. The main lodge was built in 1986 and constructed in the same style as many of the buildings in the Kennecott Mill. The South Wing of the lodge was completed in 2016. The rooms in the main lodge are smaller than a traditional hotel room and do not feature private bathrooms or showers. There are six shared bathrooms and showers. The rooms in the South Wing all have their own bathrooms and showers.
As of 2022, rooms in the main lodge are $235-$275/night while rooms in the South Wing are $375/night. Meal packages can be added for an additional $75. Kennicott Glacier Lodge has their own shuttle departing every hour from 12 pm-8 pm to take you from the footbridge in McCarthy to the lodge. If you do not wish to drive your car to McCarthy, Kennicott Glacier Lodge also offers packages to fly from Anchorage or McCarthy.
What to Do in Wrangell St. Elias National Park
Wrangell St. Elias is home to some of the largest mountains in North America and one of the greatest concentrations of glaciers in one spot. Seeing the park from the air can be a breathtaking way to explore the region. Flightseeing tours are offered out of McCarthy by Wrangell Mountain Air. Prices range from $250-$395/person for a 50-90 minute flight.
If you have a rental car that you cannot drive on McCarthy Rd., Wrangell Mountain air offers flights from Chitina that include a guided tour with St. Elias Alpine on Root Glacier. On the way to Root Glacier you pass through Main Street of the Kennecott Mill. Lunch at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge is included. This is a great way to experience the Kennicott area of the park if you are unable to make the drive. Wrangell Mountain Air also offers backcountry drop offs for backpacking and river rafting trips in areas deeper in the park and inaccessible by road.
McCarthy/Kennicott Historical Museum
Located in downtown McCarthy, the historical museum offers a step back in time. Housing archives from the 1800s on, there is a wealth of artifacts and information in this volunteer-run museum. Stop by for history on the town of McCarthy, the Kennecott Mill, the McCarthy Hospital, and features on the people who lived there.
Where to Eat
There are a few options for food in McCarthy. The Golden Saloon is the only Saloon still in operation within a National Park. If you’re there on a Thursday, be sure to stop by for open mic night. Salmon & Bear offers fine dining in one of the oldest buildings in town. The Potato, recently featured on CBS Saturday Morning, was our favorite. Stop by for a beer and casual food. If you’re craving a coffee, you can also grab a cup from The Potato.
The only way to access the 14 story Mill is through a tour with St. Elias Alpine Guides. The tour can be booked online in advance or in person. The tour is $27/person and is two hours. Be aware there is a climb up a hill and a descent down 14 stories. Tours are offered May 27th-September 11th. The National Park Service offers a 45 minute informational tour through Kennecott that does not enter the Mill. You can walk through the town and several buildings self-guided.
Where to Eat
There are two options for food in Kennecott, the Meatza Food Truck or the Kennicott Glacier Lodge. You can have breakfast or lunch at the lodge; however dinner requires a reservation. There is also a coffee shop in Kennecott if you’re needing a caffeine boost. Their hot chocolate is a great way to warm up if you do a polar plunge in one of the Glacier Pools!
Yes! Root Glacier is one of the most easily accessible glaciers in Alaska. The trail to the toe of the glacier is only 2 miles. Once at the glacier, all you need is a pair of microspikes or crampons. The glacier is icy and slippery so it is not recommended to walk on it without spikes. Avoid walking near the edges of the glacier as the ice is unstable and can give way to swift running water. For more on glacier hiking safety you can read up here. It is 14 miles from the foot of the glacier to the Stairway Icefall, so there is a ton to explore. The icefall, the second largest in the world, is a steep part of the glacier that looks like a waterfall. Viewing it on the glacier is stunning but it can also be viewed from the footbridge on a clear day.
Root Glacier Tour
If you don’t feel confident to do a self-guided glacier hike, St. Elias Alpine Guides offer half and full day trips. In addition to glacier hikes, they also offer glacier climbing. Prices range from $105-$165 and can be booked in advance online. One thing we wish we knew before visiting is that St. Elias Alpine Guides offer a tour into an ice cave in Root Glacier! We will definitely be adding that to the list for our next visit.
The Ultimate Polar Plunge
If you’re up for a true shock to the system, try a polar plunge in one of the beautiful glacier pools on Root Glacier! Water temperatures hover around freezing so you won’t want to stay in very long. There are tons of benefits to cold water immersion, from improved mental health to boosted immune system. Don’t cold plunge before speaking to your doctor if you have underlying medical conditions. If you want to do a cold plunge on Root Glacier, do it on a warm sunny day. Plan to get in towards the end of your hike and have warm dry clothes to put on after. To find a pool, walk the glacier until you spot the gatorade blue water, there are no directions to these features! Taking a Hydroflask full of hot water makes a great way to warm up with a cup of instant coffee afterwards. The insulated bottle will keep your water warm throughout your hike and ready to warm you from the inside. Doing a polar plunge on Root Glacier is one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done and I would highly recommend it!
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Jumbo Mine Trail
Established in 1913, Jumbo Mine was the largest of all in Kennecott. It had it’s own 16,000 foot tramway to Kennecott Mill! The Jumbo Mine Trail begins in Kennecott and shares the first Â½ mile with the Root Glacier Trail before splitting to the right. This trail climbs 3,400 feet over 5 miles to reach the mine. Allow 6-8 hours for this strenuous hike. The trail is clear until the last half mile where it becomes less clear. Follow the rocky slope to see remnants of the mine. The buildings of Jumbo Mine have not been stabilized and you are cautioned not to enter them.
Bonanza Mine Trail
The Bonanza Mine was where copper was initially discovered in Kennecott and where operations began in 1911. The Bonanza Mine Trail begins in Kennicott on the Root Glacier Trail. After Â½ mile, the trail will split to the right. You will climb 3,800 feet over 4.5 miles to reach the mine. You should allow 6-8 hours to complete the trail. The trail mainly follows a road that was constructed in the 1950s in an effort to extract the remaining copper left in the mine. The entrance to the mine has been blocked off for safety. Do not enter the buildings around the mine as they are unstable. This hike offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains on a clear day.
Erie Mine Trail
The Erie Mine Trail shares the Root Glacier Trail for the first 1.5 miles. At 1.5 miles, there will be a sign designating the Root Glacier Trail splitting to the left. Continue straight for an additional 2.5 miles. The Erie Mine Trail does not hike directly to the mine but rather to a place to view it. The mine and bunkhouses can be viewed 3,000 feet above the trail. In addition to hiking, you can bike this trail.
View the St. Elias Range
Nabesna Road offers stunning views of the St. Elias range. The best views are found at miles 15-18 offer the best vantage point. On a clear day, you can find views of Mt. Sanford, Capital Peak, Tenanda Peak, and Mt. Wrangell. Mt. Wrangell is the parks only active volcano and occasionally steams.
There are several hiking trails to get out and stretch your legs along Nabesna Road. Notable trails are Copper Lake Trail, Trail Creek Trail, Lost Creek Trail, Skookum Volcano Trail, and Rambler Mine. For more information on these hikes you can visit the National Park Service.
Stay at a Public Use Cabin
There are two public use cabins along Nabesna Road, Caribou Creek Cabin, Viking Lodge Cabin. Most of the public use cabins in Wrangell St. Elias are old hunting and trapping cabins that were donated to the National Park Service. This can be a rustic and peaceful way to experience the park. Reservations are required, for more information visit the National Park Service. It is 1/4 mile hike to Viking Lodge Cabin and 3 mile hike to Caribou Creek Creek Cabin.
With over 13 million acres to explore, there is so much to do in Wrangell St. Elias National Park. We can’t quite figure out why it’s so far down on the list of visited National Parks! We hope this guide has given you insight to plan your trip. Be sure to subscribe to our email list for more travel guides. Now get out there and Create Your Own Roadshow!