Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve may be one of the best natural fighters against climate change we have as a country. Along with its high peaks formed by volcanoes long ago, it’s home to a boreal forest made up of spruce, aspen and balsam poplar trees. Wrangell-St. Elias’ boreal forest is part of a larger swath of forest that stretches from Newfoundland all the way to the northwestern tip of Alaska. Boreal forests store twice as much carbon as tropical forests. And at 13.2 million acres, the park has a lot of mass to store carbon.
In fact, Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest park in the National Park Service. You could fit all of Yosemite and Yellowstone inside it, plus the states of Vermont and New Hampshire. It’s that large. Plus, it’s home to 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, with the 18,008-foot-high Mt. St. Elias earning the title as the second highest peak in the U.S.
This vast park has four areas with only two roads that lead into the park —Copper Center Area, McCarthy Road-Kennecott, Nabesna Road Area and Yakutat and the Coastal Area. In the northern part of the park, the Nabesna Road Area allows you to explore the park’s remote less-traveled areas. In contrast, Yakutat in the far south is only accessible by water or air. The ferry system does provide seasonal access to Yakutat, and Alaska Air provides flights. Wedged in between these two areas are Copper Center and McCarthy Road-Kennecott. Copper Center provides travelers with easy access to the park right off the Richardson Highway. Farther south, the McCarthy Road-Kennecott enables travelers to travel into the interior of the park to see a glacier and a historic mining settlement.
Copper Center Area
Get an introduction to the park at its main visitor center, Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center, located at mile marker 106.8 along the Richardson Hwy, which is also known as Hwy. 4. It’s a paved road that cuts through Copper Center and is 10 miles south of Glennallen. Glennallen is where you’ll find a number of bed and breakfasts and lodges, along with the Tolsona Wilderness RV Park & Campground.
Rangers give guided talks and walks from here during the summer. But if you missed them, there are short hiking trails that leave from the visitor center, exhibits, a bookstore, a movie about the park and a large 3-D interactive map display. You’ll find the Ahtna Cultural Center next door. It’s operated by the Ahtna Heritage Foundation and features Alaska Native exhibits, and more.
McCarthy Road-Kennecott Area
About 3.5 hours away from Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center in Copper Center is the Kennecott District, which you can reach near Chitina, Alaska, 50 miles southeast of Copper Center.
Operating from 1911-38, the Kennecott mine site that you access via McCarthy Road processed more than $200 million worth of copper. During that time, Kennecott was a bustling settlement with a school, hospital and a dairy, plus recreational venues like a skating rink and tennis court. Today, Kennecott is considered one of the best remaining examples of 20th century copper mining and is being restored for visitors to catch a window into Alaska’s early mining days.
You’ll see the Chitina Ranger Station at the beginning of McCarthy Road, which is a long gravel road stretching 59 miles into the park. Park officials say that two-wheel drive vehicles can be on this road but should remain alert to poor driving conditions, including limited visibility. Be advised that most rental car companies do not allow their cars on this road, so check with the company before deciding to drive it.
To skip the stress of driving the McCarthy Road, you can fly to McCarthy from Chitina or you can take a shuttle service, so research which one you want to take. Be aware that you cannot drive all the way to the mine site. If you do drive, you’ll need to park at the Kennicott River footbridge in McCarthy. However, you can pay $5 one way and take a private shuttle that will take you from McCarthy to Kennecott and back.
What makes the shuttle ride or the two-hour-long drive on McCarthy Road worth it are two things — an opportunity to walk on Root Glacier and the chance to explore the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark.
The park service and Friends of Kennicott have teamed up to restore several buildings, including the historic Blackburn School where the Kennecott Visitor Center is housed, and the General Store and Post Office where you’ll view a great collection of exhibits, The Kennecott Mill film, the park movie, Crown of the Continent and bear safety videos.
Go on a guided tour of the mine site and to Root Glacier or hike on your own on this 2-2.5-mile trail to the glacier, which starts off easy and gets steeper as you get closer to the glacier. Bring sturdy footwear, plenty of water and snacks, along with sunscreen since the sun’s glare off the glacier can lead to serious sunburns.
Lodging in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
It’s a small remote town with a year-round population of 30, but McCarthy, which is located in the park, is home to a historic hotel, cabin rentals, along with restaurants and outfitters who can guide you in the park. Stay at Ma Johnson’s Hotel, a former boarding house that’s the only historic hotel in the park, Kennicott Glacier Lodge, Currant Ridge guest houses or the McCarthy Cabins.