Mountain Kingdom

Explore America’s last frontier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve


By Craig Medred


Above the banks of Alaska's mighty Copper River, past the old railroad town of Chitina, the pavement of the Edgerton Highway ends next to a sign that reads "McCarthy: 60 miles.'' This, believe it or not, marks the entrance to North America's largest and wildest national park.

Just beyond the sign, a 1,400-foot steel bridge spans the roaring river that forms the western boundary of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. It’s one of the few remaining marks of civilization left in a land reclaimed by nature. A railroad here used to shuttle workers to the old copper-mill town of Kennecott, but today, McCarthy Road buries most signs of it, and the country has returned to its original state: raw, rugged, and intimidating in its wilderness and scale.

To the east of McCarthy Road lies the greatest concentration of North American peaks over 16,000 feet, the biggest glaciers on the continent, and the largest concentration of volcanoes. They form the rugged heart of Wrangell-St. Elias in the region Alaskans call “South Central,” and there are only two roads in: one on the north side, the other on the south. Both lead to the park’s gateway towns of Kennicott and McCarthy. The southern route—McCarthy Road—begins as a rough, winding gravel path barely two lanes wide that pushes across 60 miles of America’s most remote landscapes and homesteads on the edge of an extreme Alaskan wilderness.

From the end of the road, a footbridge continues across the Kennicott River into the charming, vibrant communities of McCarthy and Kennicott which serve as jumping-off points for the vast, surrounding wilderness. Here, the mountains climb north and east into a wilderness where you really can lose yourself; in 1937, one of America's greatest adventurers almost did. The late Bradford Washburn, world-famous photographer, cartographer, and the founder of the Boston Museum of Science, barely survived an attempt to climb 17,147-foot Mount Lucania just across the border in Canada's Yukon Territory; Wrangell-St. Elias proved bigger, wilder, and more unpredictable than Mount McKinley, where Washburn pioneered what has become the main climbing route today. Author Dave Roberts would later chronicle Washburn’s fight to survive in Escape from Lucania: An Epic Story of Survival.

Amazingly, in the 63 years since, little has changed. If anything, the park is wilder now than it was then. Wrangell-St. Elias is a sprawling 20,587 square miles, big enough to hold six Yellowstones. About 70 percent of that land is designated wilderness, which connects to an additional 9,500 square miles of protected lands in Kluane National Park and Reserve of Yukon Territory, Canada, and British Columbia’s Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park, next to Glacier Bay National Park. Together, these four parks—declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979—are nearly the size of New York State.

Even so, the immensity of this place is hard to imagine until you’re in it, and being in it can feel exhilarating, liberating, and frightening at the same time. What initially seems like a straightforward hike toward a 6,696-foot peak above Root Glacier turns intimidating when animal trails begin to mimic the hiking route but shoot off in various directions, destinations unknown. In this land of long winters and short, lush summers, a clearly worn trail in June can all but disappear by August—if, of course, there’s any trail at all. The park has only a few designated trails. Hikers are free to blaze new routes, but bushwhacking—or “alder bashing” as some Alaskans call it—can prove challenging. Unless you're highly confident in your wilderness survival skills, it might be best to join one of the outfitters that lead guided, backcountry trips (see Travel Essentials below).

Wrangell-St. Elias is one of just four Alaskan national parks that can be reached by road, attracting approximately 65,000 people per year. Yellowstone draws 10 times that in the month of June alone. You can get caught in a traffic jam in a visit to Yellowstone; gridlock is nonexistent here. In fact, if you fly to Anchorage and make the spectacular nine-hour drive to McCarthy (see Travel Essentials), you might actually find yourself wishing for more traffic; seeing other people can be comforting in a place so wild.

So keep pushing on, because McCarthy has slowly but steadily been transforming itself into an adventure-recreation destination. You’ll be in good company at the comfortable Kennicott Glacier Lodge (www.kennicottlodge.com), where views from the deck reveal the gray jumble of Root Glacier spreading out across the valley to the west. Don’t miss the four-mile hike on the Root Glacier trail—this is one of the easiest and safest places in Alaska to actually put your feet on a glacier. If you're uncomfortable going by yourself, hook up with Kennicott Wilderness Guides (www.kennicottguides.com) or St. Elias Alpine Guides (www.steliasguides.com), who offer everything from wilderness training, to ice-climbing lessons, to whitewater raft trips on the Kennicott and Nizina Rivers.

When you need a break from the adrenaline, visit the park’s most famous historic artifact: the Kennecott Mine National Historic Landmark. This mine is the reason anything exists at all in this corner of Alaska. In the early 1900s, the Kennecott Copper Corporation began construction of a railroad from the port of Cordova on Prince William Sound upstream along the Copper River and then east along the Chitina River to a rich copper ore deposit four and a half miles up the valley from McCarthy. The railroad itself was a miracle of engineering for its day; its first section crossed the "Million Dollar Bridge" just outside of Cordova and traced the Miles Glacier, where the railbed had to be rebuilt constantly as the glacier moved slowly but steadily downhill. Upstream from the glacier along the Copper River, workers blasted a route through Wood Canyon where the railroad clung to steep, rocky walls and crossed chasms on trestles. This continued on through Chitina and then east to the mine. The Gilahina Trestle and Kuskulana Bridge, towering more than 200 feet over raging whitewater, are the railroad’s remnants, still visible from McCarthy Road.

For years, Kennecott Mine’s mill buildings were off limits to the public because of the danger of walls collapsing or visitors falling into a hole, but a major stabilization and restoration effort is in progress by the Park Service, which now offers daily tours. The mill building is a massive, incongruous structure rising 14 stories above the historic mining town of Kennecott, which visitors can reach via a quick shuttle bus ride from McCarthy. On another building, enormous smokestacks rise starkly into clear skies, but it’s not hard to imagine a day when they belched smoke and the whole valley thundered to the tune of a mine in its prime.

Mining started here in 1908, and by 1911 the company town of Kennecott was sending train loads of ore south to America. Kennecott’s strict rules banning drinking and gambling, so miners hiked down the road to seek recreation; McCarthy quickly grew to accommodate their needs. At its peak, the city had 800 residents, a newspaper, stores, hotels, restaurants, bars, and a red-light district. Today, the year-round population tops out at about 50 residents, and the town swells with summer tourists and seasonal workers. The McCarthy Lodge & Ma Johnson’s Historic Hotel (www.mccarthylodge.com) remains a happening place, landing a spot among National Geographic Traveler’s “129 Hotels We Love To Stay At” in 2009. And Lonely Planet’s latest travel guide named Kennicott River Lodge (www.kennicottriverlodge.com) as “our pick” for local lodging, as it’s located conveniently on the McCarthy road side of the footbridge and offers stunning glacier views.

Farther down the McCarthy Road, this tradition continues. At the Alaska Halfway House Bed and Breakfast (www.alaskahalfwayhouse.com) at mile 27, Bruce and Kayane James are new-age pioneers who ventured north in 2007 when the Michigan economy crumbled, landing in what Kayane now calls “our little piece of heaven.”

“We look at things so differently now,” she says. “Living out here, you have to think of things before you do them so you don't get hurt; precaution is a way of life. We go into Anchorage twice a year to buy our groceries, and I make everything I can from scratch: homemade breads, pizzas, cakes, cookies, jams, jellies. We get our news from the radio—there are limited cell phone signals out here. And wintertime is like magic. It never ceases to amaze me just how quiet it is when you step outside and take a walk.”

And that might be the greatest treasure of all in a world where noise has become one of the most difficult things to escape.

Travel Essentials

The first thing any traveler to Alaska needs to understand is that the place is big. The six- to 10-hour drive from Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve makes it tempting to fly to McCarthy, and flying is indeed an option—but it would be a mistake. The Glenn Highway out of Anchorage is designated a “National Scenic Byway” for good reason. This drive has it all: roaring rivers, scenic canyons, monstrous glaciers, snow-capped volcanoes, endless tundra, and the chance of spotting caribou, moose, and grizzly bear along the way.

For decades into the early 1990s, driving McCarthy Road was its own challenge. It was not uncommon to get stuck in the mud or suffer a flat tire from an old railroad spike, but successive upgrades to the surface have minimized the dangers. In good weather, a standard passenger car won't have any trouble making it to McCarthy, though some drivers might get nervous crossing the one-lane Kuskulana Bridge. It's intimidating, but became a little less so when guard rails were installed in 1988.

All of the major car-rental companies maintain offices at the airport, but most frown on driving to McCarthy, despite the improved road. Enterprise is an exception, but if you want extra driving security, check out GoNorth Car and RV Rental (www.gonorth-alaska.com/254.html), which specializes in trucks and sport-utility vehicles.

From the airport, head north toward the Matanuska Valley, where Depression-era Americans formed an agricultural colony in the 1930s. Turn east past the Matanuska Glacier, then follow the edge of the Chugach Mountains. Stop and stretch your legs at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitor Center, just south of Glennallen and halfway to McCarthy, to learn about the region’s history, culture, and landscapes.

A lot happened in this salmon-rich country before Europeans arrived, and plenty of stories date from the years just after as waves of gold-seeking pioneers trekked north. They roughed it. You don’t have to. Figure on a two-day drive to the park with a night in Copper River country, home to the fabled Copper River salmon. There are plenty of places to stay. Visit the National Park Service website for lodging options and travel tips: www.nps.gov/wrst.

The roads to Chitina are paved and in good condition, but McCarthy Road to the east is more frontier-like, ending at the pedestrian bridge just short of McCarthy. The shuttle bus to town waits on the other side.

Local outfitters can help you access what waits beyond. Kennicott Wilderness Guides offers everything from wilderness education to personalized day hikes. Wrangell Mountain Air (www.wrangellmountainair.com), a local flight company, can take you on a gentle, day-long air tour, or drop you in the wilderness to hike and camp until you’ve had your fill of silence in one of the most remote national parks in the country.

SIDETRIP: Anchorage

Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city and home to the state’s main international airport, bills itself as the Big Wild Life, and it’s not just hype. If you go for a hike in the ’burbs here, you’d better know how to distinguish a grizzly bear from a black bear, and what to do around both. The half-million-acre Chugach State Park abuts the city’s eastern edges, and Chugach Mountain grizzlies regularly venture downhill along the city’s creeks in search of salmon. Hikers on paved trails on the edge of downtown have been known to stumble upon these animals—and that’s not all.

The largest members of the deer family, moose are a common sight in Anchorage; your chances of seeing one here are probably better than almost anywhere in Alaska. Check Conner’s Bog, not far from the airport, for browsing families of moose. If you come in fall, visit Powerline Pass in Chugach Park above the city. When breeding season starts in October, massive bull moose with antlers wider than the height of an average man gather to duel for harems of cows.

Big brown mammals aside, Anchorage offers a unique combination of urban luxury and raw wilderness. If you’re craving a four-star hotel, try the Hotel Captain Cook (www.captaincook.com), which offers rooms with three different views: downtown Anchorage, Denali’s Mt. McKinley, or Mount Spurr, an active volcano. Catch a cab to first-class wildlife viewing in the nearby mountains in the morning, then return in the afternoon for a burger and tasty microbrews at the Glacier Brew House (www.glacierbrewhouse.com), just a couple blocks from the hotel.

If you need to stretch your legs after dinner, stroll the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail along the shores the Knik Arm waterway, just over the bluff from the hotel. The trail ends in Kincaid Park, where world-class cross-country skiers gather to train and compete in the winter; in snow-free months the trail is usually busy with walkers, runners, cyclists, and bird watchers. The adjacent wetlands attract large numbers of migratory shorebirds and waterfowl in spring and fall.

Craig Medred has been exploring Alaska parks for 35 years. The outdoor editor of the Anchorage Daily News for more than two decades, he now writes regularly for www.AlaskaDispatch.com.

This article appears in the Winter 2011 issue.

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