Wrangell - St. Elias National Park is the biggest, wildest National Park in the country, and offers some of the most unique and diverse backpacking trips of any place in Alaska. Six times larger than Yellowstone, and twice the size of Denali National Park, Wrangell - St. Elias National Park is home to 4 major mountain ranges, and 9 of the sixteen highest mountains in the country. Nearly 10 million acres of the park's 14 million acres are designated wilderness.
Virtually all backpacking trips inside the park involve off-trail travel, meaning map reading and navigation skills, as well as a solid understanding of backcountry travel are requisite. Backpacking in this wild land might mean traversing steep scree slopes, endless boulder fields and glacial moraines and weaving through thickets of dense alder and willow. It can be difficult hiking.
Wrangell - St. Elias National Park is where I really learned the construct of wilderness backpacking; no trail adventure hiking trips through classic Alaska wild landscapes is inestimably different from backpacking on a trail. Off-trail hiking is often more challenging, but also more rewarding and infinitely more flexible.
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The landscape of Wrangell - St. Elias National Park and Preserve is some of the grandest I've seen anywhere. And I've backpacked through some pretty spectacular country. The size of the landscape here is so overwhelming, so magnificent in its wildness; the diversity of the terrains, the ecology and geology of the place is constantly changing, constantly providing us with something new to experience. What makes off-trail so special is the infinite variety of nooks and crannies to explore along the route. Some of these backpacking trips I've hiked more than a dozen times, and have yet to repeat exactly the same way twice. Different drainages to poke around in, peaks to scramble and summit, etc keep it new and fresh every single time.
Because so much of the landscape here is glacial terrain, rock and ice, it's not particularly rich wildlife habitat. But if you know where to venture, you can definitely have some pretty amazing wildlife sightings; I'd rather not simply blurt all over the internet which areas have more wildlife, because it leads to excessive impact, but a good hint is to look for lusher and richer biomes. Glaciers and snow-capped peaks may be the perfect subject for those drop-dead landscape photos, but they generally aren't compatible with wildlife abundance. But look carefully, and know your subject. I've seen as much wildlife on some of these Wrangell - St. Elias National Park hiking trips as I've ever seen in trek in Alaska, whether it's Denali National Park and Katmai National Park or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Remember too, as you read this page, that backpacking trips in Wrangell - St. Elias National Park, or any place like this, are not so simple as a name and description. There are literally hundreds of options, or more, for great backcountry adventure trips in this park, and these trips written about below are just the tip of the iceberg. The fun really starts when you set out to find your own route. That's how many of these trips started out. A map, and a glint in the eye and the thought of 'I wonder if .... " will get you started. From there on, we need good decision making skills, route finding and terrain reading ability and the experience and knowledge to know and accept what our own abilities and limitations will allow us to do. But there really is an infinite number of backpacking trips in Wrangell - St. Elias National Park that haven't even begin to be thought about. That's just one reason I set out every summer to do an exploratory trip as part of the trip calendar. in 2012, it's the Samovar Hills - Malaspina Glacier traverse, which promises to be an amazing hike, ending up along the coast. See the custom trip page for details. Return to top
Backpacking in Wrangell - St. Elias National Park means hiking in bear country. That means, above all else, being alert and aware. On any backpacking trip through bear country, particularly grizzly bear country, you're best safety mode is your own awareness level. Keeping an eye and ear out, traveling in groups, keeping your food away from camp, store food in bear resistant food canisters, carry bear spray and stay on your toes. The best advice about what to do if/when you see a bear is to be careful. Your response is contextual, it depends completely on the situation. Read up on a variety of sources and make sue you have a solid understanding of safe backcountry travel in bear country. The NPS have a number of sources available, and I'd suggest you start by contacting them. Doug Peacock has some good advice in his books on the subject, as well, particularly "The Essential Grizzly".Return to top
Many of the more typical backpacking trips in Wrangell - St. Elias National Park will involve, at one level or another, some kind of glacial travel. It may be as simple as a walk across remnant snowfields from last winter, or it may mean crampons, ropes and a probe; it depends on the time of year, the snow cover, if any, and so on. "Glacial travel and Crevasse Rescue" by Andrew Shelton is a worthwhile read. Andy Tyson's "Glacier Mountaineering" is another good place to review some information. I also like Craig Connolly's "he Mountaineering Handbook".Return to top
These are things to be careful of. Backpacking trips in Wrangell - St. Elias will very likely involve at least one, if not more, river crossings. It could be a simple "rock-hop" across, not even getting your socks wet. Or it could be a bit of a project, requiring you to carefully scout for the best place to cross, wait til the water level subsides, or turn back. River crossings can be very sketchy, and are often under-rated. Be careful, learn several techniques, and know which will work the best for you/your group and the situation. Another thing to do is study routes carefully ahead of time, and pick hiking routes where the crossings are well known, or avoidable. For the most part, the backpacking trips I lead in Wrangell - St. Elias National Park involve fairly minor crossings. Alpacka Pack rafts are a great choice if you can swing it; they make uncrossable rivers very crossable. Again, however, you need to know what you're doing with them.Return to top
Backpacking trips on the north side of the park tend to be a little less popular, but remember that's a very subjective term. Compared to most places, none of these hiking trips will have many people at all. Often a weeklong backpacking trip goes by without seeing a sole. Fun stuff. These routes include the Mount Jarvis Plateau and the Sanford Plateau. Both of them offer wide open ridges and rolling hills for endless exploratory hiking. With a little drier weather, clear skies can bring some great views of the massive Wrangell Mountains up here. Capital Mountain is a nice hike, and there are a few trails from the Nabesna Road as well, that can be combined in myriad different assortment of routes. Lost Creek Trail is a good place to venture out along.Return to top
Backpacking trips in this part of the park include routes like Skolai Pass - Wolverine, Hidden Creek, MacColl Ridge and Steamboat Hills. A real diversity of routes, and there are some good choices west of the Chitina River, up the Barnard Glacier, and the Huberts Landing area as well, though much of that terrain is challenging backpacking and hiking.Return to top
Iceberg Lake to Bremner Mines (Seven Pass Route) is something of an Alaskan classic, and is part of the lesser traveled Southern Traverse. This traverse also includes the Bremner Mines to Tebay Lakes trip, which is a fantastic and very rarely hiked backpacking trip. There are also some nice backpacking trips further south, along the coast, and this area gets very little travel. The coastal area gets very few backpacking visitors, but is a wonderful area to explore. brown bears are common here, so be attentive. River crossings can also trick you up, and a packraft is a great choice. Return to top
There are several nice options for entry level and family type backpacking trips in Wrangell - St. Elias National Park. Some of the high open ridges on the northern side of the park offer great hiking opportunities. My favorites here are found up on a place we call Steamboat Hills, in the Hanagita Hills area. MacColl Ridge is another. Skolai Pass offers some nice hikes for a backpack and basecamp combination. Return to top
The Sanford Plateau is a good walk for the entry level to intermediate hiker. This one is very flexible, and can easily be tailored to be a longer backpacking trip (more than a week) or a shorter trip (less than a week). It's also a good spot for a basecamp and dayhike type trip. The hiking up here is general open tundra and relatively easy backpacking. Return to top
Skolai Pass to Wolverine is probably one of the more popular Wrangell - St. Elias backpacking trips. Also known as the Goat Trail, this hiking trip is a really great walk.
Iceberg Lake to Bremner Mines, or the misnamed Seven Pass Route, is a classic Alaskan backpacking trip, traversing across 2 glaciers, and ascending a number of high alpine passes (generally 3 or 4). This hiking trip is becoming more popular every year, it seems.
Bremner Mines to Tebay Lakes is a grand backpacking trip with a little of everything for the intermediate - experienced backpacker. It's definitely a challenging hike.
Another favorite and very challenging backpacking trip in Wrangell - St. Elias National Park is the Kuskulana River, or Nugget Creek, to Kennicott Route. This is a 65 mile hiking trip through rugged Wrangell Mountains, classic wilderness adventure, and definitely not for the novice. But for those experienced and strong backpackers looking for a great and tough hike, this trip is hard to beat.
To put it simply, you'll walk a long, long way before you find better backpacking than that offered in Wrangell - St. Elias National Park.