Wrangell - St. Elias National Park: Sanford to Dadina River hiking trip
The awesome Sanford Plateau in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a relatively short hiking trip. A small landing strip on the Upper Sanford River affords access to the Sanford Plateau, a high alpine ridge that sits between Mt Sanford (16 237'), Mt Wrangell (14 163') and Mt Drum (12 010'). Weather permitting, of course, we should also have great views of Mt Blackburn; at 16 390' high, the highest peak in the Wrangell Mountains, and the 5th highest mountain in the US. Hopefully, we get some sunny days and really get great views of this impressive mountain range.
After ascending on the Plateau, we'll have a number of days to explore the alpine country up there. This trip will combine a basecamp with a backpacking and hiking adventure. We may spend a day or 2 in the lower areas, probably at the Dadina River area, exploring the forested regions there. Wildlife possibilities include bison, moose and both grizzlies and black bears in the lower area, with caribou and Dall sheep up in the high country.
There are also some amazing rock formations over on the Dadina side of the plateau from the ancient volcanic activity up there. These are old volcano mountains, some of the largest shield volcanoes anywhere.
We have a couple of stream crossings and a little bushwhacking on this trip, so it would be a good option for some adventure seekers with some experience hiking, though it's not a requisite. Not more than maybe 10 or so people hike this trip each year, so solitude reigns supreme up here. A great opportunity for someone with some experience and a sense of adventure to get out and do a rarely hiked backcountry hike through some remote and rugged country. This trip, unlike most Wrangell St. Elias backpacking trips we do, will leave out of Gulkana, not McCarthy. This means we have a lot shorter drive and less travel time to and from the "trailhead" from Anchorage = more backcountry time!
Generally, this trip works great for those folks looking for some big mountain views without too much strenuous effort. It's a bit of a chore to clamber up on to the Plateau, but only a fairly short walk. Once on the Plateau, we can basecamp, with some killer views right from camp, and day hike, or continue on south and explore the high country here. The hiking on the Plateau is fairly easy, wide open tundra, no brush, no moraine, etc. The descent off the Plateau isn't too bad, though it's steep in parts; slow and easy wins that race.
The walk down the Dadina river is a mixture of boreal forest, as we go through the spruce forest, and stands of Cottonwood, with some bushwhacking as well. If the river level isn't too high, we can venture out of the forest onto the broad riverbed and hike over the gravel bars, avoiding the forest all together. At times, we'll find old bison trails through that forest that make travel easy.
The bison here are Plains bison, imported into Alaska half a century ago or more, and there are only 2 herds of them in the park. Wood bison lived here centuries ago, but went extinct several hundred years back.
Overall, a great hike that few people ever make. It offers various possibilities to make it compatible with beginning to advanced hiking levels.
Not for the meek. This trip offers intermediate to advanced boaters an awesome extension. We'll hike from Sanford River up over the plateau, and down to the headwaters of the Dadina River, as scripted above, then down our drysuits and packraft down the Dadina River to it's confluence with the mighty Copper River, and run 30 more miles down the Copper to our planned takeout at Chitina. A total of 60 additional miles travel.
Water levels vary a lot with glacier-fed rivers like this one, so this is contingent on a few factors. Firstly, the requirements for packrafters on this river are:
- a) You must be able to swim. Confidently.
- b) Some prior whitewater packrafting and/or kayaking experience.
- c) Ability to carry the extra packrafting gear on the backpack section of the route (NB: we MAY be able to havepackrafting gear flown in to the Dadina if we have guests on the route who are NOT packrafting, and flying out from here). Count on 10lbs of packrafting gear.
We may well have to portage part of the paddling section, if the water is high. The Canyon is pretty burly water, at best, and difficult to scout safely. Expect a 1 mile portage.
The rest of the boating is solid, fun, fast Class II, III and possibly IV water. Not for beginning paddlers. The Copper is big, fast, flat water, but boily and surges a lot, with strong hydraulics that require you pay attention on the float.
We'll allow 3 days additional time for the packrafting section of this trip. This is a classic option for any otudoors folks looking for a really great backpacking/boating combination trip. In total, we'll cover well over 80 miles of ground. Possibly my favorite packraft trip!
Enjoy a video below showing clips from the Dadina River packrafting, at low-medium water levels.
A longer video showing more sections of the Dadina can be found here.