I thought I might write a small post here about my favorite National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Though it’s the largest national park in North America, and possibly the most impressive as well, it’s relatively little visited; many people have never even heard the words Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. the park gets (as of 2007) less than 40 000 visitors a year. Denali National Park gets close to a million, and parks in the Lower 48 states such as the Smokies or Yellowstone get in the vicinity of 10 million.
Wrangell St. Elias National Park is nearly times larger than Yellowstone National park, at 14 million acres of wild, remote, gorgeous country. Established as a National Park in 1980, the area was proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 1979. Together with Glacier Bay National Park, Wrangell St. Elias adjoins Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park and Kluane National Park in Canada to form a 24 million acre wilderness, the largest internationally protected area in the world. The entire region is part of the World Heritage Site.
So what do you get for all these big numbers? Big mountains, big glaciers, big rivers, big country! Wrangell St. Elias National Park is home to 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, including Mt. St. Elias, Mt. Blackburn. Mt. Logan, the highest peak in Canada, and second highest mountain in North America to Denali sits right over the border and is clearly visible from much of the park. Other commonly seen mountains include Mt. Sanford, Mt. Wrangell, Mt. Drum and Mt. Bona. Nowhere in North America stand a comparable range of big mountains.
Along with big mountains, Wrangell St. Elias is home to more glaciers and some of the largest non-polar icefields in the world. The Bagley Icefield is nearly 125 miles long, and Malaspina Glacier is is larger than Rhode Island. There are countless unnamed peaks and mountains and glaciers in the park, many of them unclimbed and unexplored. There is also an incredible array of econiches within the park, from the coastal climes of Icy Bay and Yakutat Bay. Continental zones include the Copper River basin and the boreal forest of the lower altitude regions of the park, and transitional zones of the higher alpine and subalpine regions make this park a home for a diversity of wildlife, plants and geology. The park hosts nearly all of the vegetation types found in nonarctic Alaska – lower bog and wetlands, Coastal Spruce-Hemlock forest are closer to the coast, Closed Spruce-Hardwood Forest are widespread, and alpine tundra is common in the higher elevations. Huge salmon runs up the Copper River provide a feast of nutrients for a variety of birds and wildlife every summer, making the Copper River Basin one of the richest ecosystems in interior Alaska. Black and Grizzly bears are common, wolves, fox, coyote, wolverine, lynx, marten, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, mountain goats, marmots, red and arctic ground squirrels and a host of other small mammals roam this wild country. Large birds of prey, such as Golden eagles, Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Gyrfalcons, Great Gray, Great Horned Owls, Snowy Owls and many more patrol the skies. Over 125 species of birds are found within the park.
For hiking and backpacking, the place offers perhaps the greatest walking in North America. There are few maintained trails in the park, though a number of more popular routes are relatively easy to follow. The high country, above treeline, provides visitors with sublime views of the greatest collection of mountain ranges in North America: the Wrangells, the Chugach, the St. Elias, the Alaska range all come together here, in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in a stew of tectonic wonder. Volcanic and tectonic mountains combine to make the parka geologists dream. Mud volcanoes, rock glaciers, icefields, hot springs, and just about every other feature one can imagine are found in the park. I’d suggest the park is not a great place for the novice backcountry traveller to visit, unless they get some detailed advice prior to the trip. There are some places that make a great hike for even inexperienced backpackers, but there are many that are not so good – check in with someone first!
The park is generally divided into 2 regions for backpacking, the northern and the southern areas. This is basically because of access to the park is most commonly made through the McCarthy Road, from the parks western border of the Richardson Highway, or the Nabesna road to the north, off the the Alaska Highway. Both areas provide a wealth of options for great hiking. The southern side puts you deeper into the mountains, right up against the alpine reaches with places like Skolai Pass, the 7 Pass Route from Iceberg Lake to Bremner Mines, and Kuskulana Ridge. The north side hiking is more often in the boreal forest, or up on broad open plateaus like the Jaeger Mesa, or Capital Mountain. Both areas offer spectacular scenery, and views of the mighty mountains. For larger groups, the south side might be a better option, because many of the routes are only accessible via bush plane, and the landing strips on the northern side of Wrangell St. Elias National Park are mostly for smaller planes like a SuperCub. Those planes can only take one person plus a backpack at a time, meaning its costlier and takes longer to get in and out. The southern side of the park has larger strips that can land larger planes, cutting down time and money.
Wrangell St. Elias is also home to an interesting archaeological history, but I’ll have to write about that in another post.