Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the largest national park in the United States, over 13 million acres (slightly over 53,000 km2 for those using metric system). The park is larger than the country of Switzerland. It is home of Mount St. Elias – one of the tallest peaks in North America, reaching the sky at the height of 18,008ft (5,488 m). Mt St. Elias is one of the peaks on my mountaineering bucket list. It’s unfriendly and cruel, known for the challenging route to the summit as well as quickly changing weather conditions – and it would make a great mountaineering challenge!
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is one of the parks where you can still find the peace and harmony with the nature: there is no tourist shops, restaurants after restaurants. Nothing….. but it is a great location for a true backcountry adventure.
But now to the trip itself. Our road trip on the map looks like this – from the red mile marker to the blue mile marker:
We drove about 600 miles over the Memorial Day weekend. Our adventure started early on Friday morning when we packed hiking gear, food, the dog and ourselves into the car and hit the road. Glenn Highway (highway 1, nobody talks about road numbers in Alaska, just for the record) took us to the town of Glennallen where we stopped for lunch as well as I had a work related meeting there. We munched our lunch at Caribou Restaurant, an All-American food place in this town of about 500 people. Lovely, little restaurant with a great service, and tasty food. And at reasonable price. After seeing quite a few Alaskan villages, a burger $10-12 is very reasonable to me…. there are places in this state where even a 6-pack of bottled water costs $25.
From Glennallen our trip continued toward the final destination, McCarthy. However, on our way there we stopped at National Park’s visitor center in Copper Center, some 10 miles south of Glennallen, off the Richardson Highway. Picked up some cards, checked out the maps, and stretched our legs by walking around. We also checked out a small cemetery south of National Park’s visitor center, and were pleasantly surprised by photographic opportunities. This was definitely one of the most extraordinary cemetery I have ever seen, all the graves were fenced. Lateron I learned that the colors of fences is way to identify the families buried there.
After some photographic activities, our journey continued to the tiny town of Chitina, which was the last chance for refueling prior driving 60 miles on McCarthy road to the final destination. McCarthy road is pure gravel, although maintained pretty okay… However, after Chitina you are on a rough road where self-sustainablity is a necessity. If gravel road covered with potholes is not your thing, I wouldn’t recommend to add this road trip on the bucket list. And if you don’t know how to change a flat tire, it is better to stay out. McCarthy road was built on the old railroad so sharp railroad tie nails pop up every once in a while, as well as rocks can be needle-sharp. We experienced our share of flat tire adventures too – on our way back.
Once we reached McCarthy, we headed to our rental cabin. The Shidner Family’s Currant Ridge Cabins was a lovely base camp for our adventures: hot water and gas stove were real luxuries after long days in the woods. There is no electricity in McCarthy but for example these cabins were powered with solar energy. After hauling all the gear in we decided to explore McCarthy downtown. There are no public roads in or to McCarthy but only a foot bridge over the Kennicott River – the downtown is about a 10-minute walk from the bridge.
The downtown itself is very small. And stepping back in time. There are only necessities there: a general store, a saloon, a couple of hotels/motels. A sleepy town surrounded by majestic Wrangell Mountains and glaciers.
Saturday, May 26, started with pouring rain. Rain. More rain. Like so very often in this area of Alaska. We were mentally prepared to hang out in our cabin the whole day but by the noon the rain started to move away, and with the rain gear we headed out for a hike. Since it was rainy and overacted, instead of exploring Kennecott Mine we set our bearings along Kennecott glacier and towards Fireweed Mountain. Even though we didn’t make it to the summit of Fireweed, thanks to the crappy weather, we had a blast when climbing up and down rocky gravel mountains created by constantly moving ice sheet below us.
Sunday was our lucky day. Sun came out! And it was time for Kennecott mine hike. Kennecott mine is about 5 miles from McCarthy and can be reached by shuttle van ($5/person/oneway), or by foot or bike. Once Kennecott was a lively mining town, a great prospect for copper mining. Trains brought miners to the town, and hauled copper out. Before the mine closed due to the decreasing profits and increasing cost of maintaining the railroad to this rural town in 1938, Kennecott provided ore at least worth $200 million.
While around the mine, we hiked to the Root Glacier, and enjoyed some most awesome glacier views. After the hike we sat down for a little while and enjoyed cheesecake and coffee at Kennicott Glacier Lodge, un upscale lodging facility next to the ruins of mine.
Our return trip to home on Memorial Day was eventful. First we saw some most beautiful mountain reflections, and got some great shots for my photo agencies. Followed by a gorgeous waterfall photo opportunity at Liberty Falls, between Chitina and Richardson Highway. Shortly after leaving the falls, car’s tire pressure light went on. We promptly pulled over, walked around the car and checked the tires. Everything seemed to be fine. Or then not. We stopped to fill up in Glennallen, and surprise, surprise! The right front tire was definitely getting flat, and actually we could even hear the hissing sound of air flowing out. Usually the flat tire happens when I am in a hurry, wearing nice clothes, and it is raining cats and dogs. This time we got lucky: sunny skies and changing a tire on the paved surface. Jason and I make a great tire change team: the whole operation took less than 15 minutes, and we were back on the road again, and heading home.
Memorial Day weekend trip was a real success – we didn’t get rained on
too bad, saw some of the coolest corners of Alaska, and simply had a great time. More Alaska adventures will follow this summer…. stay tuned for updates on our photo trip to McNeil River, and the road trip to Chicken, AK!