6 Best Sights in Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, The Kenai Peninsula and Southcentral Alaska

Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Fodor's choice

In a land of many grand and spectacularly beautiful mountains, those in the 13.2-million-acre Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve are possibly the finest of them all. This extraordinarily compact cluster of immense peaks belongs to four different mountain ranges. Rising through many eco-zones, the Wrangell–St. Elias Park and Preserve is largely undeveloped wilderness parkland on a grand scale. The area is perfect mountain-biking and primitive-hiking terrain, and the rivers invite rafting for those with expedition experience. The mountains attract climbers from around the world—whereas Alaska's mountains have been summited many times over, there is the opportunity here to be the first or one of few to summit. Most climbers fly in from Glennallen or Yakutat. Although there are few facilities in Wrangell-St. Elias this is one of the few national parks in Alaska you can drive to. You don't have to be a backcountry camper to experience this park—it's possible to stay in comfortable lodgings in Kennicott or McCarthy and experience the massive glaciers that stand at the foot of Kennicott—Root Glacier and Kennicott Glacier or go on a multiday, guided rafting tour along the Nizina.

Kennecott Mill Town

The Ahtnu and Upper Tanana Athabascan peoples who inhabited the Copper River Region for thousands of years used and traded copper found in the region. These ore deposits were noted by European surveyors in the late 1800s, and, by the early 1900s, prospectors began staking claims in the mountains above Kennicott Glacier. The Kennecott Copper Corporation soon built a mine, a railway (now the McCarthy Road), and a company town and camp for about 300 workers.

By 1935, however, the copper ore was depleted, and the company ceased operations, leaving behind equipment, facilities, and debris. Today, the abandoned mine is one of Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve's main attractions, and restoration works have been an ongoing effort for more than a decade. The best way to see the mine is on a tour with one of the area operators, though only St. Elias Alpine Guides is authorized to take you into some of the restored buildings.

While exploring the area, it's hard not to notice the different spellings of the mine and the glacier, which was named after Robert Kennicott, a geologist who surveyed the area in 1899. Believed to have been caused by a clerical error, the discrepancy can be confusing, unless you look at it as a way to differentiate the man-made landmarks from the natural ones.

Malaspina Glacier

Wrangell–St. Elias's coastal mountains are frequently wreathed in snow-filled clouds, their massive height making a giant wall that contains the great storms brewed in the Gulf of Alaska. As a consequence, they bear some of the continent's largest ice fields, with more than 100 glaciers radiating from them. One of these, Malaspina Glacier, includes 1,500 square miles—larger than the state of Rhode Island. This tidewater glacier has an incredible pattern of black-and-white stripes made by the other glaciers that coalesced to form it. If you fly between Juneau and Anchorage, look for Malaspina Glacier on the coast north of Yakutat.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska, USA

Recommended Fodor's Video

McCarthy Road

The better-known of the two scenic routes into the park travels for 60 bumpy miles (fill the tank and the cooler ahead of time) along an old railroad bed from Chitina to the Kennicott River, a drive of at least 2½ hours. Just past Chitina, as you cross over the Copper River, keep an eye out for floating metal and wood contraptions that look like steampunk rafts. These are salmon fishwheels, which can only be used by Alaska residents. All along this road you will come across numerous relics of the region’s mining past and countless opportunities to have your breath stolen away by glorious park vistas. At the end of the road, you must park and walk across the bridge—only residents of McCarthy are allowed to drive across it—to reach the town and the Kennecott site beyond. It’s about a 15-minute walk into town; most outfitters and lodgings offer shuttles.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska, USA

Mt. St. Elias

The white-iced spire of Mt. St. Elias, in the range of the same name, reaches more than 18,000 feet. It's the second-highest peak on the North American continent and the crown of the planet's highest coastal range. It also has the world's longest ski descent.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska, USA

Wrangell Mountains

Covering a 100-by-70-mile area, the Wrangells tower over the 2,500-foot-high Copper River Plateau, with the peaks of mounts Jarvis, Drum, Blackburn, Sanford, and Wrangell rising from 15,000 feet to 16,000 feet above sea level.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska, USA