After an extremely long drive from Washington, through Canada, with many $100+ gas fill ups, new tires, and more…. we made it to Alaska! We tried to visit Glacier Bay first, but we found out that the ferry to the park was booked for more than a week. So, we headed up another 15 or so hours up to the largest National Park in the United States… Wrangell-St. Elias! This park is 13 million acres; larger than the 6 smallest states and 8 times bigger than Yellowstone.
Since we were staying within the park, we decided to get groceries and gas in the closest “town,” Glenallen. It’s still a bit pricey (it IS Alaska) but it’s much better than the little marts in and next to the Park. We also stopped at the Copper Center Visitor Center to fill up our water containers and pick up my junior ranger badge. We ran into Ranger Brandon who we had met at Rocky Mountain National Park while he was finishing up his Park Ranger internship; I had told him I’d see him this summer in Alaska but I don’t think he believed me.
After we were finally all prepped, we drove into the park. Now, the main park road is not like your typical “scenic drive” that is in most parks. This is 60 miles of bumpy gravel where you’re lucky to drive 30 mph. It also doesn’t really have any pull outs for scenic overlooks or really many photographic opportunities. The trees and nature haven’t been cleared away so you can get a different view of “better” nature. To get those, you have to go deeper into the park and off the road.
If you’re not staying in McCarthy or at the campground, you can camp along the main road at any little pullout, which there are plenty of places to do so. My friend’s, Scott and Ali, actually live within the park on private property. We were lucky enough that we stayed with them while at this park, which is on Long Lake. They are currently in the process of clearing their property and building their house so it was still pretty primitive camping, which is fine since that’s what we’re used to. But the one thing that has been built…. the toilet. It was a glorious thing to stumble upon (we arrived when Scott and Ali weren’t there yet). It was back in the woods in a little clearing. It was just an outhouse wooden toilet, with no walls yet, a styrofoam toilet seat (good for staying warm in the winter) and it has a beautiful view of the mountain and the sunshine is on you. If you’ve seen the Scrubs episode with the toilet on the roof…. this was like that, but better.
The next morning, we borrowed Scott’s bike and drove to the end of the road. At this point, you can walk across the footbridge or take a shuttle. The town of McCarthy is a half mile away and Kennicott is 5 miles from there. We rode our bikes to Kennicott which is where the NPS visitor center is and the historic mining community. All of the trailheads also begin from this town.
This was my first gravel ride and it was all uphill. I got super sweaty. But, it was worth it when we got there. We rode through the super cute mining town and looked at some of the exhibits. If you’re super into history, you can also do a paid guided tour through the mining factory.
We continued to the trail head and hiked the Erie Mine trail. It’s a relatively flat, shady trail that runs parallel to Root Glacier and gives some incredible panoramics of the glacier throughout the hike. This was our first time in the wilderness in Alaska… and it didn’t disappoint. At around 3.5 miles, I turned a blind corner switchback, I shrieked. I was about 15 yards from a small grizzly bear on the trail, eating berries. Mike and I got super nervous because we weren’t sure of the age and wondered if a momma was going to come charging out at us. Now, I’m pretty confident that it was a recently independent subadult because it was extremely curious by us and clearly had not had any interactions with humans yet. It started walking towards us on the trail; Mike got in front of me and talked loudly to the bear, while we backed away. Luckily, the bear cut across the trail, went behind us and walked the opposite way on the trail, where we had come from. We had just been touching this random pottery item that was on the side of the trail; the young bear smelled it, looked back at us questioningly, decided we weren’t as interesting as berries, and kept walking. It ended up just fine, but my heart rate was super accelerated for the rest of the hike.
The trail ended pretty abruptly, about a half mile from where we had encountered the bear. We were walking a narrow ridge line and then it just stops and becomes too narrow and steep to continue. After a few moments taking in the views, we turned around. That meandering bear was still on the trail, so we had to take quite a bit of time waiting for him to get out of the way and we could safely pass him.
On the way back, we took the trail to Root Glacier and hiked ON the glacier. That was neat! The blues of the ice were stunning. And the hike wasn’t bad; even though spikes or crampons are recommended.
After that, we headed back down to McCarthy, which was a much quicker and more fun bike ride. McCarthy is also wonderful mostly because dogs are running around free and love all the pets! I fell in love a couple times and missed Luca a lot. We grabbed a couple beers at The Potato, which is the restaurant that my friends work at. They weren’t there, but we met their property neighbors and hung out with them the rest of the night. It was a chill evening doing what people who live in the wilderness do; watered a garden, checked out the salmon weir, drank a bunch of beers, took a lake bath, and threw knives and shot guns at homemade zombie targets.
The next day, we putzed around and enjoyed just being in this park. Mike and I took the canoe out and paddled around Long Lake for awhile and then met up with Scott in McCarthy. This time, we got to see all the backcountry roads and hidden spots of McCarthy. It’s much bigger than what you originally get to see. We rode in the back of his pickup truck and got the privilege of seeing all the hidden beautiful views of the mountains.
On our last day here, we continued living the locals life. We all went swimming in the lake and even swam across the lake to their friend’s house (I got pulled for awhile on a big Loch Ness monster float) and floated around and jumped off the floating sauna pirate plank. Scott and Mike canoed back and pulled me on the Nessie float and I felt like a princess. After that, I lounged on the dock while the boys did some productive mechanic type things.
That night was a birthday bbq for their friend, Kayla. It was at another local’s house in the backcountry and it was simply magical; like walking into a garden of Eden. We were completely surrounded by mountains, beautiful fireweed flowers everywhere, serenaded by a guy softly playing the guitar, delicious and homegrown foods, and absolutely no sound or light pollution from anywhere. I’ve seen the appeal of small towns and the community they build, but this was at a different level. It’s still the small community between people that are choosing each other as their “family,” but by all choosing to live in the wilderness too? They’re not just connected to each other but to nature and the Earth. It was incredible to surrounded by that kind of joy. It was the best way to spend our last night in Wrangell St Elias; with people that appreciate this park more than anyone.
- The road to McCarthy is about 60 miles and will take you about 3 hours to drive. Prepare ahead of time with food, water, lower tire pressure, etc.
- If you can bring bikes with you, do it! It is a much better deal than paying $15 per person for the shuttle to take you 5 miles to Kennicott.
- Do not over plan your time here, until you’ve chatted with a Park Ranger. You could spend a lifetime here and still not explore it all. Figure out what is best for you when you get here!
- If you are hiking on the glacier without spikes, do it mid day. Between the sun that warms it up and makes it less icy, and the tours that went out that morning with spikes, it’s pretty easy to have a good grip while hiking on it, as long as you have good shoes.
- My friend Scott would always take a backpack with him when he left his home and have it packed like he might not come back that night. Perfect advice while you’re here because you don’t know where your day might take you.