I have been to Alaska a couple of times now. I was first there in 2015 with a group of girlfriends where we ran the Mayor’s Marathon in Anchorage and explored Denali and Kenai Fjords national parks. I’m trying to visit all of our 63 national parks, so my most recent trip to Alaska was all about visiting Glacier Bay National Park and Wrangell St Elias National Park.
We spent three days in Wrangell St Elias National Park and went hiking and exploring. Part of this trip was spent hiking at Root Glacier and to the Donoho Lakes with a guide through Kennicott Wilderness Guides. It was the end of season, so we were the only ones out there. This trip was one of the coolest experiences to date but I’m not going to lie, it was a bit nerve-wracking backcountry hiking and trailblazing in grizzly territory.
Everywhere you look at Wrangell St Elias National Park is endless beauty. Wrangell is the largest park in our US national parks system (six times the size of Yellowstone) and it’s one of the most remote and untouched national parks. There are no permits required, shuttle systems or crazy long lines (yet) to worry about. I highly recommend going at the end of season – Labor Day Weekend – to have a slice of Alaska paradise all to yourself.
You are surrounded by four mountain ranges inside the park. Nine of the 16 highest peaks in the US are located in the park boundary. Mount Wrangell (14,163 feet) is one of the most active volcanoes in North America. Hiking Root Glacier with my best friend (someone I have known since I was 10) was my favorite part, and getting to be just the two of us and our guide in the backcountry, learning about the Alaska wilderness – it was paradise!
4 Best Things To Do at Wrangell St Elias National Park
Wrangell St Elias National Park will take your national park adventures to the next level. When you combine the size, the remoteness, the beautiful mountains and the glaciers – you have yourself an underrated gem that deserves so much more attention (but let’s be glad that it still flies under the radar somewhat). If this is your first visit to Wrangell, the four adventures below are a great starting point to make the most of your trip.
1. Visit Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark
Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark is a fantastic place to visit either by yourself or on a tour. Discover mine buildings and learn what life was like working in the Alaskan wilderness over 100 years ago. These were copper mines and provided work to around 300 people at a time. The mines eventually closed down in 1938 when the copper ran out. It then went from being a ghost town to a National Historic Landmark in the 1980s.
2. Hike Root Glacier and the Donoho Lakes
Root Glacier is definitely a must-do in Wrangell St Elias as it’s the most accessible glacier within the park. The total ascent is 1,500 feet over seven miles. If you go further to the Donoho Lakes it will become backcountry so be prepared with things like bear spray. Either way, you will need to be guided on this adventure especially if you want to go ice climbing.
3. Trek Uphill on the Bonanza Mine Trail
A great option for those not comfortable hiking on a glacier, the Bonanza Mine Trail still offers a challenge as it covers eight miles and a decent five hour adventure. The Bonanza Mine is another mine in the area that produced large amounts of copper in the 1900s. Since the mine is situated in the mountains above Kennecott, you will need to prepare for some uphill trekking. Once you get to the top, though, the views make up for it.
4. Drive McCarthy Road for Stunning Mountain Views
Just driving McCarthy Road is an experience in itself with some of the best views of the peaks. The views along the way are epic but you should know that McCarthy Road is no joke! It’s not a road maintained by the National Park Services. If you rent a car make sure to ask if they have coverage for the road (most don’t). It’s a 59-mile, narrow, gravel road with potholes and there are no services. Give yourself plenty of time on this drive.
Tips for Visiting Wrangell St Elias National Park
- Do your own research on both the national park and trails. Make sure you have maps downloaded too. I’m a pretty experienced hiker – I have been all over the US and Canada – and yet I was still glad to have a wilderness guide with me for Root Glacier and the Donoho Lakes. Not only is this a good idea for safety reasons but also because you can tap into their extensive knowledge and expertise about the terrain and wilderness.
- If you want to see wildlife, you should plan ahead and select the hikes or backcountry trips that will take you to the best wildlife viewing spots. We actually didn’t see any wildlife (I was okay with not encountering any on the trail!) other than pikas and marmots. But we did hear wolves howling at night which was quite a neat and exciting experience.
- I can definitely recommend staying at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge. We stayed there and it was the perfect location. It was the only lodge in the town of Kennicott. Their shuttle picks you up right at McCarthy Footbridge and everything you need from food trucks and coffee stands, to hiking guides, is within a few steps from their property.
- If you decide that driving along the pothole-filled McCarthy Road isn’t for you, there is always the option to book a shuttle service or go with an air taxi. All of those companies are listed on the NPS.gov website.
- All visitors must park at the Kennicott pedestrian footbridge – there is no vehicle access past that bridge. Just keep that in mind when you go.
- Lastly, the weather in Alaska is unpredictable. Prepare accordingly.