Nature’s treasures at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Special to the Daily
Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about Alaska’s national parks.
To most people, Denali National Park and the idea of Alaskan wilderness are synonymous. But to my husband and me, recent visitors to three of Alaska’s exceptional national parks, Wrangell-St.Elias is the state’s real jewel. Think of it as a glacial wonderland where major mountain ranges create an almost impenetrable kingdom that fills the southeast corner of the Alaskan interior and stretches into Canada as well. Together with four other adjoining national parks, the combined territory in 1979 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tucked deep in the park (and one of the best reasons to penetrate the 20,587 square miles of the interior), are the complementary twin towns of Kennicott and McCarthy, the former a decaying wreck of a copper mine and stifling mill town, the latter once a supply town for the mine but presently transforming itself into a adventure-recreation destination.
Beyond these outposts, the park is incredibly remote and none of the major highways come close. To reach either of them, you have two choices: take a one-hour bush plane flight from Chitina to McCarthy, or drive the McCarthy Road, a winding gravel path barely two lanes wide. We did it both ways, and each one is an adventure in itself.
It’s hard to believe, but guide books claim that the park’s 13.2 million acres is big enough to hold six Yellowstones. Yet few people outside of Alaska have ever even heard of the place. While approximately 65,000 people visit the park per year, Yellowstone draws 10 times that in the month of June alone. All the more reason to treat yourself to a genuine wilderness experience and leave exhaust fumes and gridlock behind.
Some superlatives about the park to knock your socks off: W-St.E boasts North America’s second- and third-highest mountain peaks and nine of the 16 highest peaks in the U.S (all over 14,000 feet); 100 major glaciers, including some of the world’s largest; the 127-mile long Bagley Ice Field, largest of the sub-polar masses on the continent of North America; and Malpasina Glacier – larger than the state of Rhode Island. The only way to get some idea of the scale of such a chunk of territory is to fly over it. And of course there are several bush pilot services to help you do that.
Perhaps no town in Alaska exudes the spirit of the Alaskan frontier like McCarthy. Facing the Kennicott Glacier’s terminal moraine and just a stone’s throw from the mighty glacier-fed river, the tiny community is a car-free idyll where the handful of gravel roads wind past rotting cabins and lovingly restored boomtown-era buildings. McCarthy was created in the early 1900s for the miners who worked in the nearby Kennicott copper mines. In those days it supplied the miners with the requisite “wine, women, and song,” along with the more mundane necessities of life. The spirit remains lively today and McCarthy is definitely the best spot to “hang out,” meet the “locals” (only 50 of them), and start to feel like one of them yourself.
Just four miles down the road, (reached by hourly shuttles in the summertime) is Wrangell-St. Elias’s most famous historic artifact – the former Kennicott Mine complex, now a National Historic Landmark. Near the turn of the 20th century, after prospectors discovered incredibly rich copper deposits in the area, the quickly-formed Kennicott Copper Corporation began construction of a 200-mile railroad in order to move the ore out of the valley and to ports beyond. The operation earned the company’s investors more than a $100 million dollars in profit by the time the mines closed in 1938. (In today’s dollars, that’s close to a billion.) But the conditions under which the miners worked 363 days a year is a heart-wrenching story worth learning about. So is the feat of engineering it took to build the railroad. Both make visiting the McCarthy Historical Museum a “must.”
For years, Kennicott Mine’s mill buildings were off limits to the public because of the danger of walls collapsing or visitors falling into a hole, but a major stabilization and restoration effort is in progress by the Park Service which oversees the project and offers daily tours.
Other diversions in the area include hiking on Root Glacier, the base of which is only a one-mile hike from the mine complex. Hire a guide, strap on some crampons, and learn to walk like a gorilla so your crampons will grab the ice. Or for an even greater adrenaline rush, try ice-climbing. I’m told that you start by climbing a sheer vertical wall of ice, and graduate later in the day to descending into 40-foot deep caves. Likewise, hire guides (there are several companies at both locations that provide them) to accompany you on hikes and biking expeditions. And don’t forget those goose-bump producing fly-overs of snow-encased mountain peaks, glaciers and river-laced valleys in-between. There can’t be many other travel adventures as pleasurable as this!
Carolyn Schwartz writes from Frisco and Pittsboro, N.C. She loves a variety of travel adventures and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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