Friday, September 25, 2015

Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a huge 13,188,000 acres in size, over six times as large as Yellowstone, and in fact large enough to include Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks and the country of Switzerland within its borders! It stretches from one of North America's tallest peaks, 18,008 Mt. St. Elias to the ocean, with peaks upon peaks and glacier after glacier in-between. Four major mountain ranges meet in the park (the volcanic Wrangells, the Alaska Range, the Chugachs, and the St. Elias) which includes 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the country.

The namesake Mt. Wrangell rises 14,163 feet in elevation and is one of the largest active volcanoes in North America, and the namesake Mt. St. Elias at 18,008 feet is the second highest peak in the United States. Here's a map of the park.

Only two roads travel into the park, both gravel. The 42 mile Nabesna Road heads into the northern section of the park and is lightly used but offers many opportunities for hiking and camping. When I drove it I saw very few other vehicles.  The 59 mile McCarthy Road was built on the old Northwest-Copper River Railroad bed right-of-way and used to be called the worst maintained road in Alaska until improvements to the tune of $6 million dollars were begun in 2006. We drove it in 2004 before the improvements and were fortunate we did not incur one of the 100+ flats it meted out every year. It takes you to the settlement of McCarthy seen below. The population at the 2010 census was 28 people (down 14 people from 2000.) McCarthy began as an area where the copper workers could enjoy alcohol and prostitution, both of which were prohibited in Kennecott.

A hike four miles north from McCarthy takes you to the remnants of the old copper mining site of Kennecott, now a national historic landmark. This is considered the best remaining example of 20th Century copper mining. From 1911 to 1938, nearly $200 million worth of copper was processed here, and at its peak, about 300 people worked in this mill town and another 300 in the actual mines. Kennecott was a self-contained company town that included a hospital, general store, school, skating rink, tennis court, recreation hall, and dairy. Many of the buildings have been abandoned now for 60 years and need stabilization to keep them standing, which is an ongoing effort.

Some lands within Wrangell-St. Elias are designated "national park" and other lands are designated as "national preserve."  Rural Alaskan residents that can prove a history of family subsistence in the area are eligible for subsistence fishing and hunting in both the Park and Preserve. Others can participate in sport hunting and fishing only in the Preserve. The next two photos show one of the subsistence fishing areas. The salmon season was over when we were there, but the equipment of the subsistence fishermen was evident at the river's edge...

The national park contains 14,185 square miles of designated wilderness, more than any other unit within the national park system. Canada's Kluane National Park in the Yukon abuts the park, along with British Columbia's Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park and America's Glacier Bay National Park, and together they include 24.3 million acres of protected lands, the largest internationally protected ecosystem on the planet, an international World Heritage site.

June and July are the warmest months, with highs even reaching 80 degrees, but it can snow any month of the year in the high country. Rain is not unusual during the summer and increases in August and September, especially near the coast. Fall color change begins in mid-August and snow often falls in September. We camped in the campground across the river from McCarthy at the end of September and the overnight temperatures were in the teens and 20s and my water bottles froze in the tent overnight.

Winters are long. dark, and extremely cold. The highs may reach only 7 degrees and lows can dip to minus 50 degrees. Daytime skies are clear and the Northern Lights are said to regularly dance overnight.

Spring has average highs of 40 to 50 degrees but lows may dip into the teens or even single digits.

Below is a sunset photo from our campground.

The Root Glacier and the Kennicott Glacier meet at Kennecott. The Kennicott Glacier was named for Robert Kennicott, a naturalist who explored in Alaska in the mid-1800s. Due to a clerical error, the name of the mining corporation and town (Kennecott) were misspelled with an "e" instead of an "i" like the glacier's name.

Two of us chose to take a guided hike of Root Glacier on our free day.

The crampons on our boots allowed us to climb up steep icy inclines with ease.

Not a place you'd like to fall into!

We camped at the Glacier Campground which is across the creek from McCarthy, a private enterprise now that even offers cabins for rent and a restaurant. Looking at their website, there are more amenities now than back in 2004.

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