Alaska is an awe-inspiring state, with landscapes and distances so vast, they are sometimes hardly comprehensible to someone who hasn’t seen the Great Land in person. Alaska is also renowned for it’s eight U.S. National Parks which encompass more than 51 million acres in total. So, it’s no surprise that Alaska is also home to the largest national park in the United States. But which of Alaska’s 8 national parks holds this prestigious title? Would you have guessed Denali, which is also home to the highest mountain peak in the U.S.? Or perhaps Gates of the Arctic with its immense expanse of land beyond the Arctic Circle?
The largest national park in the United States is actually the often-overlooked Wrangell-St. Elias. Tucked away in a little corner of Alaska between the Southcentral and Southeastern parts of the state, Wrangell-St. Elias encompasses a walloping 13.2 million acres, making it more than twice the size of Denali National Park.
Yet, despite its vast acreage and remote location, Wrangell St. Elias offers plenty of opportunities for recreation and education for visitors to Alaska of all ages.
The Park Has Stunning Peaks and an Active Volcano
Wrangell-St. Elias is home to nine of the sixteen highest mountain peaks in North America, including St. Elias, the second highest peak on the continent after Denali. The park is so large that it contains four different mountain ranges, including the prominent Wrangell Mountains. Breathtaking views of the Wrangell range can be seen from several vantage points on a drive along the Richardson Highway between Glennallen and Valdez.
These mountains also hold a surprising secret: Mt. Wrangell is actually an active volcano. On cool summer mornings, lucky visitors may even see steam plumes rising from Mt. Wrangell’s caldera. But don’t worry – according to the National Park Service, Mt. Wrangell hasn’t erupted since 1930 and shows no signs of erupting again anytime soon.
The Park Is Rich In History
Wrangell St. Elias has a rich history stretching back for millennia that visitors can discover as they explore the park. The present day park encompasses traditional lands of several different Alaska Native cultures, including the Ahtna and Upper Tanana Athabascans. The park’s Copper Center Visitor Center Complex (10 miles south of Glennallen on the Richardson Highway) offers scenic overlooks, hiking trails and the Ahtna Cultural Center with exhibits on Ahtna culture and a hand-built fish wheel on display.
Deep inside the park around the community of Kennicott-McCarthy are the ruins of the abandoned Kennecott Mines and the Copper River & Northwestern Railway, which processed the region’s rich copper ore from 1911 to 1934.
If you’re interested in experiencing the history of this park first hand, consider our Kennecott Mill Tour which includes a 2-hour walking tour of the old mining town. This is the only Kennicott-McCarthy day tour permitted to enter the historic buildings, including the 14-story Kennecott Mill building.
Over 1/3 of the Park Is Covered in Glaciers
Wrangell St. Elias also hold’s America’s largest glacial system, and according to the Park Service, 35% of the park is covered in glaciers, composing 5,000 square miles of glacial ice. The park’s coastline includes Hubbard Glacier, the longest tidewater glacier in North America.
The most accessible of the park’s many glaciers is Root Glacier near Kennicott-McCarthy. For visitors to Alaska seeking to experience the icy thrill of walking on a glacier, Root Glacier is a great option. Both full day and half day guided glacier hikes are available to Root Glacier. These guided hikes depart from Kennicott and follow a historic wagon road to the base of the glacier. More adventurous travelers may want to spend a day trying ice climbing on Root Glacier with experienced glacier guides teaching the safest ice climbing techniques.