Exploring Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve: America’s Hidden Gem

Published: February 20, 2023

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 National Park & Preserve, which offers a blend of breathtaking landscapes, rich history, and thrilling adventures. This blog will shed light on everything you need to know about planning your visit to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park this summer.

Where is Wrangell-St. Elias Located?

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 National Park & Preserve offers plenty of opportunities for recreation and education for visitors to Alaska of all ages. The best time to visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is during the summer months, from early June to September. The weather is warm and sunny, and there is plenty of daylight. 

Nice fall scene of the western Wrangell Volcanoes and Copper River

The western Wrangell Volcanoes and Copper River (NPS)

The Stunning Peaks and Volcanoes of Wrangell-St. Elias

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve 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. Breath-taking views of the Wrangell range can be seen from several vantage points on a drive along the Richardson Highway between Glennallen and Valdez.

The Volcanic Surprise: Mt. Wrangell

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 Rich History of Wrangell St. Elias 

Wrangell St. Elias has a rich history stretching back for millennia that visitors can discover as they explore the park. 

A Land of Cultural Heritage

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.

Kennicott-McCarthy: Echoes of the Mining Era

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.

Kennecott Mill Town contains numerous buildings that all helped the Kennecott Corporation and its workers to mine, refine, and transport copper ore from the Alaskan wilderness.

Kennecott Mill Town contains numerous buildings that all helped the Kennecott Corporation and its workers to mine, refine, and transport copper ore from the Alaskan wilderness. (NPS)

The Glacial Landscape of Wrangell St. Elias: America’s Largest Glacial System

Wrangell St. Elias National Park also holds 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.

Glacier Adventures: Root Glacier

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 hike 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.

a glacial pool on Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Pool on Root Glacier (NPS)

What to Do in Wrangell St. Elias National Park & Preserve: Your Guide to Exploring

From its towering peaks to its active volcano, from its ancient Native American history to its captivating glaciers, Wrangell-St. Elias is an adventure waiting to be explored. Whether you’re interested in hiking, wildlife viewing, photography, or cultural discovery, there are plenty of things to do in Wrangell-St. Elias for everyone. 

Backpacking Wrangell St. Elias National Park

For the adventurous souls, backpacking through Wrangell-St. Elias offers an unparalleled experience. The park’s vast wilderness, with its diverse terrains and ecosystems, provides a haven for backpackers seeking solitude and unspoiled nature. The visitor center provides ample information and tips to make the most of your visit, ensuring an unforgettable experience in Alaska’s wilderness.

Having a detailed map of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is essential for any visitor. It not only helps in navigating the park’s expansive terrain but also in discovering hidden gems and planning your journey through this majestic land.

Your National Park Adventure Awaits

As you plan your Alaskan adventure, consider exploring the wonders of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park with Alaska Tours. Our experienced travel consultants at Alaska Tours have crafted a variety of National Park vacation packages to suit your preferences. Whether you prefer the independence of a self-drive tour, or looking for a fully guided tour experience, we have packages designed to provide you with a personalised adventure in these remote and untamed landscapes.

Our most comprehensive and popular option is the Alaska National Parks Tour Package, which takes you on a 14-night journey to explore five of Alaska’s most spectacular National Parks. Contact us to learn more about our National Park tours, and book your unforgettable Alaskan adventure today