Wrangell-St. Elias: My comically brief visit to America’s largest national park

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Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is weird. It’s the largest national park in the U.S., but because it’s located in eastern Alaska, it doesn’t see a ton of visitors. It has cool sights like glaciers and abandoned mining towns, but they’re difficult to reach because the road heading into the park is not paved, and most Alaskan visitors drive rental cars, which aren’t allowed on dirt roads.

That’s why I spent a grand total of only 15 minutes in Wrangell-St. Elias during last summer’s Alaska adventure. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop by, but the visit was one giant tease because I wasn’t able to go beyond the visitor center. (If you’re really motivated, you can take shuttles deep into Wrangell-St. Elias, but those are costly and time-consuming, so plan accordingly.)

wrangell st elias park

Inside the visitor center were constant reminders of everything I was missing out on, like the ghost town of Kennecott.

kennecott-mines-landmark

And a map showing how I just barely touched the outside border of Wrangell-St. Elias. The park stretches all the way to the Canadian border.

wrangell-st-elias-map

Learning about the Native American groups that once occupied an area is always enlightening. This map shows the native groups throughout all of Alaska.

alaska-native-american-grou

The most interesting sight on the grounds of the visitor center was this fishwheel, called ‘Ciisi nekeghalts el’ by the natives. The fishwheel is a wooden contraption powered by the force of the river. The current spins the wheel, catching fish in a chute and depositing them into a basket on the side of the wheel.

The device was invented by non-natives in the early 1900s, but native Alaskan peoples have adopted it and amended it for their own purposes. It’s still used on the Yukon and Copper Rivers and it’s a much more effective method of catching fish than traditional nets and traps. The fishwheel on display here was built from spruce logs by an Ahtna Athabaskan elder.

wrangell-fishwheel

fishwheel

The other big reason to stop at the visitor center is to step up to the viewing platforms and look for Mount Drum (12,010 feet) and Mount Wrangell (14,163 feet), two volcanoes visible on clear days. Unfortunately, as these pictures indicate, I did not visit on a clear day and had to settle for enjoying the view of the expansive forest.

mount-drum-wrangell

wrangell-st-elias-forest

I would love to explore Wrangell-St. Elias more thoroughly at some point. Rebecca from Travels at 88mph made it all the way to Kennecott, so check out her story for more details about the interior of the park.

Would you visit a national park where you couldn’t explore beyond the visitor center?

About Quirky Travel Guy

Scott Shetler is a Seattle-based freelance writer & fan of indie rock, road trips, ice cream, squirrels on power lines, runaway shopping carts, and six-way intersections. Looking for a hotel? I always recommend Booking.com where you can easily compare hotel rooms, prices, and availability. Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, which may earn me a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you make a purchase.

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8 Comments

  1. I took a brief walk off the road while I was driving from Anchorage to the Yukon a week ago, just so I could go ‘into’ the park. Didn’t even make the visitor’s station. At least it’s slightly more accessible then Gates of the Arctic, which is the other Alaska park still languishing on my ‘To Visit’ list.

      1. Ooh, are you going to the Music festival? I love Dawson City so much, not least because it has a population of about 1200 and yet still insists it’s officially a ‘city.’

  2. Thanks for the tips! The visitor’s center looks pretty interesting on its own, but we’d love to do some in-depth exploring there. Alaska is one of the two US states we haven’t visited, and we’re looking forward to doing it big when we finally get there!

  3. Thanks for the link mate! I didn’t make it to the visitors center, but it looks like they do a good job of showing and sharing what is in the park for those who can’t/don’t make it too far (which I am guessing is most people, unfortunately). Just a great reason to go back!!

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