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 road trip 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.
Here’s what I saw during my quick visit, along with some tips for folks planning their own trip.
Visiting Wrangell-St. Elias National Park: Facts and Tips
How do you get to Wrangell-St. Elias NP?
You can drive to the main visitor center at Wrangell-St. Elias. The road there is paved, and all rental cars can travel on it.
From Anchorage, the drive is 190 miles, or about 3.5 hours. Get there before 5 pm, because they lock the gate everyday at that time.
Where can I visit in the park?
If you want to go past the visitor center, you can drive another hour south to reach Chitina. After that, you’ll need a car capable of driving on a gravel road.
McCarthy Road is a 59-mile unpaved road leading from Chitina deep into the national park, at the old town of McCarthy. From there, it’s a 5-mile walk to Kennecott, an old mining outpost.
The NPS warns that the road has potholes, and cell service is non-existent out here, so anyone trying to drive this road should be self-sufficient and have spare tires.
Can I drive a rental car on McCarthy Road?
Most major rental car companies do not allow their vehicles to be driven on unpaved roads. A few local Alaska rental car agencies such as Go North do permit this.
Is there any other way to get to McCarthy and Kennecott?
Yes, there are shuttles that will take you all the way from the Copper Center visitor center all the way to McCarthy. So you can leave your rental car behind, and take the bus through the park to see the sights.
There are also small companies that offer bush plane flights directly to McCarthy from Chitina.
How big is Wrangell-St. Elias?
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve stretches all the way to the Canadian border, where it meets the Yukon’s Kluane National Park.
It’s a massive 13.2 million acres. That’s bigger than Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, and New Jersey combined!
Sights From the Wrangell St. Elias National Park Visitor Center
Inside the visitor center were constant reminders of everything I was missing out on, like the ghost town of Kennecott.
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.
Learning about the Native American groups that once occupied an area is always enlightening. This map shows the native groups throughout all of Alaska.
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.
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.
I would love to explore Wrangell St. Elias National Park 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 Wrangell St Elias National Park even if you couldn’t explore beyond the visitor center?