Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska—the largest area in the National Park System—includes nearly 10 million acres of wilderness, an area larger than several states and even some small countries. This is primarily a park for a superlative backcountry experience, but if your only chance to sample this amazing area is a stop at the park's excellent visitor center, you should also allow time for an easy hike on the Boreal Forest Trail.
You'll find the half-mile loop trail near the park's Headquarters Visitor Center, which is located 10 miles south of Glennallen at mile 106 along the Richardson Highway. This is one of the most attractive visitor centers in the NPS, and includes exhibits, a movie to introduce you to the park, a bookstore and a large 3-D interactive map display to help you get oriented to this vast area.
After your stop at the visitor center, take time to enjoy the Boreal Forest Trail for some fine views, a sampling of the park environment and a stroll down a bit of classic Alaskan history.
The next few weeks should be a great time for this short hike. A park publication notes, "Autumn arrives early; willows and aspens begin to change color by mid-August. This season can be delightfully clear, spectacular, and mosquito-free, but it is often too short. First snows often fall in September."
My hike on this path was in early June two summers ago. We were ahead of those famous mosquitoes and our stroll was a delight. The first part of the trail is paved and accessible; the "back side" of the loop is unpaved, and for good reason: it follows one of the most historic routes in Alaska.
At the end of the 19th century, prospectors flooded through the area during the Klondike gold rush, and many of them passed this way via the Valdez Trail, constructed by the U. S. government between Valdez and Fairbanks as an alternative to the Chilkoot Pass route from Skagway.
The last half or so of the Boreal Forest Trail follows a remnant of that historic route, which helps explain why the trail may seem unusually straight. Those prospectors were looking for the shortest route to fame and fortune!
The trail may not be long, but it's worth taking some extra time. The first section of path offers fine views of the Wrangell Mountains, the range of ancient volcanoes that forms the rugged heart of the park. On a clear day, you may be able to see three major peaks: Mount Drum (12,010’) Mount Wrangell (14,163' and one of the largest active volcanoes in North America) and Mount Blackburn (16,390’), the highest of the park’s volcanoes.
This section of the trail also provides a view of the Copper River, the main drainage of the Wrangell Mountains and the only river to penetrate through the coastal barrier of the Chugach Mountains.
The trail draws its name from the boreal forest of Alaska, and a park publication offers a fine description of the environment: "Circling the earth’s high latitudes in a green swath of spruce, aspen, willow, and birch, this circumpolar northern forest is the largest land ecosystem on the planet!"
Your walk will introduce you to just a tiny sample of that unique world, including spruce, willow and aspen, an amazing number of birds in the summer, and perhaps a chance to see some local wildlife: red squirrel, pine marten, fox, moose and even an occasional black bear have been sighted in this area.
Unless you enjoy some serious snow, the prime season for this park is a short one. According to the park website, "Although the park is relatively near the coast, high mountains and icefields act as barriers to the ocean's moderating influence. The result is that with the exception of the coastal Yakutat area, Wrangell-St. Elias has an interior continental climate (long, extremely cold winters, and short, warm, relatively dry summers). Remember that in any season, the weather can change quickly…"
Wrangell-St. Elias is one of those parks that stretches the English language to the limit and beyond: an area equal in size to six Yellowstones, home to four major mountain ranges and nine of the sixteen highest peaks in the United States, glaciers, wild rivers and wildlife beyond counting. Perhaps this brief hike will entice you to explore more of a true national treasure.