Nancy's Journey Continues to Wrangell - St. Elias

Wrangell - St. Elias National Park : Tom Weber PhotoThe absolute largest of our national parks, at over 13.5 million acres, is Wrangell - St. Elias. To give you an idea of how very large this park is, try to imagine fitting all the northeastern states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts into one park, and that would be Wrangell-St Elias. The meeting of the Chugach, Wrangell and St. Elias mountain ranges, combine to form more of the highest peaks in North America than anywhere else on the continent. Mt. St. Elias, at 18,008 feet, is the second highest mountain peak in the United States. The rangers tell me that only about 25% of the whole park has been explored. That leaves an awfully big chunk yet to be discovered. This park is about 200 miles from Anchorage to the Southeast, with nearby towns of Glennallen and Copper Center. The park extends all the way down to Yukatat in Southeast Alaska where the largest glacier, named Malaspina -- which is equal in size to the state of Rhode Island -- meets the ocean, creating another tidewater glacier.

Since most of the park is unexplored, you can guess there are not many roads into it. In fact, there are only two. The Nabesna road out of Slana which goes about 42 miles into the wilderness, and the McCarthy road, which is 60 miles long and goes to the old mining town of McCarthy. The McCarthy road is on an old railroad bed and the old spikes are still visible there. The spikes manage to work their way up to the surface quite often and the locals tell me that they never leave home without at least two spare tires when traveling that road. The easier way into McCarthy ( albeit more expensive ) is to fly. You can easily walk around the old fashioned town and catch a shuttle ($5.00) to the nearby (5 miles) Kennicott. Kennicott is a mining town perched on the side of the mountain. If you fly in, you get a really good view of the picturesque bright red buildings. The Park Service is working hard at restoring this location. There is a really great lodge here and an overnight or two is good. There is a large population of brown bear (grizzly) here.

Kennicott Mill : NPS PhotoWhen our pilot was late picking us up in Chitina, we found out he had to chase a grizzly out of his back yard that morning and one of the airline owners flew us in instead. This is the same pilot who last year, when dropping guests at a remote fishing site, landed to pick up some really neat antlers and a bear flew out of the woods at him. The pilot wasn't able to shoot fast enough, and the bear grabbed him by the head. Fortunately for the pilot, the bear apparently didn't like his taste, spit him out, and walked off. The other person with the pilot, helped him back into the plane and they flew into McCarthy before he collapsed due to loss of blood. Definitely bear country!!!

Lots of Dall sheep ( the big horned ones ) on the mountainsides are visible as you fly over. It is pretty easy to spot the herds in this rugged mountain terrain. Also the beautiful glacial blue ponds, and amazing waterfalls really grab your attention. Yes, flying gives you two trips in one: a chance to enjoy the really spectacular scenery and a way to get into McCarthy without a flat tire.

If you stay in the Copper Center area, the Princess Copper Center provides some of the best views of the convergence of the mountain ranges here, with the mists of steam venting over Mt. St. Elias. The mountains are volcanic, with the last eruption in 1900. This place is truly the "mountain kingdom of the North America".

Next Friday (the 90th anniversary of the Park Service), we visit the Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve.