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Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

An unspoiled park, massive glaciers, welcoming locals. Where are you? Alaska, of course.

Kennicott glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska, image
Photo caption
The Kennicott Glacier sweeps from the lofty Wrangell Mountains to near McCarthy.

McCarthy, Alaska, is not on the way to anywhere. This ramshackle, century-old hamlet lies at the end of a 60-mile gravel road in south-central Alaska. Why go there? Because the town lies smack in the heart of Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, 13.2 million acres embracing three vast mountain ranges—the Wrangell, St. Elias, and Chugach—as well as the greatest sweep of glaciers in the United States and nine of the 16 highest peaks in North America. Oh, and a seacoast where boxcar-sized icebergs bob in deep fjords. It’s our largest national park. Most Americans have never heard of it.

Yet for increasing numbers of visitors—up to 40,000 a year—a trip is a pilgrimage. One friend of mine rode his motorcycle all the way from California; another reached McCarthy by van, then left on her bicycle and pedaled up to the Arctic. Since flying is a way of life in Alaska, I chose to arrive by air. As bush pilot Kelly Bay rounded up his half-dozen passengers at a landing strip on the park’s edge and led us to his bright yellow deHavilland Beaver, he caught me eyeing the plane’s fat, bald tires. "For softer landings on tundra," he said.

Soon we were aloft, sailing over dark forests and striped glaciers curling around jagged peaks. Pools of electric blue dotted the ice below. Fading away in all directions were mountains beyond mountains beyond mountains. We soared over the frothing Copper River, famed for its salmon. We spotted the broad valley of the braided Chitina River and 16,390-foot Mount Blackburn, one of the peaks that attract big-time mountaineers. At last we dropped onto the gravel airstrip at McCarthy.

Little remains of the town’s former self—a "sin city" for workers from the old Kennecott copper mine five miles up the valley. Yet it still has that Old West look: false-fronted wood buildings, rutted roads through quaking aspens, derelict trucks rusting in weedy yards. Swallows swooped over the main street. A Boston terrier dozed in a puddle beside the saloon.

Summer visitors head for McCarthy Lodge or seek out the bare-bones backpackers’ digs. Most stay a few days, some flight-seeing and day hiking, others venturing into the backcountry. With risky stream crossings, dicey weather, omnivorous bears, and almost no regular patrols, the region is best explored with a seasoned Alaskan guide.

I got my first glimpse of prepark life here at the McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum, housed in the old train depot. Denizens of Kennecott, a company town at the copper mine, enjoyed a skating rink, tennis courts, and silent movies in the social hall. (A century-old clerical error left the spelling Kennicott for the glacier and river, Kennecott for the mine and town.)

Outside, on a back street, I ran across Roadside Potatohead, a snack bar in the shell of a 1968 Chevy van, where Stephanie "Spuddy" Miller was frying up crispy "spudniks" to serve with sausage gravy. "I came to Alaska when I was 17, by myself from Kalamazoo," she told me. Over at McCarthy Mercantile, I bought an ice cream cone from proprietor Peggy Smith. "We just opened—the first grocery in McCarthy since 1939. We’re using ore buckets for shopping baskets." I stepped outside to wide, roaring McCarthy Creek and walked over the plank footbridge for clearer views of nearby Sourdough Peak.

In the evening, a surprise: The restaurant inside McCarthy Lodge offers nearly a dozen elegant entrées. I was tempted by Alaskan caribou chops but settled on Dungeness crab cakes and semolina-encrusted Copper River salmon with a balsamic-basil reduction. "This summer," said manager Neil Darish, "we’ll reach 86 labels on our wine list." So it goes in the middle of nowhere.

The outside world first took notice of this remote area in 1900, when a couple of prospectors up on Bonanza Ridge stumbled on the richest copper deposit ever seen. In those days, copper—think electrical wire—was in huge demand. By 1911, New York investors had bankrolled the Kennecott mines and an improbable 196-mile railroad across mountains, glacial rubble, river gorges, and wetlands. Laborers from as far away as Greece and Scandinavia eventually unearthed ore worth nearly $3 billion in today’s dollars.

Next day I caught a shuttle to the mine, which clings to a bare mountainside above the Kennicott Glacier. To tour the gigantic red mill, with its 14 stories of ore crushers, separators, shakers, chutes, and loading docks, I joined a group led by St. Elias Alpine Guides. Surveying the cavernous rooms, I tried to imagine the brutal lives of the miners who toiled here in the dark of winter and subzero cold.

I could have gone with the same outfit on a four-day pack trip but instead opted for a half-day tour of the Root Glacier. Our ragtag band donned crampons and crunched over the ice, leaping streams, admiring the dazzling heights all around, and peering into crevasses where waterfalls poured from dark blue tunnels—hours of fun.

Gratified as well by roasted chicken served family style at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge, I drifted off contemplating the "art" in my bedroom: coils of wire, a dusty boot, a 1936 laundry list. Come morning I rode the van out along the old rail bed—three hours of dust, ruts, and trestles.

Was my stay too short? Perhaps. But I’ll be back—to raft the Copper River or kayak in Icy Bay. Or maybe I’ll just sit on the graceful white porch at the lodge in Kennecott and watch the glacier go by.

Photography by Fred Hirschmann

This article was first published in July 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.