Where is Wrangell St. Elias National Park
Tucked within the spectacular Wrangell Mountains in southeastern Alaska, Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve is a stunning and rugged National Park. The park’s stunning location, along waterways, the ocean, and the massive Wrangell Mountain range, is outdone only by the sheer size of this preserved land - Wrangell St. Elias National Park stretches over 13 million acres.
Wrangell St. Elias National Park looks very isolated on maps and from above, but the park entrance is only a 4-hour 30-minute drive from the Alaskan capital city of Anchorage. Fairbanks, Alaska, is a popular starting point for many Alaskan vacation and adventures. The city located northwest of Wrangell St. Elias National Park is also roughly four hours and 20 minutes driving from the park.
How big is Wrangell St. Elias National Park
Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the biggest National Park in the U.S. National Park System. This incredible park is six times bigger than Yellowstone, one of the most famous parks in the United States, and 7.2 million acres bigger than the nearby Denali National Park.
Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve is so big, at 13.6 million acres, it actually covers territory from the sea to the top of Mount Saint Elias at 18,000 feet in elevation. In total, Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve covers three climatic zones. The park’s eastern most border crosses into Canada and to the south is the Gulf of Alaska.
Another highlight for any visitor is the sweeping views across four mountain ranges, the Wrangell Mountains, Chugach Mountains, St Elias Mountains, and the Alaska Range. Wrangell St. Elias National Park is known for having the most peaks above 16,000 feet in North America and the largest collection of glaciers on the continent.
Wrangell St. Elias National Park is also part of the largest protected area in the world. Wrangell St. Elias National Park, along with, Kluane National Park Reserve, Glacier Bay National Park, and Alsek-Tatshenshini Provincial Park in British Columbia, forms a naturally protected area of more than 24 million acres. This conservation region is also recognized by the United Nations (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site.
Wrangell St. Elias National Park Weather
The diversity in topography and elevation throughout Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve make for similarly varied weather conditions throughout the park. On a given day it can snow in the mountains, rain along the Gulf of Alaska, and be sunny near the Canadian border.
The summer season in Wrangell St. Elias National Park is short, but sweet. Typically, the summer season begins in mid-June and lasts through August. Daytime temperatures hover between 60°F to 70°F, with overnight lows that fall to the low 40s°F. Even during the summer, temperatures throughout the National Park’s glacial region will be lower, due to the chilling effect of the ice.
Winter, in contrast, is very cold and precipitation throughout the park shifts from rain to snow. By mid-September the entire park starts to see snow accumulation, and this is usually the final days of backcountry hiking, camping, and adventure for the season.
Another huge impact on temperature and weather in Wrangell St. Elias National Park is the number of hours with daylight throughout the year. Unlike the continental United States, Alaska has a huge swing in the number of daylight hours from summer to winter. On the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, Wrangell St. Elias National Park has nearly 20 hours of daylight, while on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, there are just three hours and twenty minutes of daylight.
When did Wrangell St. Elias become a National Park
Wrangell St. Elias National Park was established as a National Park on December 1, 1978 by President Jimmy Carter, but Wrangell St. Elias National Park’s importance in Alaska and national conservation was established far earlier.
The oldest human remains found within the park’s boundaries date back over 1,000 years ago, but it is believed that Native tribes began moving into the coastal and lower elevation areas far earlier. Evidence of civilizations and tribe settlements are nearly 8,000 years old in some parts of the Copper River Basin. Over time, two tribes, the Ahtna and Upper Tanana Athabascans, settled in the interior of the park, and two other prominent tribes, the Eyak and the Tlingit lived near the Gulf of Alaska.
The first European settlements in the area were Russian explorers and fur traders, who traveled to the Alaskan territory from the Aleutian Islands and Kenai Peninsula in the 1780’s. In 1847, an outfit of American and Russian explorers set out to specifically explore Wrangell St. Elias National Park’s Copper River Basin, but were killed by the Ahtna. It wasn’t until Lt. Henry T. Allen (in 1885) explored the Wrangell Mountains, Copper River Basin, the Chitina River Valley, and Yukon River down to the Bering Strait that a geographic map and recording of the region were made.
Miners, fur traders, and others sparsely settled in the territory of Wrangell St. Elias National Park, but for the most part, this isolated part of Alaska remained unscarred by human activity. The area will now remain that way forever after designation as a National Park and passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.
Things to do in Wrangell St. Elias National Park
Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve is a remote and geographically complex part of the United States and Canada, but wow does it host an incredible amount of natural beauty. From scenic drives to helicopter tours, there is no shortage of ways to travel, explore, and get outside while in Wrangell St. Elias National Park.
Day hikes within Wrangell St. Elias National Park is often long and strenuous, but offers some of the world’s best views over the Wrangell Mountains and Alaskan glaciers. There are several main areas of and near the park best suited to day hikers, including the Copper Center Area, McCarthy Road and Kennescott, and Nabesna Road Area.
While requiring preparation and experience, backpacking is one of the most popular and gratifying activities within Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Most backpackers choose to charter flights in and out of the backcountry to explore the remote areas of the park above 3,000 feet in elevation. It is also common to hire a local guide for the trip.
Flight seeing tours are very popular within Wrangell St. Elias National Park. The extensive area of the park and diverse features make it an ideal place to tour by sky. Several operators near the park’s boundaries offer flights over Wrangell St. Elias National Park and nearby parks.
There are only two roads through Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Nabesna Road and the McCarthy Road. Both roads are gravel and navigable during the summer months. The McCarthy Road offers incredible views across the Copper River Basin and to the Wrangell Mountains. The Nabesna Road is a less popular route crossing streams and accessing old mining areas within the park. Fuel, maps, and appropriate rental cars should all be considered before entering the park.
With two of Alaska’s major river systems running through the park, there are plenty of tributaries and smaller rivers for sport fishing. In the mighty Copper River, fisherman will find sockeye, coho, and king salmon, while lakes and smaller bodies of water are an opportunity for fish such as lake trout, rainbow trout, and whitefish. A fishing license is required to sport fish within the park.
Not much of Wrangell St. Elias National Park is accessible by road or on foot, so many visitors are interested in other ways to traverse the park. A great option is to float. Point-to-point rafting trips, overnight experiences, are available with and without a backcountry/river guide. Rivers within the park have whitewater and challenging features, experience is certainly required.
Wrangell St. Elias National Park is home to one of the world’s largest sets of intact glaciers. These massive hunks of ice are an incredible and quickly disappearing part of the park’s landscape and a must-visit for most people traveling to Wrangell St. Elias National Park.
When to go to Wrangell St. Elias National Park
The long days and higher temperatures of summer in Wrangell St. Elias National Park is appealing to most visitors. This is the best time of year to spot wildlife, go stargazing, drive the Nabesna Road and the McCarthy Road, and enjoy hiking or biking within the park. It is also the only time of year that many areas of the park are accessible and reachable from June through mid-September.Summer is also the only time of year visitors can enjoy scenic flights and backcountry trips within Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Throughout the winter it is often too dangerous to fly helicopters within the park. You do not need to worry about crowds, even during the high season, as this spacious National Park only has roughly 75,000 visitors a year, which is substantially less than the 4 million visiting Yellowstone each year.
Finally, most visitors also choose summer for a trip to Wrangell St. Elias National Park because there is more daylight and visibility for activities. Hiking, biking, rafting, and mountaineering are all made easier with 18 hours of sunlight to accomplish your adventurous goals.
Must-Have things to bring to Wrangell St. Elias National Park
A trip to Wrangell St. Elias National Park is no small undertaking for visitors. This remote part of the world is dangerous, and even deadly, for those who do not have the proper skills, experience, and equipment for the backcountry.
Park brochures are available online and from Wrangell St. Elias National Park’s visitors’ centers, but for adventurers planning a backcountry or floating trip, far more material is required. There are several areas with privately owned land within the park, some of which is off-limits to visitors, and a network of trails and routes that require navigation to successfully complete.
Water or Filtration
Plenty of clean drinking water is a requirement for any National Park visit. Luckily, in Wrangell St. Elias National Park there are a number of water sources from rivers to lakes. Most visitors choose to come prepared with a water filtration or cleaning equipment instead of packing in or out all of their cooking and drinking water for a trip.
Grizzly bears and black bears call Wrangell St. Elias National Park home. The wildlife will mostly avoid and ignore human visitors to their habitat, but if a bear is surprised or territorial, it could be aggressive. Bear spray should be carried for any day hike or overnight trip in the park.
Most National Parks and backcountry wilderness require hikers to provide and carry an itinerary of their trip you will be able to find a lot of this information at our National Parks Visitors Guide, but in Wrangell St. Elias National Park, it is optional. Still, it is an excellent idea to provide rangers and visitors centers with your intended trip details, in the event that search, and rescue is required.
Whether you are planning for one or ten days in Wrangell St. Elias National Park, it is crucial to carry enough sustenance for your trip. There are few stops along the two roads through Wrangell St. Elias National Park to stock up, so it is best to make your grocery trips in Anchorage or in route to the park.
There are no gas stations along the Nabesna Road and the McCarthy Road. Visitors have their last chance to refuel in the Copper River Valley before entering the park.
Where to stay in Wrangell St. Elias National Park
There are several lodging options and places to stay near Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Within the tiny, remote town of McCarthy inside the park there are several privately owned and operated lodges, including Kennicott Glacier Lodge, Ma Johnson’s Hotel, and Current Ridge. All of these options offer great views of the park and a secluded location.
Just beyond the park’s boundaries, the Copper Center Area has a number of guest houses, independent hotels, and lodges with available rooms. Tolson Lake Resort, Ranch House Lodge, and Lake Louise Lodge are a few of the indoor options that complement a number of RV and tent campsites.
Food nearby Wrangell St. Elias National Park
Your List Of Parks guide would not be complete without letting you know about the food near by. Dining in the Copper River Valley just outside Wrangell St. Elias National Park offers a range of options from family establishments to fine dining. A number of the lodges in the area, including Lake Louise Lodge, The Point Lodge Alaska, and Sheep Mountain Lodge have dining rooms serving two or three meals a day.
Alternatives include bars and restaurants dotted along Richardson Highway or Route 4. The coffee is hot and ready at Be Happy Coffee Co and Old Town Copper Center
Inn & Restaurant serves dinner nightly.
Airports near Wrangell St. Elias National Park
The closest airport to Wrangell St. Elias National Park offering international and scheduled domestic flights is Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Located a four hour and 30-minute drive from the park’s entrance, Anchorage International Airport has daily flights on a number of major carriers and other airport services. This is the place to rent a car and stock up on last minute items needed for your trip.