At over 13 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the second largest park in the world. It’s larger than the country of Switzerland, and you could fit 6 Yellowstone Parks within it. For our friends back home, Wrangell-St. Elias is half the size of Kentucky and a third the size of Florida and Wisconsin. In this photo, Theresa is enjoying her lunch on a high pass with a view of the beautiful Nutzotin Mountains.
There are only two gravel roads running through the entire park: the 42-mile Nabesna Road in the north, and the 59-mile McCarthy Road in the south. The roads are quite deserted, especially on weekdays. We passed only a few cars during our entire 3-hour roundtrip on Nabesna Road, and we didn’t see a single car while hiking along the road to reach our trailhead. The other ways people can venture into the park are to hike or fly.
Here Theresa is hiking up a steep, rocky creekbed in front of Theresa Dome, a cinder cone that still retains its original shape.
The Skookum Volcano is an extinct volcano that was quite active 2-3 million years ago. All that remains are a hollowed cinder cone and some exotic volcanic geology. Volcanic ash cooled and eroded to form strange, otherworldly shapes.
With such a vast park, little traffic, few people, and even fewer aircraft overhead, Wrangell-St. Elias is incredibly silent. At times it felt like we had cotton stuffed in our ears. Quite often the only sounds we could hear were the birds chirping, the bees buzzing, or our own hearts beating.
On our last day in the park, we had perfectly sunny weather. But just a few miles to our south, a storm raged over the Wrangell Mountains. We watched from a safe distance as it rained and snowed over what I believe is the Copper Glacier emerging from Mt. Wrangell.
Here is Darby watching that same storm. Though honestly, she’s probably just scanning the nearby bushes for little critters.
Along Nabesna Road, just below the Dead Dog Hill Rest Area, we saw a pretty lake with the mineralized Mentasta Mountains rising in the background. Standing on the shore like he owned the lake was a Trumpeter Swan. This elegant white swan is the heaviest bird native to North America and, on average, the largest waterfowl species alive on Earth today. Males can grow up to 6 feet long and weight up to 30 pounds.
The pretty Mentasta Mountains look like a chocolate sundae with marshmallow fluff poured over the top.
Rumor has it that one out of every three vehicles experience a flat tire while driving along McCarthy Road, and we were the unlucky one. This road is especially hazardous to tires shortly after road crews lay down new gravel because—as one ranger told us—they don’t crush the gravel finely, and so there are many large sharp rocks on the road. The ranger also mentioned they re-graveled the road just the week prior to our arrival. On the other hand, Nabesna Road is in much better shape with asphalt the first 15 miles, and chipseal (tar covered stones) the next 10 miles, then mostly fine gravel the rest of the way. And yes, I helped change the tire after I took this photo.
Liberty Falls roared like thunder as we approached it in the forest. But for an unobscured view of the falls, we had to climb up a steep, exposed rock ledge. Since we weren’t wearing our hiking boots, we decided to not take the risk.
At 16,390 feet tall, Mt. Blackburn is the highest mountain in Wrangell-St. Elias and the fifth highest peak in the United States. It’s an old, eroded shield volcano, built almost entirely from lava flows. Its large size and low profile give it the appearance of a warrior’s shield. The volcano was named in 1885 after Joseph Clay Stiles Blackburn, then senator of my home state of Kentucky who later became governor of the Panama Canal Zone.
The Edgerton Highway on the way into Wrangell-St. Elias climbs high above the Copper River. Commercial fishermen harvest over one million salmon from this river each year. Copper River Salmon command especially high prices in restaurants across the country. Though the fishing occurs outside the park, many of the fish originate from within the park and are caught while on their way back to their birth lakes to spawn. Notice the pretty fireweed in the foreground. It’s not the Alaska state flower (that’s the Forget-Me-Not), but many residents believe it should be, as fireweed is very pretty and fairly ubiquitous throughout the state.
Click on the photo above to expand it and see the fishwheels in the Copper River. Fishwheels are used by native Alaskans for sustenance hunting. Each wheel has two baskets alternating with two paddles that spin the wheel in the river’s current. The water in the Copper River is so cloudy from glacial silt that the fish cannot see when they swim into a basket, which whisks them out of the water and drops the fish in a storage box for harvest.
We climbed a ridge above the Copper River and walked until we got “cliffed out,” in other words, we reached the end of the cliff and had to turn back. But we got to enjoy a pretty view of a small lake. Alaska has over 3,000 named lakes and 3 million unnamed lakes.
We camped along a pretty lake with a spectacular view of Mt. Wrangell. The 14,163-foot shield volcano has a massive volume of over 220 cubic miles, making it one of the largest volcanoes in North America. At the top is an ice-filled caldera about 3 miles in diameter. Mt. Wrangell has an eruptive history starting 750,000 years ago, with the last minor eruption in 1884, and fumarolic activity continuing today. The geothermal heat produced by Mt. Wrangell has been rising steadily since 1950, indicating the possibility of another eruption in the relatively near future.