Wrangell St Elias National Park - Part One
First Visit - June 2016
Wrangell St Elias is the largest national park in America, and we weirdly never heard of it until we made our way out to Alaska. This national park is so big that it stretches all the way into Canada, and you can’t even access most of the park unless you ride a plane into the backcountry and backpack out. So for our first anniversary, Kevin and I decided to make our way out there and explore as much as we could in two days.
The drive from Anchorage took roughly eight hours with stops and periodic rain, plus we had to follow a single dirt road for the final three hours. We slept outside the footbridge in our car the first night, but if you want to stay in a tent there are also camp spots available near the parking lot. Parking is $5-$10 a night in cash (I don’t know how much it costs to set up a tent), so we paid for two nights of parking. A side note, you should also bring cash to tip your adventure guides and the shuttle bus drivers. They work in the middle of nowhere so they could use a little love!
We set up a private glacier tour with St. Elias Alpine Guides a month or so before the trip so we could explore the massive Root Glacier. This guiding company is fantastic to work with and makes exploring the park a breeze. We woke up early that morning and walked across the footbridge with our backpacking packs on to wait for the shuttle bus in hopes that we could find a camp spot on our way to the glacier. When we met up with our guide, Robin, he got us sized for crampons and we went on our way.
We walked through the old Kennecott mining town and past the tourist attractions (gift shops, food stands, museums, etc.) toward the Root Glacier trailhead. The walk is roughly two miles but it’s decently easy to traverse. While it may not be paved and completely flat like most national park trails, this walk makes you feel like you’re actually the backcountry. Because you are!
Robin showed us the huge bear container near Root Glacier to store our backpacking packs then pointed out some spots we could camp at. We then went to the glacier and he not only showed us glacial moulins, rivers, and pools, but he also talked about the history of Kennecott and McCarthy, the vegetation in the area, different wildlife, and his extensive knowledge of backcountry survival.
We learned so much and had such a great time. And best of all, he told us about the Polar Plunge. What’s that, you might ask? Well it’s when you strip down to nothing but your socks and literally plunge into a freezing glacial pool.
I didn’t quite have the guts to jump into the water since we didn’t pack a change of clothes or a towel, but Kevin was fearless and excited. He jumped in without a second thought and secured his name on the holy white board in the guide office.
I would apologize for butt below, but who doesn’t like a cute butt? And to the people wondering: yes, it does shrink a ton. But hey, it comes back!
We vowed that next time we would bring a towel, something to crawl out of the water with (since the ice is too sharp to climb on), and a change of clothes.
That night we set up camp at a hidden gem just above the bear container. Our campsite overlooked Root Glacier and the surrounding mountains. After setting up camp, we ate our dehydrated meals 100 yards away from camp. Suddenly a surprised little porcupine stumbled in, so Kevin stopped eating and followed the little guy all over the hillside until he felt comfortable enough to pose for the camera. We fell right to sleep that night and prepared for another day of adventure.
The next day we decided to hike past the glacier turnoff trail and explore the mountain range since we didn’t have our own crampons to traverse the glacier. We thought we’d be able to rent some at the park, but sadly we realized we needed to buy our own if we wanted to traverse the glacier on our own. We walked in the heat and enjoyed the views of the glacier for a couple of hours. At one point we saw a tall hill of steep scree and decided to climb it for a better view. It took us a while to get close to the top but when we did, we noticed two giant blue lakes out on the glacier. Since we were so far away we knew they had to be HUGE, which meant one thing… we HAD to go see them for ourselves. We looked at our compass and decided to follow the direction as best as we could.
At this point we were already pretty tired and hot from our hike, but we decided, “Fuck it! Let’s try to explore the glacier without crampons.” The next step was to slide down the slick scree to the hiking trail, then slide down even steeper scree to the glacier. I do NOT recommend doing this… for safety reasons of course, but also because it was a huge pain in the ass.
Fast-forward hours later, we felt like giving up. Walking on the glacier without crampons wasn’t too difficult, but it meant we had to take extreme measures to avoid moulins and steep terrain so it took much longer than a normal hike. Just when we felt like giving up completely we found them.
Kevin and I were in awe at the massive deep-blue glacial pools. They were the size of football fields and connected by various tunnels of water with intricate ice spikes and shapes. No matter how hard we tried, we just couldn’t quite do them justice with our photos or videos. We honestly spent at least two hours just staring and wandering around these beauties.
The trek back to Kennecott took quite a long time, and by the end of the journey we were incredibly red. Word of advice: bring sunscreen like smart people. Don’t be like us.
Exhausted and red, we finally made it down to the small town of McCarthy thanks to the shuttle bus (which costs $5 a person). We threw our backpacks on the floor of The Golden Saloon in desperate need of some fresh warm food and beer. We talked to some summer locals and realized that this little town is very lively. So if you have time, make sure to pop in to their open mic nights and watch the crazy shenanigans of the adventure guides off hours.
Overall this was the most adventurous national park we had ever been to, and we hardly even scratched the surface. We decided that we needed to come back as much as possible in the future and slowly explore more of the incredible park.