Imagine an area the size of Switzerland. Now strip away its road network, eradicate its towns and cities and take away all but 40 of its eight million people. The result would be something approximating Wrangell-St Elias National Park. Comprising 53,000 square miles of brawny ice-encrusted mountains, Wrangell-St Elias is the second-largest national park in the world after Northeast Greenland, meaning there’s plenty of room for its 45,000-or-so annual visitors to get lost – very, very lost. The park’s vital statistics are mind-boggling. If Wrangell-St Elias were a country it would be larger than 70 of the world’s independent nations. Its biggest glacier covers an area larger than the US state of Rhode Island. Plenty of its mountain peaks have never been climbed. And that’s even before you’ve started counting the bears, beavers, porcupines and moose.
Yet perhaps the strangest thing about the park is how comparatively few people visit it. For every eight tourists who track north to Denali, only one intrepid traveler tackles the little-known wilderness of Wrangell. Why? Good question. Granted, most of the park is desolate and doesn’t have the infrastructure or satellite towns of Denali, though it does support one small settlement, McCarthy (seven hours by road from Anchorage), along with some improbable copper-mining history preserved for posterity by the NPS in nearby Kennecott.
So, how do you tackle such an immense place? Ninety-five percent of visitors enter the park via the tiny, off-the-grid settlements of McCarthy and Kennecott, accessible by bush plane or a single unpaved road that branches off the Richardson Hwy near Copper Center. Between them, these hamlets have several eating establishments, a store and a hardy year-round population of around 40 people who practice subsistence hunting and grow their own vegetables. Popular activities in the area include glacier hiking, ice climbing and historical tours of Kennecott’s mine buildings.
Unlike Denali, you don’t need a backcountry permit for overnight hikes, but you are encouraged to leave an itinerary at any of the ranger stations, where you can also get advice and pick up a bear canister for your trip. There’s a refundable deposit required for the canister.
You can also drop by the visitor center in Kennecott for maps and ideas for both day and overnight hikes. There are literally two full folders of options. Popular overnight hikes include Donoho Peak, Erie Lake and McCarthy Creek.