By Colleen Thomas, Tribune News Service
The rutted dirt road was a challenge for our rented SUV. We were 50 miles from our destination and our speed was barely 20 mph. Will we find a place to set up camp before dark?
We meandered through Alaska Wrangell-St. Elias National Park — America’s largest park system — so there had to be room for a small campground, I thought to myself. But as we jostled in our seats next to wide glacial streams and then dense underbrush that occasionally scraped against the windows, we realized that the scenery was not very pleasant for two adventurers and a tent.
This was my first trip to Alaska and my husband Jon’s third visit. Being the national park enthusiasts that we are, we set an ambitious goal of seeing three of the eight state parks during our weeklong stay. Denali National Park was first, and we would guess Kenai Fjords on our departure. We have a few days left in the middle to see the Wrangell-St. Elias.
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Two days? Now it seems ridiculous to think that in less than 48 hours we could even begin to explore this remarkable area, the granddaddy of the National Park Service. Established in 1980 as both a park and a preserve, it covers 13.2 million acres—the equivalent of six Yellowstones. If you crave seclusion, this is the place for you. If you’re looking for rugged and varied landscapes, the Wrangell-St. Elias will deliver. Its size includes parts of four mountain ranges, massive glaciers, wildlife, forests and even a historic mining settlement.
As dusk fell, Jon and I were still looking for a campsite. We reached a wooded area and turned off the road to an opening in the trees. Bingo. A tent-friendly space next to a rushing river was just what we needed. Then my jaw dropped as I looked up. Above rose the skeletal remains of a 90-foot-tall bridge. It looked like wooden scaffolding around a building under construction – but the scaffolding was a structure. And why such a strange relic in the middle of a national park? We slept restlessly that night, wondering if a gust of wind would knock down the rotting wooden bridge like a child’s creation with a toothpick.
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The bridge, I later learned, was part of the 192-mile long Copper River and Northwestern Railroad, which was established to transport the copper that was mined in the area 100 years ago. Copper ore prices were high at the time, so the pressure to complete the railway system was strong. The stretch of bluff next to our tent stretched across the Gilahina River for nearly 900 feet, the length of three football fields. Although construction crews faced brutal conditions back in 1911 with temperatures as low as 65 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit), they completed the bridge in just eight days.
The mines were exhausted in 1938, but not before a lively settlement had formed. Today it is known as Kennicott — or Kennecott, depending on who you ask — and the land remains privately owned in the middle of the park. Several paths are located around the old settlement, which makes it a haven for hikers. We were determined to find one of them.
Morning came, we thanked the old bridge for staying in place, and then continued on our way, negotiating curves and hills until the road ended in a large parking lot. No cars were allowed beyond it, but there was a minibus system that transported tourists and residents in the area – a small town version of public transport. We could have driven him into town, but Kennicott was more than two miles away and we wanted to save energy for the hike. So we got tickets and hopped on the “Kennicott Shuttle” with a handful of other people.
The mining town has been somewhat rebuilt, and all the remaining buildings are painted dark red. The most impressive is the old mill, which in parts descends down a huge hill to the main town road. The city is marked as a National Historic Landmark. Amongst all the old buildings now stand food trucks, guesthouses, private homes and souvenir shops, creating an eclectic mix of history and commerce. We saw a tour group huddled under umbrellas as a light rain created puddles on the unpaved road.
With the help of a ranger outside Kennicott’s Park Service office, we chose a three-mile hike that led to a huge glacier. The hike is rated easy to moderate (we’ve seen families with small children do well), but most trails in the Wrangell-St. Elias is not for casual hikers. Explorers must know safe stream crossing techniques, have appropriate clothing, and be well versed in mountain terrain and orientation. Permits are not required to return, but it is wise to check with the rangers for advice on weather conditions and other safety measures.
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We put on our rain gear and set off on the Root Glacier Trail, a hike that winds through the forest and over wooden bridges. After about a mile, we got our first glimpse of the “finger” of the vast, five-mile-long glacier. Beyond its dirty gray edges we could see pristine, bluish snow formations on the surface of the glacier swirling as if placed there by Disney’s Elsa herself. Without spikes for our boots, it was unsafe to go out on the glacier. When we saw a group of tourists putting on rented crampons, we regretted not thinking ahead. After we stopped at the glacier to take pictures, we returned to the city.
By now, Kennicott had begun to close for the day, but some of the old buildings were left open for unguided walking. Until dinner, we poked around the machine and some cottages.
When Kennicott goes to sleep, neighbor McCarthy comes alive. The town, named after 19th-century explorer James McCarthy, is driven by tourism and is the social hub of the area. Lodging and restaurants are available for non-camper types. The shuttle took us into town and we chose to have dinner at The Potato, which boasts “extremely delicious food”. Among the menu options were burgers, wild Alaskan salmon and curly fries, all in generous portions. Their hot chocolate warmed our bones from the misty rain that had returned.
Unfortunately, there was no time to linger. We had a 59 mile drive back to the park entrance and knew the road was unforgiving.
Spending less than two days in the Wrangell-St. Elias only served to whet our appetite for more. It was easy to see why former Alaska Sen. Ernest Gruening, who first recommended the area for a national park, said the Wrangell-St. Elias offers “the best scenery I have ever had the privilege of seeing.” With so much more to explore, a return visit is on our bucket list. And we will definitely reserve more than two days for it.
If you go
Location: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a seven-hour drive from Anchorage and about nine hours from Fairbanks.
Accommodation in Kennicott/McCarthy: Kennicott Glacier Lodge, a comfortable base for day trips, kennicottlodge.com,
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