Photo: Helicopter next to Hubbard Glacier

A helicopter looks as tiny as a toy in the face of Hubbard Glacier in Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest of all national parks.

Photograph by Chris Johns

Location: Alaska

Established: December 2, 1980

Size: 13,188,000 acres

Even in a state famous for its size, Wrangell-St. Elias stands out. It is by far the largest of our national parks—almost six times the size of Yellowstone. You fly over it and see mountains beyond mountains, glaciers after glaciers, rivers upon rivers. You float a river and watch the moods and mountains change by the minute. As you walk the tundra, you find Dall's sheep and mountain goats grazing.

Four major mountain ranges converge here: the volcanic Wrangells, the Alaska, the Chugach, and the St. Elias—tallest coastal mountains in the world. Together they contain 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, 4 of them above 16,000 feet. There are more than 150 glaciers; one, the Malaspina, is larger than Rhode Island. In 1980 Wrangell-St. Elias and adjoining Kluane National Park Reserve in Canada, along with Glacier Bay NP and Tatshenshini in British Columbia, were designated a United Nations World Heritage site.

Vast and rugged as it is, the park is not a fortress. Two roads lead into small communities, remnants of the gold- and copper-mining towns that thrived in the early days of the 20th century. Today not mining but the nearly limitless hiking, rafting, kayaking, and climbing opportunities beckon.

How to Get There

Drive, take a bus, or charter a plane. By car from Anchorage, take Alas. 1 (Glenn Hwy.) 189 miles northeast to Glennallen. Continue northeast 74 miles along the Copper River and the park's western boundary to Slana, where an unpaved road branches 42 miles into the park, ending at the town of Nabesna.

Or, head toward McCarthy on the Richardson Hwy. from Glennallen 32 miles southeast to the Edgerton cutoff (Alas. 10), then turning left and continuing 33 miles to Chitina. There the pavement ends but a road follows an old railroad bed about 60 miles into the park. Buses run regularly in summer from Anchorage to Valdez with stops in Glennallen.

Air charters into the park operate out of Anchorage, Fairbanks, Yakutat, Cordova, Glennallen, Gulkana, Tok, Chitina, McCarthy, Nabesna, and Northway. Commercial jets service Yakutat and Cordova. In summer, the Alaska State Ferry serves Valdez and Cordova.

When to Go

Summer. Lodges and guide services operate in the park from mid-May to the end of September. June is best for wildflowers; July has the warmest days; berries ripen in August. Be prepared for cloudy skies, but September can be beautiful with clear skies, autumn colors, no mosquitoes, and a dusting of new snow on the mountain peaks. March and April offer excellent cross-country skiing for those of strong will.

How to Visit

Take one of the two unpaved roads into the park. The McCarthy Road is maintained and usually passable in summer, though a four-wheel drive may be needed in other seasons. Stop at park headquarters in Copper Center for latest road conditions. The Slana-Nabesna Road is also maintained, including some river crossings, but can require four-wheel drive in high water. Both roads end at trailheads for many backcountry hikes.

Or, charter a plane into a remote part of the park and hike or run a river. Several commercial companies offer guided rafting or kayaking trips on the rivers and in the spectacular coastal bays. You can get a full listing of them from the park.

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