62 Parks Traveler started with one simple goal: to visit every US national park. Avid backpacker and nerd Emily Pennington from public land has saved up, built a tiny van to travel and live in. The parks as we know them are changing fast and she wanted to see them before it was too late.
Wrangell – St. Elias is huge, even by Alaskan standards. With 13.2 million acres by far the largest national park in the US is seven hours east of Anchorage and, according to the National Park Service, covers an area the size of Yosemite, Yellowstone and Switzerland combined. The park is home to the second highest peak in the United States, 18,008 foot Mount St. Elias, and many of the largest glaciers in North America. I knew it would be impossible to see it all, let alone four days.
Even so, I started my first hike there optimistically and ready to explore and met my tour guide Bryce Wall at the St. Elias Alpine Guides office in the historic copper mining town of Kennecott. Our task? A steep climb and climb to the 100 year old remains of the Erie Mine.
We started by hiking parallel to the huge Wurzel Glacier, a messy tongue of ice that emerges from the kilometer-high stair ice fall. Tender clouds in the early morning were starting to clear, and I prayed we’d get a view of 16,391-foot Mount Blackburn, the fifth highest peak in the United States. Before the haze could lift completely, we turned sharply to the right and began a relentlessly long slip up a loose scree ravine. Then it got really steep.
My nerves began to sink their teeth into my brain when this occasional mess suddenly required multiple fourth grade movements in a row. The pitch was almost vertical and I was expecting a mild afternoon. I paused, startled, and clung to the rocks, feeling over my head. Concerned about the mossy boulders, I descended 12 feet with my head hanging in my hands. I wanted to go on bail.
At that moment, Bryce cut in, “Look, even as we’re going down, we still had a great day in the mountains. I mean, just look at this view of Mount Donoho. “
He was right, of course. Every day in the mountains is better than a day at home or in the office. I did my best to swallow my pride and enjoy the scenery as we slowly returned to town.
The next day it was all about ice climbing, and I was determined not to mess up my nerves. I tried the sport for the second time. By some strange providence, I had the same guide as before, and Bryce provided our group with crampons, mountaineering boots, and harnesses before we set out to try the Root Glacier.
Soon I was surrounded by the cold Waterfalls and aquamarine ice. A brisk glacier breeze made me shiver and whipped my hair around my face. I was a little careful to climb thirty meters above the ground with two ice axes and a set of sharp blades attached to my feet, but the landscape was so devastatingly cold and vast that it distracted my discomfort. The Root Glacier itself stretched for miles behind me like a huge frozen river, and the steep peaks of the Wrangell Mountains stretched out for ages.
Stitch, stitch. Kick, kick, kick. Ice climbing has a rhythm that is almost musical once you get the hang of it. I breathed calmly and thrust the metal tips into the glacier, wobbly on my legs after the folly of the previous day. I took my time, concentrated, and slowly ascended. Before I knew it, I was on top – on top of the glacier and on top of my fears.
(Photo: Emily Pennington)
62 Parks Traveler Wrangell – St. Elias Info
Size: 13.2 million acres
Place: Eastern Alaska
Created in: 1978 (national monument), 1980 (national park and nature reserve)
Best for: Hiking, backpacking, rafting, ice climbing, glacier hiking, mountaineering
When to go: Summer (38 to 66 degrees) and autumn (minus 3 to 55 degrees) are the most accessible and popular months. Like much of Alaska, the park has long, extreme winters that are not recommended to visit.
Where to sleep: Kennicott Base Camp is about as close as possible to the McCarthy Footbridge and the Park Shuttle Stop. From this point on, private vehicles are no longer allowed. It has distributed camping with outbuildings and views of Kennicott Glacier and the river. I rented a killer rig from AK SubOverland with lights, a fridge and a double bed in the back and spent my four days in the park in style.
Where should we eat: The potato at quirky McCarthy is the place to go when the sun goes down. It serves rustic Alaskan cuisine, epic fries, and great beers.
Mini adventure: Tour the Kennecott Mühlstadt. This two-hour walking tour provides visitors with information about the unique history the area while offering excellent views of the nearby mountains and glaciers.
Mega adventure: Go ice climbing or mountain climbing. St. Elias Alpine Guides offers a wealth of day and multi-day excursions for all levels of difficulty, from simple glacier hikes to alpine expeditions.
Main photo: Emily Pennington