Three Perfect Days in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
As the largest park in the country, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is automatically intimidating.
Funnily enough, since it’s one of the few driveable parks in Alaska, it was also the park that we put the least amount of planning into. We figured we’d show up and wing it, which has worked out for us pretty well this year.
This strategy wasn’t detrimental, but we wished we had first done a bit of Googling to ensure we were getting the most out of our three days in the Kennecott area of Wrangell-St. Elias. Lucky for you all, we are going to attempt to streamline the planning process by throwing at you our own experiences to bring you this: the perfect Wrangell-St. Elias itinerary.
Day 1: Road to McCarthy & Town of Kennecott
- Drive the 60-mile McCarthy Road
- Explore the NPS Visitor Center & watch the two park films
- Hike the 1.5-mile Top of the Mill Trail
- Learn about historic Kennecott through exhibits and ranger programs
Unless you are flying or taking a tour into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, your first step will be traveling the McCarthy Road. This 60-mile unpaved road from Chitina, AK to McCarthy, AK follows a historic train route and was in good condition. There are some potholes and the locals drive like crazies, but the road itself was fine for our high-clearance 2WD car. Bonus: the road is gorgeous, with many pullouts and pretty scenery along the way.
Wrangell-St. Elias is unlike other national parks in the sense that private property is interspersed within the park & preserve, so along the road are several private bed & breakfasts, campgrounds, and small restaurants. There is no gas. There is a downside to all these services, though, and once you reach the end of the road, you must pay to park for the day or overnight.
There are also only two options for reaching the town of Kennecott (where you can access the visitor center, trailheads, and camping): paying for the private shuttle ($5 per person each way) or hiking the 4.5 miles along the road.
Once in Kennecott, we’d suggest taking some time to scope out the historic town. The Kennecott Mill is striking. In fact, it’s the tallest standing wooden structure in North America at 14 stories. The rest of the town follows the red and white theme, making for great photos. In Kennecott, you’ll also find the NPS visitor center, exhibits, small shops and outfitters, and the historic Kennicott Glacier Lodge (yes, Kennicott with an “i.” The town and mill are spelled with an “e” but the glacier and valley are spelled with an “i”. It was a clerical mistake that never went away).
Be sure to take the 1.5-mile Top of the Mill Trail that loops up and around the mill and offers unique gorgeous angles of the area. In addition, join in on one of the several ranger programs offered throughout each day in the summer. We really enjoyed the 20-minute ranger talk about the Kennicott Valley, the 45-minute guided walk through town, and the 45-minute evening presentation at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge. Of course, ranger programs are free!
Lastly, you’ll need to get to your accommodations. Lodging is available at the Lodge, in McCarthy, or at the end of the McCarthy Road. If you are going the camping route, we’d recommend Jumbo Creek, an easy 1.5-mile hike from Kennecott. This was one of the most gorgeous places we have camped this entire year.
Day 2: Root Glacier Tour or Rafting Trip
- Take a guided tour to explore Root Glacier
- Walk the remaining 5 miles (round-trip) to the end of the Root Glacier Trail and back
Day two should be dedicated to some classic Wrangell-St. Elias adventure. There are several outfitters in both Kennecott and McCarthy, and there are some great deals out there to make your trip much more cost-efficient.
We knew we wanted to add some kind of adventure to our trip here, so when we got our Alaska TourSaver coupon book, we first scoured options. There are a few tours through McCarthy River Outfitters available as 2-for-1 options. We chose the 1/2-day Root Glacier Hike for $99 total (usually $99/each). This tour was so fun! Our group was only 4 people and our guide — they told us they only ever take 6 — so the intimacy allowed for a quicker pace and lots of questions. (Cole’s dream tour – haha)
We first walked through the town as our guide filled us in on the background of Kennecott. We preferred getting this information from rangers, but our guide was still knowledgeable. Then we walked the 1.5 miles to the edge of Root Glacier, where we strapped on crampons and headed out on the ice. Walking in the crampons was much easier than I expected, and we covered a lot of ground. We saw bright blue pools and crazy curving streams. It reminded us of a blue and white Utah, with its river-carved canyons.
Root Glacier is fed from the Stairway Icefall – the second-tallest icefall in the world! It is situated with Mount Blackburn framed in the background on a clear day, and the tour was just gorgeous. We’d highly suggest it.
The other couple on our tour told us about their previous day’s rafting tour, and that sounded amazing too. We recommend adding on some kind of tour if time and your budget allows.
Day 3: Bonanza Mine Hike
- Hike up to the Bonanza Mine, 4.5 miles and 3800 feet up from Kennecott.
Depending on your athleticism and desire, adding on a longer hike to the Bonanza Mine could be a breathtaking way to say farewell to the beautiful Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. It was for us. From Kennecott, the mine can be reached through a 9-mile (round trip), 3800 feet elevation gain hiking trail. The hike is hard and unrelentingly steep. But the views of Kennicott Valley and beyond are reached almost immediately, redefining the term “worth it.”
Bring lunch and plenty of water. The hike mostly follows an old mining road, before narrowing to a single-file dirt trail. There is one water source, a beautiful cascading stream about 3.5 miles up. A private hiking guide at the stream assured us that the water was the cleanest out there, but the fact that there were rusty mining materials sitting in the water upstream led us to filter it just to be safe. When we finally reached the old mine, we scrambled an extra hundred feet or so up to the ridge for the most breathtaking view of Mount Blackburn and the entire valley.
Take your time back down and watch out for ball-bearing-like rocks on the trail. We’d suggest rewarding yourself with a treat from the delicious (and much more affordable than the lodge meal) food truck in Kennecott 🙂
And now you’ve spent three perfect days in Wrangell-St. Elias. Of course, “perfect” is always going to be subjective. Three perfect days to you might mean getting dropped by bush plane to backpack across the remote park, or hop on a rafting tour, or just gaze upon the red and white beauty that is the historic Kennecott Mill.
Regardless, Wrangell-St. Elias is worthy of visiting. We have a definite soft spot for under-appreciated park service gems like this, and we strongly suggest you adopt the same mindset.
Has anyone been here? Or now added it to your bucket list? We’d love to hear your Wrangell-St. Elias experiences!