Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (NP #29), Alaska



It’s no coincidence that the largest national park in the US resides in her largest state.


At over 20,000 square miles Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve (map / wiki) occupies an area greater than the state of Vermont. It’s unique from other parks I’ve visited for a few reasons.

First off, a good number of Alaskans live within the park boundaries (1), and they are permitted to hunt, fish, and utilize the land in accordance with subsistence living practices (2). As recently as 1983 people were allowed to homestead in the area (3). Inevitably many of the homesteaders were unsuccessful and the park service has since rehabilitated some of the abandoned cabins and made them available for visitors (4). Backcountry camping is free and doesn’t require a permit (5). Responsible campfires are permitted anywhere in the park (6).


The short story is that this Wrangell St. Elias is so vast and remote that they give visitors more freedom than other parks. The expectation is that you can take care of yourself.


I entered the park last Wednesday (8/5/15) and followed Nabesna Road out to the Skookum Volcano Trailhead. Skookum Volcano is heavily eroded and its crater has been gouged out by the creek running down its north face. The trail paralleled the creek through a network of low trees before dumping down into the creek bed itself. From there the general route was marked by trail carins leading upstream. I recognized a few familiar pieces of volcanic geology such as yellow and red volcanic rock, conglomerate rocks, and criss-crossing intrusion fins.


View from Skookum Volcano.




The next day I had scheduled a glacier hike out of McCarthy, and by 9:30am my group was fitted with crampons and we were hiking out to the ice.


There were four of us total. Our guide, Kelly, was a tall fellow from upstate New York who specialized in ice climbing, and his other two clients were a man and woman from the Czech Republic. We three were newbies with crampons, but the technique was easy to get ok at. Kelly gave us advice to “walk like a cowboy” to avoid catching the crampons on our pant legs, and step with authority – firm enough to make a healthy crunch. We toured a few waterfalls and followed the serpentine canyons they form to the spooky holes into which the meltwater dives. It would be a tough way to die – falling down into one of those holes – violently slamming down an abrasive icy slip-n-slide to who knows where.


Naturally, Kelly allowed me to hang over the edge provided he kept a grip on my backpack.


Waterfall in Wrangell St. Elias National Park.


“That right there is where you don’t want to fall”


Some unexpected things:


While reading John Muir’s book, Travels in Alaska, I always had a hard time visualizing the glacial moraines he describes. Specifically, I didn’t understand how the rocks got on top of the ice. I learned that rocks are chipped off by the passing glacier and imbedded within it. The glacier melts from the top down and more rocks are exposed as time goes on.


This is a glacier. The rocks are piled a few feet thick on the top. The channels of dark and light rock originate from different spots on the mountain.


Accumulated surface rocks absorb light from the sun more efficiently, and drill down into the ice.


Rock dust absorbs sunlight better than ice and it make these 1-2cm holes.


That night I stayed around McCarthy and went to open mic night at the Golden Saloon. I preformed my favorite joke and read a short blog entry, but it didn’t go over as well as I hoped. It was still fun. They clapped when I was done.



2 Comments on “Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (NP #29), Alaska

  1. Wow, sounds like such relaxed rules on overnighting could make for some great adventures. Hope things are well dude!! I’m moving back to Oregon at the end of this month, either Bend or Portland depending on how my interview with Oracle goes. If you’re swinging back through on your way back to Cali, we should definitely try to meet up again. Last time was a missed opportunity on my part to show you CO. Hope Electric Forest was fun! Catch up soon – Molloy

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