Mike Chowla
Alaska August 2010:

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a hidden gem. It's vast, remote but accessible by car, at least to those who don't mind rough dirt roads. Heading east from Anchorage on the Glenn Highway through the Copper River Valley, I had a feeling good things were in store. The weather was clearing as I drove east and I started to see the Alaska I was looking for: scenic mountains, vast forests and the feeling being in a remote & untamed land. Crossing the Eureka Pass, the Wrangle Mountains begin to come into view. Jutting up from endless forests below, they dominate the landscape.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is America's largest national park at 13M acres. Even in July, there's relatively few people. Much of the park is inaccessible, but the McCarthy road provides a great opportunity to delve 60 miles into the heart of the park. It's a gravel road, sections of which are rough but I was able to make it down and back in a passenger car without difficulty. After heavy rain, 4WD would be required. It's slow going but the scenery is spectacular.

The road ends at the town of McCarthy. There's a significant amount of private property within the boundaries of the park and McCarthy is privately held. McCarthy is a tiny but utterly charming town. And while its entirely economy is tourist focused, it's radiates history. 3 miles beyond McCarthy there's the historic and fascinating Kennecott mines. The decaying red buildings with a glacier in the background conjure up visions of an industrial early 20th century America where fortunes were made and sometimes lost through audacious ventures. To make extracting copper ore feasible, a railroad line had to be built from Kennecott to the port of Cordova. It was a hugely expensive and dangerous undertaking. Today, the many of the buildings from ore processing operation are still standing.

I wish I had more time to spend in the McCarthy/Kennecott area. There are several glaciers to explore, a tour inside the mill I'd like to take and more remote mining buildings to see. On my next trip to Alaska, I certainly will spend more time here. It's hard to cover everything in a day since the 60 miles each from the gateway town of Chitina to McCarthy takes 2.5+ hours each way.