A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
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One of the main attractions in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the Kennecott Copper Corp. mine.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is huge. And few people visit.
For those looking for a little seclusion, it's the perfect combination. It's a wilderness-lover's dream.
With 13.2 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias is the nation's largest national park. It's more than twice as large as Denali National Park and Preserve. It dwarfs the Lower 48's popular Yellowstone National Park (it's six times larger). The park is larger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined.
Mount St. Elias is the nation's second-tallest mountain at 18,008 feet and it towers over the park. The park is home to nine of the 16 highest peaks in the nation.
Flowing from those mountains are dozens of glaciers. The huge Malaspina Glacier is larger than Rhode Island. Hubbard Glacier is one of Alaska's most active tidewater glaciers. It stretches 76 miles, from the Yukon Territory to the sea at Yakutat. The calving face is more than six miles wide.
"It's the largest wilderness area in the country and the largest national park," said Smitty Parratt, chief interpreter at Wrangell-St. Elias. "There are massive mountains and various types of the largest glaciers in America.
"This is a great backcountry wilderness park. There are opportunities for normal visitors to come, drive into the park, hike on trails, stay in some lodging if they want."
The park gets about 40,000 visitors annually. The small number of visitors is actually making the park more popular, Parratt said.
"Wrangell-St. Elias is pretty quickly becoming a major alternative destination to overcrowded and somewhat filled-up Denali," he said. "Visitors can come here and have it not be so crowded; they'll find more solitude."
Parratt said many of the visitors don't make it very far into the park. Many stop at the park headquarters in Copper Center, which is about 210 miles east of Anchorage along the Richardson Highway.
Two primitive roads enter the park. The most popular is the 59-mile McCarthy Road, which takes visitors from Chitina to McCarthy. The road is reached from the Edgerton Highway off the Richardson Highway. The Nebesna Road enters the park from the north. It travels 40 miles from Slana to Nebesna.
While road travel is slow (about 25 to 30 mph) and can be bumpy, Parratt said it's a great way to experience the park.
"The McCarthy Road leads you right in to the center of the park and stops pretty much right at the base of a glacier," he said. "Right there is the large former mine town. The mine put this area on the map."
The Kennecott Copper Corp. pulled tons of copper and silver out of the hills during the early 1900s. Many of the company's buildings exist today, including the 14-story mill. Kennicott was a company town, complete with a hospital, general store, schoolhouse, tennis court, ball field and dairy. (Because of a clerical error, the mine was spelled with an "e," while the town, glacier and river are all spelled Kennicott, with an "i.") The mine and mill shut down in 1938, leaving Kennicott a ghost town.
Visitors can walk around outside the buildings, and tours are offered by St. Elias Alpine Guides (www.steliasguides.com, 1-888-933-5427). The 2 1/2-hour guided trip takes visitors through the mill, which is a National Historic Landmark. The company also offers a variety of other trips in the park. Outside the organized tours, building doors are locked. Parratt said the National Park Service hopes to be able to refurbish many of the buildings over time.
"If you get in the mill and climb up to the 14th floor, you get a feel for how big it is," Parratt said. "There are no elevators or anything. You get to see the whole process.
"Once you're up top, you are way up high and can see down to Chitina and out to the Root Glacier."
Parratt said while it was running, the mill was so loud it could be heard five miles away in McCarthy. During the mining days, McCarthy was the relaxation destination for workers -- complete with taverns and brothels.
"Kennicott was a business town where there wasn't too much merrymaking," Parratt said. "McCarthy was much more laid back. It's similar today."
While Kennicott is a ghost town, McCarthy offers visitors lodging and dining opportunities.
For those who don't wish to drive into the park, McCarthy Air (www.mccarthyair.com, 1-907-554-4440) and Wrangell Mountain Air (www. wrangellmountainair.com, 1-800-478-1160) offer air-taxi service. Flights are generally offered from Chitina, Glenn-allen, Valdez and Cordova. Flightseeing trips are available.
Special-sections editor Steve Edwards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.