Wrangell-St. Elias is a vast national park that rises from the ocean all the way
up to 18,008 ft. At 13.2 million acres, it is the largest U.S. national
park and equals six Yellowstone parks. Within park boundaries exists
the nation's largest glacial system, with glaciers covering 35 percent of the
parklands. There are four mountain ranges (Wrangell Mountains, St. Elias
Mountains, Chugach Mountains, and Alaska Range) in the Wrangell-St. Elias
National Park. Nine of the 16 highest peaks on U.S. soil are located in
the park, along with North America's largest subpolar icefield (Bagley Ice
Valley). The wilderness of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
is truly an awe-inspiring experience.
7/10 (Day 10) Getting There ...
We continued our trip from Seattle
and Mount Rainier, and flew to
Anchorage on the day before (7/9).
- We started our drive from Anchorage to Wrangell-St. Elias in the early
morning. The drive itself (AK-1 Glenn Highway, AK-4 Richardson
Highway, AK-10 Edgerton Highway, and finally unpaved McCarthy Road) was
quite a journey and full of vista viewpoints. With plenty of photo
stops, a lunch break (and filling up the gas tank) at Glennallen, and a
quick stroll at the Copper Center Visitor Center, it took us about 9 hours
to complete the journey. Here is a nice
video describing how to drive to
- McCarthy Road
The McCarthy Road is an unpaved 60-mile dirt road from
Chitina to McCarthy (roughly following the old rail bed). It was so
notorious in the past that many rental car companies did not allow their
cars to be on the McCarthy Road. However, the road condition has been
greatly improved and maintained in the recent years that you do not even
need a 4WD to drive on this road (although I still rented a Jeep).
It's a fun drive, and definitely one of the highlights for this trip.
At the end of the McCarthy Road, you had to park your car
and walked across the footbridge to reach McCarthy and Kennecott (by shuttle).
There were some luggage carts (at either end of the footbridge) that you can use
to haul your luggage across the bridge. On the bridge, it has one of the
best views of Kennicott Glacier.
We took the shuttle (at 5PM) to the
Kennicott Glacier Lodge where
we will stay for 3 nights. When I did the research about the park and
places, I found there are 2 different spellings: Kennecott vs. Kennicott.
I was very confused until I got the free Kennecott-McCarthy Visitor Guide
from the shuttle stop. Here is the explanation: The mining
company was named after the Kennicott Glacier, but somehow it ended up with
a different spelling as Kennecott Copper Corporation (most say it was a
clerical error). So today in general, Kennecott tends to indicate
historic features and the settlement; Kennicott most often indicates natural
features like the glacier, river, and valley.
The iconic view in Kennecott is the giant red 14-story
mill building from the old Kennecott Copper Company. It is still the
tallest wooden structure in America. You can only access the inside of the
building through a guided tour (we will take the tour on 7/12 morning).
7/11 (Day 11) ...
Glacier -- Ice Explorer Climb & Hike
I have arranged a few exciting
activities with Kennicott Wilderness
Guides for my day trips in Wrangell-St. Elias. This Ice Explorer
combines glacier hiking, ice climbing and rope access exploration.
Since it was a private tour, therefore it was totally customizable and
flexible based on what we want and what our capabilities are. We met
our guide Avery at the KWG office in Kennecott at 9:30AM. She was very
helpful and friendly to get us equipped (water-proof pants, gloves,
backpacks, boots, crampons, etc.). It started with an easy 2-mile hike
to reach the Root Glacier, and the fun began when we put on our boots and
crampons and stepped onto the glacier. If we just did the regular
glacier hike, crampons would be sufficient. Because we would also do
some ice climbing which required some kicking into the ice when we climbed
up, we had to use hard shell boots which we had to carry when we hiked to
Avery set up some ropes on a slope (~30 feet tall) to let
us try some ice climbing. It looked easy, but it was still quite physical
demanding. As usual, Woanyu did much better than me :-)
After a lunch break and some ice hiking, Avery found a
moulin (a vertical well-like shaft
within a glacier which water enters from the surface) and
set up ropes at the edge.
The idea was using the ropes to lower us into the moulin shaft so we could take
some cool pictures, but it needed us to lean back and put our weight on the
ropes (it means we had to totally trust the ropes...). It's easy to see
how Avery did it, but the fear just came when we were standing close to the
edge. After a few moment of hesitation, we decided to pass and just did
more ice hiking around many interesting and beautiful glacier/ice formations.
When we hiked down from the glacier, we saw a few search
and rescue personnel come onto the glacier. There has been an accident
that a hiker fell on the glacier (~40 feet) and broke his leg. It's sad to
hear people get injured (and it reminded us that we need to be always careful
with nature), but it's also good to know there are many people (including many
volunteers) who can help when things happen.
7/12 (Day 12) ...
Kennecott Mill Town Tour
In the summer of 1900, prospectors Clarence
Warren and Jack Smith were exploring Kennecott Glacier and came across the
richest concentration of copper ore ever discovered. Stephen Birch, a
mining engineer just out of school, was in Alaska looking for investment
opportunities in minerals with the support from the Havemeyer family.
Birch bought 21 claims of copper mines and consolidated them in 1903 as the
Alaska Copper and Coal Company. In need of proper resources, Birch
formed an organization and sought out the help of Daniel Guggenheim and J.P
Morgan. It became known as Kennecott Mining Company. From 1911 to
1938, nearly $200 million worth of copper was processed. At the peak of
operation, approximately 300 people worked in the mill town and 200-300 in
the mines. By the early 1930, the highest grades of ore were largely
depleted. Declining profits and increasing costs of railroad repairs
led to the eventual closure of the Kennecott operation in 1938, and
Kennecott became a ghost town.
I booked a 70-minute flightseeing tour with
Wrangell Mountain Air.
They came to pick us up at Kennecott at 3:00PM and drove us to the McCarthy
airport (more like an airstrip) for our 3:30PM flight. Unfortunately
the cloud level was low today so they could not do their regular
70-minute flight route,
and the pilot had to fly lower and avoid some mountain passages.
Although the light was not perfect, we still got some good glacier and
mountain views, and we also got a moment of blue sky when the cloud suddenly
opened up around Regal Glacier for a few minutes. Woanyu was quite
nervous and had some airsickness initially. But when we saw the
mountain and glacier from the
opening of the cloud, the excitement overcame the airsickness. To
see how fast the cloud moved,
photo-1 and photo-2 were
only 15 seconds apart.
After dinner, we walked to Kennecott to take a few more
pictures. One good (or bad) thing in Alaska in summer is that sunset
is at 11PM, and it does not really get dark at night.
7/13 (Day 13) ...
We checked out Kennicott Glacier Lodge and moved to McCarthy
(Kate Kennedy House by Ma Johnson's
Hotel) today. We took the shuttle to McCarthy at 10AM and had
plenty of time to walk around this small town.
McCarthy and Kennecott are
two of the most well preserved ghost towns in America. Kennecott was the
quintessential “Company Town” & McCarthy was a fully realized “Sin City”
(where the workers came to spend their money and had fun). These towns were
inseparably tied together back in the beginning, and they are still
- Fly-In Day Hike: Skolai
I arranged a
Fly-In Day Hike
to Skolai area with
Kennicott Wilderness Guides.
Our guide Spencer came to pick us up at 12:30PM to go to the airport.
Since we were assigned to a small airplane (pilot + 2 passengers), we had to
take turns: the pilot first flew Spencer (and her big packs including
emergency supply/tent in case we could not come back today) to Skolai, and
then came back to fly Woanyu and I (it was about an hour round-trip flight).
Fly-in day hike is one of the ultimate ways to experience the wild Alaska.
The bush plane flew through the heart the Wrangell and dropped us in the
backcountry with millions acres of wilderness. There is no designated
trail and no pre-set destination. We hiked to a
waterfall (there were too
many beautiful waterfalls which don't even have names) when we were unable
to cross a stream. Then we hiked up to a hill with blanket of
wildflowers and meadows overlooking the
Skolai Valley. We stayed till ~7:30PM for the plane (a
bigger plane so we could all
fit in) to come to pick us up (the guide had a satellite phone so we could
stay in touch with the air service).
7/14 (Day 14) ...
- Lake at the end of Root Glacier
We had another fly-in day hike
arranged for today at 10AM. However, the weather was not good and the
cloud level was too low that all flights had been grounded in the morning.
While we were waiting for the news from the air service, our guide Asye took us to a lake with ice from Root Glacier to have a short
hike and photo session.
- Fly-In Day Hike: Fosse
While we ordered our lunch at a local
restaurant "Potato", we got a confirmation from the air service that they
could fly us out at 1PM. We were so excited and we changed our lunch
order to to-go and rushed to the airport. At the airport, we learned that we
will use an even smaller plane today (pilot + 1 passenger only, like a small
world war II airplane Piper L-4 Grasshopper) so the pilot had to come
back-and-forth 3 times to fly us to our destination,
flight to Fosse was shorter than to Skolai yesterday, but the views of
glaciers were equally amazing especially with the
big glass windows of this small plane.
The flight across the Kennicott Glacier dropped us to a magical strip of
land between glacier and mountain. We hiked along a ridge with good
views of the surrounding glaciers and rocky moraines although we did not
actually reach our intended destination, Hidden Creek Lake, because the last
section of the trail (less than 0.5 mile) was a little bit too scary (it's
supposed to be a "goat" trail :-)).
There was an annual natural event in July just happened
when we were there:
Hidden Creek Lake vanished and lost 10 billion gallons of water in two days.
The yearly draining of Hidden Creek Lake is what glaciologists call an outburst
flood, when a body of water blocked by a glacier drains rapidly through a
mysterious network of conduits beneath the glacier (here
is a good article for more details). When it happens, it doubles the flow
of the Kennicott River and people
gather at the McCarthy footbridge to celebrate.
We really enjoyed all the adventures we did with
Kennicott Wilderness Guides
(glacier hike/ice climb, fly-in day hike to Skolai and Fosse). All our
guides (Avery, Spencer, and Ayse) were very friendly and accommodating our needs
and capabilities, and showed us around the best of Wrangell-St. Elias.
Betsy has been very responsive to answer my questions and arrange our tours, and
gave me a lot of suggestions to make our trip a true Alaska memory.
7/15 (Day 15) ...
- Kate Kennedy House
We stayed in the
Kate Kennedy House for the last 2 nights. Staying in this restored
historical house with many authentic antiques was an experience by its own.
We could even play a fully manual
stereoscope. The owner Neil was so friendly and helpful that
we chat on the phone for almost an hour when I booked the room a few months
ago to help me plan my trip.
- Drive back to Anchorage
Another luxurious benefit for staying at the
Kate Kennedy House was that Neil arranged a driver to bring us back to the
footbridge in an old 1931 Ford antique car.
It's another long 7+ hours drive to Anchorage. We
did not stop much for photos on our way. We just enjoyed the ride and
7/16 (Day 16) Going Home ...
We had a relaxed morning in Anchorage. We visited the Ulu Factory gift
shop and walked to downtown (it's a raining day) for a nice Japanese lunch.
It's been an amazing 2-week vacation (from
Mount Rainier, to Wrangell-St.
Elias) with so many different experiences: feeling the emotion at Joe
Hisaish's concert, pilgrim visit to the original Starbucks, finding trails in
snow in Mount Rainier in July, ice climbing on glacier, bush flight to total
wilderness, etc. This trip marked the beginning for me to transition to my
part-time advisory role at work, and I have been lucky to be able to enjoy both
my work and my travel.
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