If you do one thing while visiting Alaska, it MUST be soaring through the mountains and above the glaciers that cover so much of the vast expanse of the state. It is one of my favorite things that we have ever done. And if you really want my opinion, you should do this in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the country’s largest national park, my personal favorite national park, and one that pretty much nobody I’ve chatted with has ever heard of.
We spent just a few days in Wrangell-St. Elias, and it is one of the places that we are sure to go back to and preferably sooner than later. It is a huge park, covering more than 13 million acres, it’s filled with forests, peaks, glaciers, and wildlife, and it’s the convergence of two huge mountain ranges – the Saint Elias and Wrangell ranges. Wrangell-St. Elias is a stunningly beautiful wilderness. The best of Alaska, and that is saying a lot.
There are only 2 roads into the park, both rough roads but accessible by cars (unlike Denali, which is accessible only 15 miles into the park). We headed down McCarthy Road through the beautiful forest, with huge mountain vistas peeking through, towards the towns of McCarthy and Kennecott. We were told that the road was really rough with lots of potholes, so we didn’t take the camper. But it actually wasn’t that bad – there were a few campers and small cars that made it just fine down the road. I wouldn’t take a huge camper out there, but our small teardrop would have been just fine.
Kennecott is a national historic site, the remains of an old copper mine and the surrounding town that made J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheims, among other investors, more than $200 million between 1911 and 1938. It is now abandoned and slowly being restored by the National Park Service, and it’s an interesting little town filled with old red buildings with white trim, obsolete mining equipment and lots of historical information. McCarthy is the little town just beside Kennecott. We loved exploring these little towns, but what I loved most was our 70-minute flight that took us above the treetops, zipping through the mountains and over the numerous glaciers in the area.
We booked a flightseeing tour with Wrangell Mountain Air and had to be a bit flexible about the timing for our flight. The weather changes quickly and unexpectedly and of course you don’t want to be in a tiny plane soaring above the jagged and wild peaks in iffy weather.
We were lucky enough to get a window of sunshine and low winds on the second afternoon we were there and so we jumped in the plane with another couple and took off.
We flew through the nearby valley, following the Chitina River and making our way up a number of valleys, past beautiful waterfalls and eventually higher into the mountains.
We passed over so many glaciers I lost count, and while our pilot mentioned the names of the waterfalls, glaciers and other landmarks that we passed, it was impossible to remember it all – not least because I was far too busy gawking at the indescribably beautiful vistas that we were passing over.
A plane ride like this is not for the weak of stomach. I was feeling a little queasy although I don’t normally get motion sickness. Winding in and out of the valleys and over the glaciers with sometimes tight turns can definitely bring on some air sickness. But it is 100% worth it!
We flew past the Jumbo mine, an old abandoned and dilapidated mine perched precariously atop a peak. There is an intense day hike to this mine and we definitely want to do that next time we make it to WSE. There is simply never enough time to do it all, is there?
I have a thing for glaciers. That goes without question. We have traveled to quite a few places in search of some glacier viewing. But I have never seen them quite like this. We were able to see down into the crags and huge ice caves, marvel at the stunningly blue glacial lakes that form on top of the ice, peer down the miles of ice flow that have accumulated over thousands of years.
You can see how the ice has flowed much like a river does, but at a glacial pace (of course!).
We passed huge icebergs floating in lakes at the ends of the glaciers, and tiny runways cut into the hillsides right beside the glaciers where the planes land to drop off intrepid glacier hikers – DEFINITELY on our list of things to do on our next trip here.
We saw some mountain goats on the hillside and a bear from the plane, and I do love wildlife viewing more than the average person, but the real highlights of a flight like this are the glaciers.
Hanging glaciers, cirque glaciers, rock glaciers, icefields, valley glaciers, glaciers galore, and most in a state of retreat. I am so thankful that we were able to see these beauties while they are still here.
Root Glacier, a rock glacier covered in debris
LOCATION Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska, USA