Alaska: An Ice Day for a Hike

The Ins and Outs of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

When I decided to go to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, my first thought was "road trip!" The 300-mile drive from Anchorage will take a day, but it's a great opportunity to see a spectacular swath of Alaska's interior, from the Chugach Range and the Matanuska Glacier, visible from the Glennallen Highway, to Mount Wrangell, a live volcano inside the park itself. No McDonald's; instead you can chomp a burger at historic roadhouses like the Copper Center Lodge, which was founded in 1897.

The park's new visitor-center in Copper Center offers information on natural history and recreation (nps.gov/wstl), and a view of the Copper River and the Wrangells. Down the road, the scruffy outpost of Chitina is the last chance to stock up on Doritos and gasoline for the 60-mile drive down McCarthy Road. This one-lane gravel track was formerly the right of way for the rail line to the Kennecott mine, completed in 1911. Just after Chitina, check out the people fishing for salmon by the Copper River bridge-native Alaskans use fish wheels upstream, while good ol' boys are wading with dip nets downstream.

The road is in much better shape than in years past, but check your car's spare tire before you head out to make sure it's in working order; you're on your own as far as car repairs go. The Kuskulana River bridge offers the biggest thrill en route-its narrow trestle spans a 238-foot gorge. Stop at the far side and walk back across for an extra shiver. If that's not spooky enough, talk to a longtime McCarthy resident like McCarthy Air's Gary Green, who can tell you what it was like driving the bridge back in the 1970s, when there were no guardrails and some of the railroad ties were missing.

Capitalism is thriving at the end of the road. Parking ranges from $10 a day, right next to the footbridge across the Kennicott River, to free, a halfmile back. You can walk into town, rent a mountain bike at the Glacier View campground, or call your lodgings for a van pickup on the far side of the bridge.

Accommodations are surprisingly cushy, considering that this is the Alaskan bush. The two big players are McCarthy Lodge, which offers private rooms with shared baths in a historic 1916 building, as well as a backpackers' hostel. The lodge's bar serves light meals like Alaskan Amber battered halibut ($14), and the restaurant features unusual main courses like orencini, a Sicilian specialty of fried risotto balls with a meat ragu ($14). Prices are a bargain for the locale; draft microbrews are $4. Five miles up the hill in the Kennecott company town, the Kennicott Glacier Lodgeoffers rooms with shared bath and a spectacular view of the Kennicott and Root glaciers below. Chow is great here, too, with noshes like fresh Copper River salmon with sun-dried tomato pesto and pasta rags, and chai creme brulee for dessert.

But you didn't come here for the creme brulee. A flight-seeing trip would be a frill in most other destinations but is almost essential here for getting a sense of the vast wilderness that surrounds McCarthy. Pick either Gary Green's McCarthy Air Service, or Kelly and Natalie Bay's Wrangell Mountain Air; both have been flying these mountains for decades. Wrangell Mountain Air also offers daily flights from Chitina to McCarthy for people who don't have the time or the patience to drive the road.

Terrific hikes abound. Many of the more popular ones, like Skolai Pass, require being dropped off by a bush plane. It's easier and cheaper to start off by hiking the trails around McCarthy and Kennecott, including the Root Glacier and Bonanza Mine trails. Kennicott Wilderness GuidesSt. Elias Alpine Guidesoffer half- and full-day glacier explorations, as well as overnights on the glacier and fly-in backpacking. St. Elias also offers tours inside the Kennecott mine's buildings, which can be explored only in a group tour. Both firms have offices on Kennecott's main street.

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