Wrangell-St Elias National Park (plus the Denali Highway)

We left Valdez, headed north on the Richardson Highway. This road is the one with the glacier and waterfalls that we came in on and it was just as enjoyable on the way out. We turned off before the Copper Center area to get to Chitina, which is a very small town. The gas station has one pump for gasoline and no diesel. We headed to the free campground just after the pavement ends. We got out of the truck to take a gander at some of the sites when Mark discovered our trailer had a flat tire. And I mean FLAT. It was so flat that he couldn’t get the jack underneath it. He brought an air compressor with us, that had gone unused for 2 months until today. He used it to inflate the tire so he could raise the trailer enough to slide the jack under it and was able to get it changed with the full spare we brought. We resumed our search of a spot to set up camp. There weren’t formal campsites, just unlevel cleared ground where campers parked anyway they could fit. Our challenge was to find a spot that would not block someone in, be as level as possible for our slides to function, and be parked in a way that we would not get blocked in by another vehicle. After playing real life camper Tetris, we gave up and drove 5 miles back to an small but adequate RV park called Wrangell View RV Park. There were 10 sites, all gravel and level, with full hookups. We decided not to unhook the truck as we would be ATVing into the National Park tomorrow. Once camp was set up, we pulled out our chairs and read books for awhile outside, one of the few times we have done this.

Wrangell-St Elias National Park is the largest national park in the US, bigger than Yellowstone by six times. There are only 2 roads, both unpaved, McCarthy Rd is 60 miles long and Nabesna Rd is 42 miles long so most of the park is inaccessible except by charter plane. We had picked up the ATV permit at the Copper Center Visitor Center a few days ago. Mark set an alarm for 5:45am knowing we had a long day and needed to get Molly out for a walk before leaving her all day. The Chitina airport (for small 1-2 person planes) was half a mile down our drive so we walked there to the edge of the river. There was a fishwheel ready to be used in season (early July), but it wasn’t in the water. On our walk back to the camper, we watched the sun rise over the mountainside. This has been our only sunrise of the trip so far, as the sun has risen in the middle of the night until now. We are losing 6 minutes of daylight every day since summer solstice on June 21.

We had 5 miles of paved road into Chitina, then 60 miles of unpaved road through the national park and preserve to get McCarthy. From there, we cross a footbridge and take a shuttle bus 5 miles into Kennicott to explore the copper mill and mine as well as glaciers. Our hurry was that we wanted to get on the 9am shuttle from McCarthy as the next one wasn’t until 10am. Cars were saying it took them 2 hours to drive the road. Knowing the ATV is made for unpaved roads, we knew we would be much faster. We left camp at 7:20am and then stopped at a corner where we got internet for 10 minutes to send a few quick work emails. A lot of people complained about this road being the 2nd or 3rd worst in Alaska (to the Dalton Highway and the Tok Cutoff), but we had no problems at all on the ATV. I started doing math and realized that driving 65 miles and arriving at the footbridge by 9am meant we would have to average between 45-50 mph. We didn’t know the speed limit on the road was 35mph. Snowshoe hares (brown because it is summer) were everywhere, darting kamikaze-style across the road in front of us. We hit two. I won’t incriminate us and say what time we actually arrived. I will tell you that we got to the footbridge and went to pay for parking to get on the bus when 2 locals told us we could in fact take our ATV across the bridge and drive it all the way to Kennicott. They said if it fits, you can drive it over. That’s how the locals get across. All that rushing for nothing.

We headed straight for Kennicott first thing. It was a booming town in the early 1900s, both mining and milling copper. They had a school, hospital, general store, etc. The National Park Service has done a great job restoring many of the buildings, with more dilapidated buildings to go. About half were open for us to walk through with historical displays. Technology has obviously changed in the last century, yet it is amusing to see how much of life hasn’t changed. The manager’s office had paperwork, telegrams, ledgers, documents of shifts worked, etc. There was a power plant to generate electricity to run the town and mill. The general store had boxes displayed of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Hershey’s chocolate bars, Del Monte canned vegetables, Cracker Jacks, Quaker Oats, many brands we still eat today. The women in town would host ladies’ tea parties, dressed in their prettiest dresses and hats, and entertain with their fine china. Some houses even had running water.

From Kennicott, we hiked 2 miles back to Root Glacier. We were able to climb onto it and have a snack standing on ice thousands of years old. What’s interesting is the surface of the ice was actually grippy and had a scuffed surface, filled in with dirt and silt.

McCarthy is a cool little town. It was featured a few years ago on a TV show called Edge of Alaska, which Mark watched. There are a handful of cabins to rent. We indulged in some ice cream at the general store and then Mark took pictures of the hotel that was featured in the show, and still for sale today.

On the long 65 mile drive back to our campground, I spotted a bull moose only 10 or 15 feet off the road but in enough brush that Mark didn’t get to see him after several passes. Other than that, it was uneventful. Most of the road was bordered by trees and shrubs that didn’t allow for as much wildlife searching as we would have hope. Then again, we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that maybe there just aren’t actually bears in Alaska. Far less than we have expected, in any case. We tried fishing in Silver Lake, as recommended by 2 locals for large rainbow trout, but couldn’t find a good place from the bank that was deep enough to allow for adequate fishing so we didn’t stay more than a few casts. McCarthy Road was dry and dusty. We and the ATV were covered in dust and dirt, in every nook and cranny.

Before hitting the other road in Wrangell-St Elias NP, we were told we would love the Denali Highway. It was a little out of the way but we decided to go for it. We stopped in Glennallen to get our flat tire repaired so now we again have a useable spare tire. It took them 2 hours and cost $25. Not bad at all! We also stopped by the Fish and Game office to get some fishing info. Mark has gone to 3 difference offices now and has been disappointed that the only person to answer questions is an admin, not a game warden or actual fisherman so we got a handout of local rivers and the fish they carry but didn’t get the specific info he was hoping for.

Further down the road, we stopped for dinner at Meier’s Lake Roadhouse. Before railroad travel, when transportation was on horseback or walking, the average a person could travel was 15-20 miles in a day. Therefore, travel was generally from roadhouse to roadhouse, with the next one somewhere within 15-20 miles. Mark splurged on a surprisingly good ribeye while I had a juicy, hand packed hamburger. We chatted with the owner who had bought the roadhouse 3 1/2 years ago and it was interesting to hear her story. They also had a small museum to browse while waiting on our food. This is the last of only 4 original Alaskan roadhouses still in operation today. We also walked across the street to their old log chapel where the previous owner still held church services in the 3 pews.

We drove on to Paxson, population 15, and turned onto the Denali Highway driving for 21 miles before stopping at the Tangle Lakes Campground. (Our camper and trailer and ATV are closest to the bottom in the picture.) The season for locals to hunt caribou began last weekend so this campground is a mix of travelers like us and hunters. The 134 mile Denali Highway connects Paxson on the Richardson Highway to Cantwell near Denali National Park on a mostly gravel road. We decided to leave the camper on the truck and use the ATV to explore the road. After getting Molly out for a short walk, we buzzed down the road. The best part about this area is there is no commercialization, no shops, no advertisements, just Alaskan wilderness. This is the road I pictured the Alaska Highway to be. There are plenty of pullouts where people can boondock, and some do have campers and hunting camps set up. Lakes dot along the highway and mountains are in the distance. Even though it is only August 14, fall has undoubtedly begun. We drove by McClaren Pass Summit, the second highest highway pass in Alaska, at just 4,000′ elevation. The few trees are short and we can see tundra and shrubs covering as far as we can see. The green is interspersed with yellows and some oranges as the leaves are beginning to change. We followed a turnout recommended by Milepost for blueberries. Armed with baggies, we sat on the hillside and picked enough for fresh blueberry cobbler for the next few nights. Still on the tart side and small, the berries are as ripe as they are going to get. There are several ATV trails that shoot off from the main road. We chose the Glacier Lake trail, but found it went to Glacier Gap Lake, not a glacier. The trail was rougher and rockier than I was comfortable with but Mark kept us safe. We passed a family loading up the caribou they had shot last night and spent all day today dragging to the spot were they could get it on out on ATVs. Interestingly, hunters here do not wear orange, instead opting for camo. In the lower 48, it is required to wear hunter orange for safety so other hunters don’t mistake anyone for an animal. We also spotted a few swans on ponds today. Swans migrate through here in the fall. We begrudgingly have to report that we did not see any wildlife. Again. For the first time in a month, we ended the evening watching a movie in our camper.

After a full breakfast of bacon and French toast topped with blueberries, we set out on a short hike from camp along the ridge overlooking the Tangle Lake we are staying at. It was worth the view! Years ago, Mark bought me a berry picking device. I didn’t know how to use it so it tucked it away still in the packaging. I put it in the camper for the trip and finally took the wrapper off today to bring with us. The berries on this trail were pretty well picked over by other campers, but I tried out the picker on the few low bushes dotted with blueberries. Game changer! Why have I never used this thing sooner? I gathered up as many as I could but there just weren’t a lot to be had. So now I’m really on the hunt for more berries. In addition to cobbler for dessert, I love fresh berries in my cereal or pancakes for breakfast. The cobbler is so simple to make too: 1 cup of berries, mixed with 1/4 T cornstarch and 1 T sugar then topped with crumbly mixture of raw oatmeal, brown sugar, flour and butter. It only takes 25 minutes to bake. I’d also like to gather enough to make a batch of jam.

After our hike, we grabbed our poles and headed to the lake. This area is know for unpredictable and strong winds so we opted to fish from the bank and not get out the kayaks. While we knew this would limit our fishing success, it was the easier and safer option. I caught a small grayling, about 12″. After catching such large salmon previously, I reeled it too fast and the poor fish was skimming across the surface of the water. We spent some time just sitting and relaxing this afternoon. We have arguably not done this enough on this trip so it feels indulgent not to be exploring or crossing something off a bucket list, but just to unwind and relax in this amazing country. Before dinner, we headed down the road again. Mark threw in a pole on the Delta River and caught a small grayling. Then we found a blueberry patch and filled a quart baggie as full it would hold. The blueberry plants are short and grow on hillsides covered in plushy lichen. We take a step and sink a few inches in the soft tundra. It’s a very unique Alaska feeling. We roasted hot dogs and s’mores over the campfire before calling it a night.

There was a post from a guy on our facebook page on June 6 about a hike that I decided we just had to do, involving a suspension bridge and an amazing ice arch at Richardson Glacier. Even though it’s 12 miles out of the way, we headed north on the Richardson Highway. It rained most of the night and was foggy and drizzling this morning, but I wasn’t about to miss this! We found a turnout for the truck and trailer and pulled the ATV out to get us close to the trailhead. Once the trail got rocky enough that even the ATV couldn’t get through, we started walking. The suspension bridge was not dangerous, but deserved to be crossed with caution. We hiked a little over a mile in, but it was clear the the summer heat has melted any hopes of the ice arch. The drizzle was coming down harder and the river rocks we were crossing were becoming slick so we decided to head back. Molly loved her rainy adventure with us. Can you tell she hasn’t had a haircut in 8 weeks?

We packed up camp knowing the rumored worst road of our journey was directly ahead of us, the dreaded Tok Cutoff. We were stopped twice waiting for pilot cars in construction zones and definitely had to drive slow (30mph) in some areas for significant potholes and shoulders that had disintegrated. But we made it through without incident. We arrived at the Hart D Ranch RV park just outside our next stop – the other road into Wrangell-St Elias National Park. After dinner, Mark watched a movie and I stayed up til midnight making homemade blueberry jam! I don’t have big pans so I was only able to make a half batch with 5 1/2 cups of berries, but it turned out great.

Of course our timing was off and the Slana Ranger Station for the Nabesna Rd was closed but we already have a map and ATV permit. We woke up early to hit the road by 7:15am. Once again, our only wildlife was snowshoe hares. Thankfully none darted in front of us this time. It had rained again last night and there were rivers running down the sides of the road. We got out to take a picture and the ground was muddy with plenty of puddles. There will be no hiking today… The views were a bit socked in by clouds, but we saw our first termination dust in the Wrangell mountains. This is the term for the first snow up in the mountains signifying the end of summer. The fireweed, a purple flower that grows throughout the state of Alaska, have lost their flowers too. At the beginning of summer, their purple flowers bloom at the base of the tip. As summer progresses, the upper flowers bloom as the first bottom flowers die. The legend is that once the fireweed blooms are gone, there are 2 months until winter. The road is supposed to be 42 miles, but we were stopped at mile 28 when the rainfall flooded into a river running across the road. It was about 4 feet wide and running fast. Mark got out to evaluate. He put a stick in to measure and it was 1 1/2 feet deep! Plus the muddy banks were soft and unreliable. Better to live and have an adventure another day, so we turned around. We popped into the Ranger Station on the way back to report the road condition and then said farewell to the largest US national park.

We finished the Tok Cutoff in Tok, the only town we pass twice on this trip. We planned to stay here overnight but after filling our bellies and our groceries supplies, we decided to head on toward the Canada border.

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