Hiking & Backpacking
There are a few trails radiating from Kennecott, for which crude maps are available from the rangers and others around town; or buy the Trails Illustrated topographic map, printed on plastic, for sale from some local businesses, or order ahead. An impressive walk continues through the ghost town up the valley, paralleling the Kennicott Glacier and then its tributary, the Root Glacier. You can climb along the Root's edge to a towering ice fall, but a much better outing is to be had by joining a group to walk on the glacier itself. St. Elias Alpine Guides, listed below, accepts walk-ins for daily glacier dayhikes and other hikes and tours. A half-day on the glacier goes for $70 a person, while all-day hikes are $100 and ice-climbing lessons $125. We combined the half-day hike with the company's ghost town tour for one of the best days of Alaska tourism we've ever spent. Another fascinating hike you can do on your own leads straight up the mountain behind the Kennecott buildings to the old Bonanza Mine and bunkhouses, 3,000 feet higher on the alpine tundra.
Beyond the trails, the park is endless miles of trackless wilderness -- one of Earth's last few places that really deserves that name. Fit hikers without the backcountry experience to mount their own expedition should join one of the guides who work in the area. St. Elias Alpine Guides (tel. 888/933-5427 or 907/345-9048; www.steliasguides.com) offers dayhikes, rafting, backpacking trips, and alpine ascents, but specializes in guiding extended trips to unexplored territory. Bob Jacobs, the company's founder, stopped guiding on Mount McKinley years ago because of the crowds. At Wrangell-St. Elias, it's rare to encounter another party, and peaks remain that have never been climbed by anyone: The firm offers the chance to be one of the first.
Hiking on your own in a wilderness largely without trails is a whole new kind of experience for experienced backpackers and outdoors people who are used to more crowded parts of the planet. You feel like an explorer rather than a follower. At times, there's a fairy-tale sense of the world unfolding around you, as fresh as creation. If you're not prepared to select your own route -- a task only for those already experienced in trackless, backcountry traveling -- there are various established ways through the park you can follow with a topographic map. You can get a trip synopsis from the visitor center or ranger station, or download from their website (www.nps.gov/wrst). Rangers can help you choose a route to suit your party, although none is easy.
Some routes start from the roads, but a better way to go is to charter a flight into a remote valley from one of the two air services in McCarthy, Wrangell Mountain Air or McCarthy Air. The planes land on gravel strips, river bars, glaciers, alpine tundra, or any other flat place the pilots know about. These companies make a business of flying out backpackers, and so have established rates for different landing sites and can help you determine a route that's right for you, as well as provide a list of supplies. Wrangell Mountain Air rents bear-proof containers and two-way radios, and McCarthy Air and the Park Service lend the containers. You can charter a flight for $200 to $600 per person, with at least two passengers. Or fly in to a lake for fishing or an alpine area for exploring from a base camp, reducing the worry about how much you pack.
Note: I wouldn't want to scare off anyone who could manage one of these trips, but people do get into trouble in the Alaska wilderness every year, and some of them don't come back. Before you head out into the backcountry, you must know how to take care of yourself where help is unavailable; this includes handling river crossings, bear avoidance, hypothermia prevention, basic first aid, and other issues. Unless you have plenty of backpacking experience in less remote areas, I don't recommend starting here.
Anywhere else, the 60-mile road that leads to this area would be considered a mountain-biking trail. You also can make good use of bikes between McCarthy, Kennecott, and the footbridge. An old wagon road parallels the main road that connects the two towns, 4 1/2 miles each way; the road itself is a one-lane dirt track. Advanced cyclists can also ride the trails around Kennecott. Bikes are for rent at Glacier View Campground.
Many great, wild rivers drain these huge mountains, which are still being carved by enormous glaciers. The Kennicott River, starting at the glacier of the same name, boils with class II or III rapids for some 40 minutes starting right from the footbridge at the end of the McCarthy Road. As the area lacks roads, however, most trips must include a plane ride at least one-way, and that makes white-water rafting day trips here more expensive than outings near Copper Center, Denali, or Anchorage. At Wrangell-St. Elias, floats punch deep into the backcountry.