On The Island
Wrangell Island's network of gravel roads, maintained by the Forest Service, leads to places of awesome beauty rarely visited by non-Alaskans. There are a few dayhike trails, some lovely campsites, and paths to remote shelters and fishing lakes you can have to yourself. There are also a couple of calm and scenic places to start a kayak paddle. The Forest Service even has a public-use cabin that you can drive to on a logging road 20 miles from town -- that's rare, as most can be reached only by air or boat. (It's the Middle Ridge Cabin.)
There's only one way out of town: south on the Zimovia Highway along narrow Zimovia Strait. The Forest Service map is helpful for anything you might want to do along this route. The first potential stop is City Park, just south of town. Besides having a picnic area on the shore among big trees, it's a fine tide-pooling spot. Go a couple of hours before a good low tide.
Five miles out Zimovia Highway, you reach the Shoemaker Bay Recreation Area, with a small boat harbor, campground, and picnic sites. Continuing south, Eight Mile Beach is a good stop for a ramble, and don't miss Nemo Point, a high, ocean-side overlook from which you can see more than 13 miles along Zimovia Strait all the way back to town. There are eight gorgeous campsites, and a plank walk trail along the road leads down to the beach.
All the way across the island, about 45 minutes from town, Earl West Cove gives access to the protected wilderness waters on the Eastern Passage. There's a campsite there, too.
Stop In For A Swim
Every time we visit Wrangell, we end up envying the people living there. The Wrangell Municipal Pool is one reason. It's also a good stop for visitors on rainy days (which are plentiful here). The facility, at 321 Church St., next to the high school (tel. 907/874-2444), has a weight room and racquetball courts and the pool itself, which, during open swim, contains a giant inflatable dinosaur that drives children gaga. General admission costs all of $2.50 for adults, and court fees are similarly very inexpensive. Towels are for rent. It's open Monday and Friday 6am to 1pm and 4:30 to 8:30pm, Tuesday through Thursday 8am to 6pm, Saturday noon to 4pm.
Off The Island
Wrangell provides a stepping-off point for vast, rich wild lands and remote fishing, rafting, sea kayaking, or wildlife-watching. I've described two of the main off-island destinations below -- the Stikine River and the Anan Wildlife Observatory -- but there are many more, too many to mention. To get beyond the island, you need a boat or floatplane. You can go independently, hiring a water taxi for $200 to $260 an hour; it costs more than $500 one-way to get to a remote Forest Service cabin by boat. That service is offered by various operators. If you prefer to go by air, Sunrise Aviation (tel. 800/874-2311 or 907/874-2319; www.sunriseflights.com) is a Wrangell-based operator offering charters and glacier flightseeing.
Gearing Up -- For a lift over the water, a guide, or rental equipment, there are several long-established businesses. Klondike Bikes, 502 Wrangell Ave. (tel. 907/874-2453; klondikebike.com), rents quality bikes for $35 a day. Alaska Waters, with a desk in the Stikine Inn, 107 Stikine Ave. (tel. 800/347-4462 or 907/874-2378; www.alaskawaters.com), rents equipment and offers various marine services, including fishing and tours. Check the website for monthly specials and other useful information. Alaska Vistas, at the city dock where the cruise ships dock (tel. 866/874-3006 or 907/874-3006; www.alaskavistas.com), started as a sea-kayaking business but now offers water taxis; guided hiking and rafting; rental of canoes, kayaks, and bicycles; and other services. You can stop in at their office on the dock for advice, books and maps, gear, and espresso. Both companies are listed below under the appropriate headings. There are other excellent charter businesses in town as well.
Outdoor Activities Near Wrangell
Biking -- A paved 6-mile bike trail along the water next to the Zimovia Highway leads all the way from town to the Shoemaker Bay Recreation Area. There's nothing to block the ocean views and a good destination at the end, with a well-developed picnic site and the starting point of hiking trail to a waterfall. There are many more miles of appealing mountain-bike routes on Forest Service roads all over the island.
Fishing -- Anglers can dip a line in various streams and lakes on Wrangell Island reachable by car or a drive and short hike. The Forest Service provides a list, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (tel. 907/874-3822; www.adfg.state.ak.us, click "Sport Fish," then the Southeast region) publishes an extensive Petersburg/Wrangell Sport Fishing Guide, available online or in print. May and June are the prime months for king salmon fishing, silvers start in July, and halibut are available all summer. Alaska Waters can help you find a guide or charter boat for a fishing trip from Wrangell.
Hiking -- Across the road from the Shoemaker Bay Recreation Area, the Rainbow Falls Trail climbs steeply for just under a mile (and 500 ft. in elevation gain) on a boardwalk with steps, up a ridge between two creeks, forested with big, mossy Sitka spruce and western hemlock. The falls seem to tumble down between the branches. From that point, you can continue another 2.7 miles and another 1,100 feet higher into open alpine terrain on the Institute Creek Trail to the Shoemaker Overlook, where there are great views, a picnic area, and a shelter. An additional section of the trail continues from there another 8 miles across the island.
Besides Rainbow Falls, various other walks start from the logging roads -- the Forest Service can point the way. The Nemo Saltwater Access Trail is a well-built .5-mile plank walk leading to the beach near Turn Island, near a wonderful stand of red cedar and the Turn Island Campsite, with two wooden platforms, picnic tables, and dry firewood. An easy 1-mile trail to Thoms Lake was reconstructed in 2008, starting from the Nemo-Skip Loop Road (Forest Road 6267). Another good choice is the Salamander Ridge Trail, which leads a mile to subalpine terrain, where you can go off-trail hiking. The trail begins 27 miles from Wrangell on Salamander Road, also known as Forest Road 50050. The Long Lake Trail leads over a half-mile boardwalk to a public shelter and rowboat on the lake, on Forest Road 6271 (you'll need a map).
Sea Kayaking -- Alaska Vistas offers kayaking day-trip paddles starting from the boat harbor, longer day tours to lovely Earl West Cove on the east side of the island, or guided trips of many days.
The Stikine River
The Stikine's gray glacial waters rush all the way from the dry Interior of British Columbia to a broad, shallow delta in the rainforest a few miles from Wrangell. It's among the fastest free-flowing navigable rivers in North America and in early gold-rush years was a route through the Coastal Range. Tours that sometimes go as far as Telegraph Creek, B.C., speed against the current with the roar of high-powered engines that send a jet of water out from under their shallow, metal bottoms. On still water, the jet boats can go as fast as a car on the highway.
The shallow delta is an exceptionally rich wildlife-viewing area, a habitat of grasslands, braided channels, and marshes populated by sea lions, eagles, and many other species of birds. In late April and early May, when the hooligan run, more than 1,500 bald eagles congregate, and some two million other birds rest on their West Coast migration. Later in the year, when summer's salmon are running, you can see them thrashing in their spawning pools. Farther upriver, tours encounter Sitka black-tailed deer, moose, brown and black bears, mountain goats, river otters, and beavers.
Traveling upriver, tours usually stop at the Shakes Glacier and Shakes Lake, where there are 3,000-foot cliffs and some 50 waterfalls. Among others, Alaska Waters and Alaska Vistas offer these outings. Some trips stop at the Forest Service-owned Chief Shakes Hot Springs, where there's an indoor and an outdoor tub for public bathing. Alaska Waters goes all the way to Telegraph, B.C., 160 miles upriver, bringing travelers to a remote homestead lodge. Commentary on all their trips includes natural history and Tlingits cultural traditions and legends. A 4-day, 3-night package is $1,699. The going rate for a 5-hour jet boat tour from Wrangell to the glacier, delta, and hot springs is $150 to $180.
Rafting the Stikine offers fast water, expansive scenery, and the potential for a remote, many-day journey. Alaska Vistas offers these guided trips, lasting about 9 days, for an inclusive price of around $2,600 per person. Alaska Vistas also rents rafts and other gear for floating the Stikine.
Anan Wildlife Observatory
When the pink salmon are running in July and August (peak is mid-July to Aug 20), a population of about 60 black bears and 10 brown bears gather near a waterfall on Anan Creek, on the mainland southeast of Wrangell Island, often walking close to a platform where visitors stand watching. Don't visit outside the time of this salmon run, however, unless you have it on good authority that bears are actively using the creek. Forest Service interpreters are on duty during the bear months; visitors must also follow safe bear behavior (they'll brief you when you arrive). Most visitors will enjoy a guided day trip from Wrangell more than going on their own. Both Alaska Waters and Alaska Vistas go by boat. Expect to pay $210 to $265 per person for the hour-long run from Wrangell and at least a few hours with the bears. Both are good companies. Alaska Vistas particularly emphasizes the long day they spend with the bears and their guides' biology and game-management experience.
It's also possible to go to the Anan observatory without a guide, but you will need a pass issued by the Forest Service Wrangell Ranger District Office, at 525 Bennett St. (P.O. Box 51), Wrangell, AK 99929 (tel. 907/874-2323; fax 907/874-7595; www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/districts/wrangell). Check the website for an explanation of the system, a calendar showing the number of permits available each day, and application forms. A total of 60 passes are allocated for each day of the period from July 5 through August 25, with 12 held back until 3 days before the visit. Passes are given out first come, first served by mail, fax, e-mail, or in person, and cost $10. There's a Forest Service cabin for rent, too, in very high demand during the bear-viewing season. The walk to the observatory is a half-mile from the shore where you land, on a good trail.
Sunrise Aviation (tel. 800/874-2311 or 907/874-2319; www.sunriseflights.com) offers charters to Anan for prices competitive with going by boat.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.