The summer after my now husband and I moved away from Hawaii, way back in 2007, we spent a month in Alaska. It was summer and the best time to see stuff, so we decided it would be a good time to go see Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the biggest national park of them all (to give you an idea of just how big, it’s bigger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined).
We borrowed a friend’s old Isuzu Trooper for the trek (I’d read we’d need a four-wheel-drive vehicle) and headed east from Anchorage. It took us almost 4 hours to drive to the turnoff towards McCarthy Road from the Richardson Highway and the road gradually got rougher and less maintained.
As was pretty typical for an Alaskan summer day, it was chilly and low clouds hung overhead, occasionally sprinkling bits of rain. The road was muddy in parts and soon our vehicle had turned from white to brown.
We passed hardly anyone on the road to Kennecott. This park is not on the major tourist circuit in Alaska, as far as I could tell, and it certainly wasn’t easy to get to. Even by Alaskan standards.
We eventually bounced our way to the end of the road, which stopped just shy of McCarthy and Kennecott, the two towns we’d be visiting. Then, in the middle of nowhere, I spotted something I never expected to see: a food truck (well, more like a trailer that looked like a cabin).
Two things about this struck me as strange. First, this was 2007, so food trucks weren’t as popular as they are now. And second, we were literally in the middle of the woods. I couldn’t quite work out how this thing could even exist here. But it did, and it was calling to us. So we went. And as we enjoyed a warm meal, we were accompanied by a bunch of real and makeshift Mr. Potato Heads. I couldn’t not love this place – it was so very quirky and very Alaskan. (NOTE: As I write this in 2016, nearly 10 years later, I just searched for it and discovered this place still exists (though moved into a new space). In case you’re in the area, go check it out – it’s called The Roadside Potatohead.)
After we ate, we made the short hike into the tiny town of McCarthy and wandered around. It originally provided most of the supplies for the nearby mining town of Kennecott, and now shops seemed to cater mainly to tourists. There wasn’t much to see here, so we soon hopped on a shuttle for the 5-mile drive to Kennecott.
Kennecott (the mining town)
The main things to do in Kennecott are see the old mine and walk on the glacier. With both you can either do it on your own or go on a guided tour. We opted to explore on our own (though to see the inside of the mine you have to go on a tour).
As we walked towards the glacier, we were surrounded by various red-colored mining buildings scattered along the road and stacked up on the hillside.
It was like stepping back into time and I instantly pictured rugged miners and frontiersman walking along the very same road many years before.
Kennicott (the glacier)
Not far ahead of us I could see the massive glacier spilling down the valley. And as we stepped upon it, I could hear the crunch of the ice and feel the chill in the air. (As if Alaska wasn’t cold enough, it got even colder when standing on top of a huge chunk of ice.)
The ice was simultaneously dirty and beautiful. Much of it was blackened by glacial debris (rocks and dirt and stuff) but the sheer immensity of it blew me away.
Kennecott vs. Kennicott
You may have noticed the “e” in Kennecott the mine (or town area) suddenly turned into an “i” when I was talking about the glacier (and the adjacent river). But no, that wasn’t a typo.
Worth the Trek?
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park wasn’t the easiest of national parks to get to and we saw only a tiny fraction of it. So was it worth it? I think so, but probably only after doing other parts of Alaska first (like visiting Denali, going on a whale-watching cruise, checking out Homer, going sea kayaking, to name a few).