Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg
Ever wonder which of our 59 national parks is really the biggest? No, it’s not mighty Yellowstone or even sprawling Death Valley. Measuring a vast 13,200,000 acres, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, tucked into the southeast corner of Alaska, is far and away the biggest national park around, equal to six Yellowstones! It is larger than Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined, and includes two entire mountain ranges – the Wrangells and the St. Elias. Together with contiguous Kluane National Park across the border in Canada, the combined cross-border tract totals more than a whopping 25,000,000 acres and is the biggest wilderness area in the world.
While size does indeed matter, there is more to this sprawling wilderness than volume. Stunning peaks such as Sanford, Drum, Blackburn, Wrangell, St. Elias and others fill this rugged park.
Also included is lots of ice. At about 60 miles, the Nabesna Glacier is North America’s longest ice sheet. Yet, even this immense glacier is dwarfed by the vast Bagley Icefield, which fills immense areas of wilderness and is punctuated by countless un-named “nunataks.” These are tall mountains covered almost completely by ancient snow and ice piled thousands of feet high and with only their sharp peaks poking through the heavy crust like the first crocuses of spring.
These larger-than-life features are great to marvel at, but with small exception, this is an impenetrable wilderness. Unless you are an intrepid explorer with world class wilderness and arctic skills, many of these spectacular natural features will be a bit beyond your reach.
A major exception is the fairly accessible McCarthy Road. After an informative stop at the new visitor center near Copper Center, a short ride down to Chitina brings you to the beginning of the somewhat challenging drive into the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The unpaved 60-mile track to McCarthy is a bit pocked with century-old railroad spikes that can pierce a tire like an icepick going through a balloon. However, with a little care, there is a big payoff at the end of this drive: the two tiny villages of McCarthy and Kennicott. Both are nuggets of yesteryear, forgotten by time. These hamlets are picturesque and a real joy to stroll.
Among the best highlights are the historic and slowly decaying Kennicott copper mill and the Root Glacier. Both are easily accessible. The copper mill is open for easy walking tours on most days. Check at the storefront visitor center. For the Root Glacier, experienced alpine guides will strap crampons onto your boots as they take visitors on half- and full-day adventures across this mighty sheet of ice.
As you might expect, winters here can be bitterly cold and should be avoided. The most hospitable seasons to visit are summer and fall, but try to avoid early summer, because that is when the hungry mosquitoes are most numerous and anxious to snack on your blood.
Jerry Ginsberg is a freelance photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He has photographed all of North America’s national parks with medium-format cameras and has been a national park artist-in-residence. His photographic archive spans virtually all of North and South America. More of Jerry’s images can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com. Email him at email@example.com.