“The region is superlative in its scenic beauty and measures up fully and beyond the requirements for its establishment as a National Monument and later as a National Park. It is my personal view that from the standpoint of scenic beauty, it is the finest region in Alaska . I have traveled through Switzerland extensively, have flown over the Andes, and am familiar with the Valley of Mexico and with other parts of Alaska. It is my unqualified view that this is the finest scenery that I have ever been privileged to see.”
A recommendation in 1938 to the federal government by Ernest Gruening, who seems like an interesting guy. He grew up in New York, went to Harvard Medical School, quit medicine to go into journalism, and then became a political figure, including serving as an Alaskan governor.
During our break between work contracts, we planned a backpacking trip to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, with our friend Dan, who came from Colorado to join us. Alex did the research on where to hike, and we decided to hike part of the Goat Trail, an old gold rush route. Miners hauled gold and copper out of this area between about 1899-1938. They say more than $200,000,000 worth of copper ore was hauled out of here, “over a billion pounds,” according to the NPS.
To get into the park, there are 2 roads: the Nabesna Road and McCarthy Road. McCarthy road lies over a former railroad route, and supposedly people still have problems with railroad ties and nails popping into their car tires here and there. We took the McCarthy Road in. We had crossed the one-way Kuskalana Bridge a few months before, but didn’t notice the marsupial bridge underneath. Dan apparently has a fear of heights, so this was super fun for him.
We stayed at the McCarthy Bed and Breakfast the night before our trip. We had a comfortable, modern cabin with a generous continental breakfast in the morning, and we’d highly recommend it if you’re ever in the area.
Backpacking in this park pretty much requires a bush flight in. After checking into our B&B, we got some dinner at The Potato, the pleasantly hip and casual bar in tiny McCarthy, and Alex connected with Wrangell Mountain Air, the company flying us into the park the next day. They told us there was pretty much no way we could fly in to our planned starting point, Wolverine Pass, which sits at about 5,500 feet. It had been raining and cloudy all day, with no sign of change. We quickly brainstormed a few other route options and agreed to reconsider our plans in the morning.
In the morning, the staff at Wrangell Mountain Air happily said “We actually think we can do it!” This gave Anne some anxiety… she wanted a “We can definitely do this the way we’ve done it a million times before,” rather than a “We think we can do it!” The Little Engine That Could was pretty inspiring, but he was on the ground, come on.
So, we met our pilot, Lars, on an airstrip in McCarthy the next morning. His first comment on loading our bags into the plane was “Did they know you had 3 people in your party? Usually we don’t put this much cargo in this plane.” Very comforting, Lars. But, he seemed nonplussed, and proceeded to load us in and show us the head sets to wear so we could heard each other talking in flight.
This was the smallest airplane any of us had ever been on. Every tiny bump was a bit terrifying. Fortunately, Lars started talking about his wife and 3 kids and how much he loves them, so we felt assured that he didn’t have any motive to die in an adventurous, fiery plane crash.
We landed without incident on Wolverine Pass. As we were approaching it, Lars exclaimed, “This is what’s crazy about landing on this pass, it’s like landing on a postage stamp!” Very funny, Lars, very funny!
When we deplaned, the views were absolutely breathtaking. We hung out on that pass for a while taking photos and feeling thankful to be back on the ground again, albeit far from rescue.
After taking the view in and shouting out into the mountains for a little while, we were off. We hiked about 8.5 miles that day, and we witnessed some amazing things, including a fully-formed shell fossil (which confirmed that the mountain tops did, indeed used to be the ocean floor, like scientists tell us), multiple bears, ptarmigan,and many, many Dall sheep.
We camped beneath a glacier that night. Can you spot all six ptarmigan in this picture?
Day 2, we awoke to dreary weather, there was a brisk cold and impending clouds that looked to be bringing sleet or snow. Either way, it was going to be a cold and wet day of hiking. As we started the hike, not only were we dealing with inclement weather, but we also had one of the steeper elevation gains of the trip. Early on in the hike we stumbled upon what we would later find out to be a rare find, two ram horns. We hiked about 6 miles up a steep valley and crossed a lot of swampy marshland below melting glaciers. We set up camp near “Hole in the Wall” Glacier, and at one point while eating, we heard a loud crack, and saw part of the glacier calve off and send ice dust floating down the mountain face. The huge heaves of glacial moraine rock and soil are as impressive as sand dunes, but hard to really capture with a camera.
The next morning, we had to wait for these clouds to clear before leaving camp. It felt like we were being swallowed by clouds… amazing!
Day 3, we faced the scary part of the hike: the scree slopes. One guide at Wrangell Mountain Air said that some people aren’t scared by the scree slopes, but other people turn around altogether. We couldn’t really do that, since we were being picked up by Lars a couple days later miles ahead. “Cross the tundra bench as high/left as possible, staying in the light, yellowish band of talus. (Caution: Do not descend into the darker, greenish rocks or you’ll wander into dangerous, exposed cliff bands.)” ~Backpacker Magazine. The slopes were really not as scary as they look from a distance. But, if you lost your balance, or if you headed downward onto the wrong path, you could easily take a tumble a ways down. We read on the NPS website about someone who dropped their backpack and left all their gear behind, which a ranger later recovered. We were glad that didn’t happen to us, as we’re sure Dan wouldn’t want us all in his tent.
After the scree slopes, we still had an exhausting day to finish. We did about 7.5 miles that day, a lot of which was over rolling rocks that required careful footwork. Dan, who lives at 5,280 feet in Denver, helped Anne and Alex make it up another steep valley to a campsite nestled between hilltops. While we were making dinner, a slightly mangy looking fox walked right through our site, looking interested in our food but disinterested in introducing himself to us. Our backcountry “chili mac” resulted in a lot of methane release in the tents that night…
Day 4, we decided to try to make it a day early to Skolai Pass, where we were to be picked up. It was cold this day, with some creek areas noted to be frozen over. We saw more jaw-dropping glaciers, and at one point, we saw a wolverine. Wait… maybe that was a marmot. Wolverine? Marmot? Dan voted wolverine, Alex marmot, and Anne remained neutral as Switzerland, really unable to tell what it was. Once we saw a few more and got closer to them, we had to admit they were marmots. Huge marmots!
We also saw the remains of a long-ago plane crash, and many more Dall sheep. We did about 9.5 miles this day, and after getting in touch with Wrangell Mountain Air via GPS, Lars came a day early to pick us up at Skolai Pass.
We were all eager to shower, change shoes, and, most importantly, get a burger and a beer. But, we looked back on 4 days of some of the most stunning and challenging that we had ever done. Lars took us on another stunning flight, this time back to McCarthy. You really realize how small you are in the grand scheme of things when you see this massive, seemingly endless natural wonder.