7/20/19 Old Town Copper Center Inn, Copper Center, Alaska
How Big is it? Well, Wrangell-St. Elias is larger than the the country of Switzerland, or the state of Maryland, whichever is easier for you to visualize. Like most of Alaska’s parks, it was created under the ANILCA act of 1980 and established as a combination Park and Preserve. While Alaska has several big parks measuring six million acres (like Lake Clark and Katmai), Wrangell – St. Elias comes in at a staggering 13.2 million acres of protected land. Another way to imagine its size is that it is six times the size of Yellowstone, the largest park in ‘the lower 48’.
And what does this park protect? Mostly mountains and all the things that inhabit them, like glaciers, rivers, trees, and wildlife. Nine of the sixteen tallest mountains on the continent are within these borders. The mountains are arrayed in four ‘waves’ if you will. The youngest wave, strangely, is here in the interior and are known as the Wrangell mountains. They are volcanic in origin and are classic examples of volcanoes around the Pacific Rim formed when the Pacific plate(s) dive under the North American plate, reach critical temperatures and pressures, and then bubble up onto the surface. These are classic shield volcanoes, not the cinder cone kind, and they have flooded the area with volcanic lava flows which, over time, have been eroded by glaciers and river valleys into their present form. One of them, Mount Wrangell itself, is an active volcano where steam can be seen venting into the atmosphere. Scientists have no idea when or if it could erupt again, but it certainly has a history of erupting and has covered thousands of acres with volcanic rock.
Another wave of mountains forms the coastal range and were formed not from volcanic activity, but from classic small-plate tectonics. These small plates are called terranes and were literally scraped off the top of the Pacific plate as it dives under the continental plate. These scrapings have jumbled up against each other with such force that they have created the tallest coastal mountains on the planet. Within the St. Elias Mountains, Mount Logan is the second highest in the continent, but is located in a Canadian national park. Mt. St. Elias itself is the fourth highest at 18,009 feet, is shared with Canada and is starkly visible from the Gulf of Alaska. Four more peaks in these mountains exceed 16,400 feet in elevation, one of them within the park’s boundaries. Recently, the world’s largest UNESCO protected site was created by combining Wrangell-St. Elias, Glacier Bay Park and Preserve, and two Canadian national parks.
So, how does one see a park this big? The short answer is that you simply can’t. One lifetime is probably not enough time to fully explore something of this magnitude. It would take a combination of flightsees, camping and hiking trips, and a whole lot of vacations to begin to fully explore the nooks and crannies of this park. But, thankfully, I don’t require of myself that level of commitment and am OK with the notion of ‘sampling’ what the park might have to offer. We do have a flightsee planned and while it won’t show us the entire park, it will help cover a lot of acreage.
The other way is on the ground – this park is a natural for the road-trip portion of our Odyssey because there are two roads into the park that are available for travel – indeed, these two roads are the only developed ways of entering the park. McCarthy road is famous for its ruggedness and we will be heading down that road later today.
The other road into the park is the Nabesna Road and we did that one the day before yesterday. In fact, it was on the Nabesna Road that we suffered our flat tire experience, reinforcing that these roads aren’t exactly easy. The Nabesna Road is a 42.5 mile road that ends at a mining site that is still somewhat active up in the Wrangell mountains. The road begins at a wide spot on the Tok Cutoff (Alaska Route 1) about an hour south of Tok, called Slana. Just inside the road is a ranger station and we stopped there to have a wonderful conversation with the ranger and her assistant. She helped us identify an itinerary for the day. You are allowed to drive all the way to the end, but the mine is private property and, because of the toxic chemicals in the tailings, they do not recommend that you hike out there. Besides, after about mile 30, the road gets unusually rough and involves crossing three streams. (Given my rent-a-wreck truck, I didn’t care what kind of beating it took, but I wasn’t interested in wasting my time either since we had to get to Copper Center by the end of the day). So she recommended that we go as far as the only developed campground in the park, which is out at about mile 28 on the road.
We had stopped at the Three Bears store in Tok and picked up sandwiches and stuff for a picnic lunch and were planning on finding a spot somewhere out on the road. So the suggestion of the campground was perfect. It was located on what is called Twin Lakes, beautiful kettle lakes in the boreal forest. The ride out is through the boreal forest, which remains fascinating to me because of the dwarfed trees. The basic ecology here is that permafrost limits how successful tree roots can be. The closer it is to the surface, the shorter the trees that it can support. So you get different patches of forest with trees of all kinds of sizes and density. They also will change species – Black Spruce trees are really scraggly looking and but can grow in more difficult situations. Where the permafrost is much deeper or gone entirely, bigger White Spruce trees appear. And where there is good drainage but lots of water, like near stream beds, you will also find birch, aspen, and even a cottonwood or two. Under that of course, are willow and alder shrubs and the ever present cluster of berry bushes, service, pumpkin, goose, or even blue or raspberry. Although we didn’t see any wildlife, this, like most of Alaska, is bear and moose country.
I’ll let the pictures convey the setting. It was a great lunch out in the park and the drive had, at times, good views of the Wrangell Mountains. We were almost all the way back to the ranger station when we suffered our flat tire. But that was yesterday’s story.
This morning, we are picking up two new tires and having them installed back in Glenallen. While there, we are going to the grocery store for the next leg of our journey. And this afternoon, we are headed down the McCartthy Road to the town of, well, McCarthy. We have a cabin there and are staying right in the heart of this park for five nights. Hopefully, we will get a real taste for the largest park in the system.