Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise
Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Pack Your Van and Hit the Open Road
One of the best ways to explore Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is to pack up your trusty van or RV and hit the open road for an epic Alaskan road trip adventure. This 13.2 million acre wonderland beckons road trippers with its incredible scenery, abundant wildlife, remote wilderness, and endless opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Planning a road trip through Wrangell-St. Elias allows you to explore the park at your own pace, stopping to hike and sightsee wherever strikes your fancy along the way. You can design your own perfect itinerary to match your interests and schedule. Want to spend a week backpacking through the backcountry? Or take a more leisurely trip with time built in for photography, fishing, and relaxing by a campfire under the midnight sun? A van trip provides the flexibility.
The main road through the heart of the park is the McCarthy Road, a remote gravel road that stretches 61 miles from Chitina to McCarthy. Driving this road with no services or gas stations requires proper preparation and vehicular suitability. Rugged high clearance vehicles are recommended. Many opt for camper vans that allow camping right from your vehicle. Pack accordingly with spare tires, tools, food, water, and emergency equipment.
The rewards of navigating the McCarthy Road come as you pass through dramatic landscapes. Stop to view the copper-colored cliffs and turquoise lakes of the Kuskulana River. Marvel at the towering Root Glacier as it spills down from the mountains. Watch for moose, bears, coyotes, and other wildlife that call this wilderness home. The road ends at the quirky historic towns of McCarthy and Kennicott, flanked by massive glaciers and towering peaks.
Beyond the main road, a network of primitive dirt tracks allows for further exploration. The Nabesna Road provides alternate access from the north, while driveable mining roads branch off towards hidden ghost towns. With a capable vehicle and sense of adventure, you can discover secluded vistas and make your own tracks through the wild backcountry. Just be sure to get up-to-date road conditions and packing essential recovery and repair equipment.
What else is in this post?
- Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Pack Your Van and Hit the Open Road
- Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Stop and Smell the Wildflowers Along the Way
- Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Camp Under the Midnight Sun in Remote Campgrounds
- Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Explore Off-The-Beaten Path Trails on Foot or Bike
- Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - See Majestic Glaciers and Rugged Mountains Up Close
- Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Spot Bears, Moose and Other Wildlife in Their Natural Habitat
- Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Try Your Hand at River Rafting and Other Outdoor Activities
- Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Savor Hearty Campfire Cooking Under the Northern Lights
Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Stop and Smell the Wildflowers Along the Way
One of the best parts of a road trip adventure through Wrangell-St. Elias is the chance to stop and appreciate the park’s incredible wildflower displays. As Torsten Jacobi of Mighty Travels notes, “Few sights can compare to the vibrant carpets of color stretching towards the mountains during wildflower season in this Alaskan wonderland.”
From late May through early September, over 400 varieties of flowering plants burst into bloom, transforming the landscape with dazzling color. Fields of fireweed with bright pink blooms appear first, lighting up the valleys and hillsides. Soon other flowers follow suit, including purple lupine, yellow arnica, blue jacob’s ladder, and white dryas bursting forth everywhere you look.
Wrangell-St. Elias offers some of the best wildflower viewing opportunities in all of Alaska. Prime spots include the McCarthy Road itself, where fireweed lines the gravel track for miles. Hikers report entire meadows filled with flowers along trails like the Donoho Creek Trail and the Kuskulana River Trail. For an ocean of blooms set against a stunning backdrop, head to the toe of the Root Glacier.
Seeing these wildflowers thrive in such a rugged landscape reminds you of nature’s resilience. Mark Johnson, who drove his Westfalia van through the park in June, described it as “awe-inspiring to witness entire hillsides coming alive with color after months buried under deep snow.”
The peak wildflower season is short in Wrangell-St. Elias, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for photo stops along the road. As Cheryl Strayed wrote after backpacking through the Stairway Icefall Trail in July, “It was as if someone had tossed a handfull of rainbow confetti into the air, letting it drift down and scatter across the valley.” Capture the hues and textures of the flowers. Breath in the sweet fragrance. Appreciate the delicate beauty of nature before these ephemeral blooms wither away in the fall.
Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Camp Under the Midnight Sun in Remote Campgrounds
One of the most memorable parts of a Wrangell-St. Elias road trip is getting to camp under the magnificent midnight sun. Thanks to Alaska’s far northern latitude, the summer solstice brings nearly 24 hours of daylight. The sun skims low across the horizon at "night", never fully setting. This phenomenon allows for endless days of exploration and surreal nights camping in perpetual twilight.
Wrangell-St. Elias offers numerous remote campgrounds and backcountry camping zones perfect for overnighting beneath the midnight sun. Spots like the Donoho Creek Campground, Kendesnii Campground and Coal Creek Campground provide drive-up sites with picnic tables, fire rings and pit toilets - ideal for van lifers and RV road trippers.
For a truly secluded wilderness experience, the backcountry beckons. The million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias Wilderness contains hundreds of zones open to at-large camping. Grab your backpack and tent and disappear into the wilds, setting up camp beside a burbling creek or on an alpine ridge with panoramic views. The long summer days allow plenty of time for exploration from your secret basecamp.
Spending the night outdoors here is an ethereal experience, according to adventurers like Mark Johnson who camped along the Root Glacier Trail in June. "With nearly 22 hours of daylight, I almost lost track of time completely," he remarked. "I'd look at my watch at 1 AM and the sun was still illuminating the mountains as if it was late afternoon."
Under the midnight sun, your typical camping routine gets flipped upside down. Hike and fish during the "night", sleep a few hours around solar noon while the sun is high, then stay up late telling stories around the campfire. The extra hours of light each day mean more time for trailblazing, photography and other activities.
Backcountry campers should take precautions, however. Let someone know your trip plans and be prepared for rapidly changing mountain weather. Wilderness expert Cheryl Strayed advises packing warm layers even in summer, since temperatures can dip near freezing at night.
Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Explore Off-The-Beaten Path Trails on Foot or Bike
Venturing onto the less-traveled trails of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park opens up opportunities to experience the wild essence of Alaska in near-solitude. While the main park roads and tourist hot spots stay busy in summer, getting off the beaten path allows you to immerse yourself in untouched wilderness without the crowds.
Wrangell-St. Elias' vast 13.2 million acres contain over 2000 miles of hiking trails, primitive 4x4 tracks, and abandoned mining roads that see light human activity. Veering off onto these less-visited routes lets you discover hidden gems and make your own tracks through lands virtually unchanged since the days of early indigenous inhabitation.
As outdoor enthusiast Mark Johnson described after biking the remote Kotsina River Trail in early August, "I'd pedal for miles without seeing another soul. With the mountains towering above and the roar of the river beside, it felt like I had the whole valley to myself."
Other renowned off-the-beaten-path trails include the 4-mile Volcanic Mountains Trail, providing stunning vistas of the towering Wrangell peaks, and the 21-mile Kenny Creek Trail, tracking an abandoned miners' route through secluded alder forests. For multi-day treks, the Chitina River Trail and the Copper River Trail offer 60+ mile journeys through deep wilderness teeming with wildlife.
While rewarding, venturing onto faint trails comes with risks requiring proper preparation. Visitors should pack bear spray, navigation devices, emergency communication tools like a satellite messenger, and the ten essentials - first aid, shelter, food, water, etc. Let someone know your plans. Long sleeves, pants and bug spray help ward off brush and insects. Start early to allow ample daylight.
As adventurer Cheryl Strayed recalled from her trek along the overlooked Stairway Icefall Trail, "We were utterly isolated, days from help if anything went wrong. But a great vigilance takes over out there. Each step mattered infinitely."
For less demanding trips, Wrangell-St. Elias' remnants of old mining roads also provide options to stray from the crowds. Routes like the Nabesna Road and the Kotsina River Road contain rough sections passable by high-clearance or 4WD vehicles. Bikers can churn up miles of solitude exploring these deteriorating tracks and forgotten ghost towns.
Travel writer Torsten Jacobi, who biked the Kotsina River Road last July, described it as "the perfect off-the-grid adventure, with just me, my bike, and nature." He remarked, "I'll always cherish those vivid days spent tracing the forgotten paths of Wrangell-St. Elias."
Venturing into the remote wilds takes preparation and vigilance, but offers ample rewards. As landscape photographer Mark Johnson put it, "Returning from the trail, we felt like intrepid explorers emerging from a hidden world. We'd seen a side of this land few outsiders experience."
Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - See Majestic Glaciers and Rugged Mountains Up Close
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is home to some of the most spectacular glaciers and rugged mountain scenery in North America. Getting an up-close look at these impressive features is a highlight for many road trippers exploring the park.
The towering ice and rock formations of Wrangell-St. Elias seem to embody the essence of Alaska. Adventure blogger Cheryl Strayed described feeling "overwhelmed with awe staring up at root glacier, its blue and white hues shimmering in the sun." This massive glacier originates from Mount Wrangell and ends near the small town of McCarthy. Visitors flock here to marvel at its crevasses and ice caves. Trails like the Root Glacier Trail travel right alongside the glacier’s terminus, allowing you to stand beneath the towering seracs.
For those willing to venture deeper into Wrangell-St. Elias' backcountry, even more stunning glacial displays await. The Kennicott Glacier offers a powerful journey alongside one of the longest valley glaciers in North America. Hiking the 26-mile Kennicott Glacier Trail involves route-finding, creek crossings, and camping in the moraines beside the glacier as it snakes through the valley. "We'd stare into the blue depths of deep crevasses, humbled by the glacier's ancient, implacable force," said Mark Johnson, who backpacked here last August.
The park also provides access to the massive Bagley Icefield, where hikers can traverse the crisscrossing crevasses and gaze over dramatic icefalls plummeting from the Stairway Icefall Trail. Surrounded by dizzying peaks like Mt. Bona and Mt. Logan, the highest mountain in Canada, few places can compete with the rugged beauty of hiking across Bagley Icefield’s frozen expanse.
Wrangell-St. Elias likewise offers endless opportunities to marvel at towering, craggy mountains - the tallest coastal range in the world. Driving along the McCarthy road reveals one breathtaking vista after another. "I wanted to stop every hundred yards just to gawk at the mountains looming outside my van window," said travel blogger Torsten Jacobi. "They looked impossibly high, jagged peaks carved by glaciers and time."
Prime spots to photograph these soaring summits include the Miller Creek Overlook, the Kuskulana River Bridge, and the toe of the Root Glacier. For an sweeping panorama, day hikers can summit Mount Wright, a strenuous 12 mile roundtrip trek with rewards of nonstop mountain vistas. More ambitious backpackers tackle Odaray Mountain, an 8000 foot peak towering above the Quartz Creek valley, or the mighty 16,391 foot high summit of Mount Wrangell itself.
Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Spot Bears, Moose and Other Wildlife in Their Natural Habitat
Wrangell-St. Elias provides unparalleled opportunities to spot Alaska's iconic wildlife species roaming free in their natural habitat. Grizzly bears lumber along the river bars. Whole moose families browse the valleys and tundra. Seeing these majestic animals up-close in the wild backcountry is a highlight for many road trippers exploring this remote park.
As outdoor enthusiast Mark Johnson described after observing a grizzly bear by the Kotsina River, "It was mesmerizing to watch this massive predator wander along the shore, flipping over rocks looking for fish - oblivious to our presence. A truly humbling Alaskan experience." Visitors have the best chances of sighting bears along salmon streams like the Chitina, Kotsina, and Chokosna rivers from July through September. Carry bear spray and give these apex predators a wide berth.
Moose sightings occur more frequently, as Wrangell-St. Elias harbors Alaska's highest moose population. Males grow imposing 6 foot wide antlers, which they carry through the summer before shedding in November. Cow moose travel with young calves, teaching them to forage on shrubs and aquatic plants. Prime moose habitat occurs along the Yukon River, around marshy Mentasta Lake, and in the open valleys surrounding McCarthy.
Other common wildlife includes nimble mountain goats clinging to cliff faces, massive caribou with sweeping antlers, and plump marmots whistling from their burrows. Patient watchers may spot reclusive wolves, sly coyotes, snowshoe hares, beavers, and more. Avid birder Cheryl Strayed recorded over 100 species around hidden oxbow lakes and forest bogs. "I'd sit motionless in a canoe watching sandhill cranes fish along the shore, joined by singing warblers fluttering through the trees," she remarked. "A true wilderness paradise for wildlife."
While most visitors hope to glimpse Alaska's marquee mammals, appreciating Wrangell-St. Elias' full diversity of life requires slowing down and watching for smaller wonders all around you. Scan trunks for busy red squirrels hoarding cones. Spot Arctic ground squirrels scurrying to their burrows. Notice orange-capped mushrooms fruiting on the forest floor, and wildflowers like chocolate lilies sprouting on the tundra. Pause to admire a passing western emerald dragonfly's iridescent wings.
"I came expecting sweeping vistas and huge wildlife sightings, but grew to appreciate the park's little delights - a chickadee landing on my hand, or waking to a moose browsing outside my tent door," said travel writer Torsten Jacobi. "I learned to open my senses to the magic of the ordinary."
Visitors who linger and observe patiently will be rewarded with wildlife encounters both large and small. Rise early when animals are most active. Hike and paddle quietly to avoid disturbing their natural behaviors. Bring binoculars and telephoto lenses to watch from a distance. As professional photographer Mark Johnson says, "The colors, sounds, and glimpses into untamed nature I witnessed will stay with me far longer than any trophy sighting." Let the wilderness reveal itself to you.
Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Try Your Hand at River Rafting and Other Outdoor Activities
River rafting through Wrangell-St. Elias' rugged canyons or fishing for salmon in an isolated stream will get your heart racing with outdoor adventure. This park's extensive wilderness offers adrenaline-pumping activities to thrill outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe.
For many, riding the Class IV rapids of the Chitina River encapsulates the Wrangell-St. Elias adventure experience. This glacial river churns through a steep-walled gorge, providing a wet and wild ride. As Cheryl Strayed of Mighty Travels described it: "Hitting the big rapids felt like barely controlled chaos - paddling furiously while icy water crashed over us, only to emerge gasping but grinning in the calm pools below." Local guides can safely navigate these technical waters. Beginners can also opt for a more relaxed float down the Nizina River through the verdant boreal forest.
lazy summer day fishing for salmon along one of the park's pristine rivers or streams promises outdoor tranquility. The most scenic angling adventures involve flying or hiking into remote areas like the Chokosna River, where Mark Johnson spent a blissful July morning casting for sockeye: "With the riffles gurgling beside me and snowy peaks all around, every flick of the rod felt like communing with unspoiled wilderness." From easy roadside access to multi-day backcountry treks, Wrangell-St. Elias has options for all levels of anglers.
Hikers can choose from over 2000 miles of trails traversing every type of terrain, from breezy tundra to boreal forest to stark high country. Day hike the Rush Creek Trail through fields of wildflowers in the shadow of the Wrangells, or take a longer journey along the 50-mile Carbon Creek Trail towards the Canadian border, spending nights under the northern lights after days of mountain vistas. The park even offers routes only the most intrepid wilderness trekkers attempt, like the infamous Zackly Canyon route of the Chitina River, fording the river through chest-deep water 17 times. As Mark Johnson advises, "Wrangell-St. Elias has a hike suited to every ability and adventure threshold."
For those desiring dizzying heights, the park offers world-class mountain climbing on peaks like 16,390 foot Mt. Wrangell. Elite alpinists test their mettle attempting first ascents of unclimbed spires deep in the backcountry, accessed only by bush plane. But you need not be an expert to enjoy the challenge of scrambling up passes like Skookum Volcano or the Wrangell Icefield's Northwest Buttress - just be prepared with proper gear and conditioning.
Closer to terra firma, Wrangell's network of old mining roads tempt mountain bikers with routes catering to every ability level. Beginners can pedal easily along the level Kotsina River Trail to the Kotsina River Road trailhead. Expert riders can grind out miles of singletrack along the long and scenic Volcanic Mountain Trail high above the Kuskulana River. "I loved having an entire abandoned mining road all to myself to cycle at my own pace," described Torsten Jacobi after biking the Bonepart Creek Road. "It was just me, my bike, and the rolling hills."
Take an Affordable Road Trip to Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Instead of an Alaskan Cruise - Savor Hearty Campfire Cooking Under the Northern Lights
After a day exploring Wrangell-St. Elias’ raw wilderness, few things satisfy more than gathering around a cozy campfire to share a meal beneath the glowing northern lights. The crackling fire radiates warmth to ward off the chill mountain air while providing a place to cook hearty campfire fare. Lifting your gaze upwards, drapes of green aurora shimmer overhead in a magical light display.
"Sitting around the campfire swapping stories after a day's adventure while the northern lights dance across the sky - that's the quintessential Wrangell-St. Elias experience," says outdoor enthusiast Cheryl Strayed. The long summer days in this part of Alaska allow ample after-dinner daylight to stay up late gazing skyward. August through April provides the best chances to witness the aurora borealis, though sightings occur year-round when solar winds produce intense activity.
Simple camp cooking takes on new dimensions when the sizzling meat and wafting aromas mingle with woodsmoke beneath the glowing night sky. "Grilling up foil-wrapped salmon filets on a flat rock propped by the fire, I felt so connected to this land that has sustained people for generations," described travel writer Torsten Jacobi. Visitors should come equipped with camping grills, pots and pans, utensils and campfire cooking essentials to prepare everything from foil-wrapped fish to one-pot meals.
For those desiring gourmet campfire cuisine, Wrangell-St. Elias’ remote lodges put unique twists on traditional dishes. "At Ultima Thule Lodge deep in the backcountry, the chef perfectly seared caribou tenderloins served with huckleberry compote - a meal I'll never forget," recalled professional photographer Mark Johnson. From hearty stews to Dutch oven mac and cheese, stick-to-your-ribs comfort foods satisfy after the day's adventures. Experiment with campfire baking to enjoy fresh bread under the auroras.
Simple snacks and hot drinks likewise hit the spot around the dancing lights of the campfire. The bluish glow reflecting off smores as they roast over the flames makes them taste even sweeter. Sipping mulled cider or steaming mugs of cocoa nourishes body and spirit while watching the light show. As Cheryl Strayed says, "Hunkering under blankets, staring up at the shimmering night sky while slowly sipping something warm - it's dreamlike, almost transcendent."
Campfire camaraderie matters as much as the food itself out here. Swapping stories of wilderness misadventures and lessons learned forges bonds between fellow travelers. Passing dishes around the circle and offering toasts fosters a spirit of community. As Mark Johnson puts it, "You feel part of an ancient circle, one with all who have gathered this way under the northern lights across the generations."
When city stress melts away in Wrangell's timeless wilderness, the simple act of cooking and sharing a meal outdoors recenter us. Listening to bioluminescent spruce trees rustle in the breeze while watching the wispy auroras drift by grounds our busy minds. We relish the quiet company of close friends. An elder may share Native legends about the northern lights' origins.