After a late start we made our way to the visitor centre for the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
This park is the largest U.S. national park and is six times the size of Yellowstone National Park. It is wilderness best accessed by air. There are only two unpaved roads that penetrate the park (both known to take at least one tire out if not two!) and very few developed trails. Four major mountain ranges meet in the park, which include nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. The visitor centre was really the only means of getting a feel of the park without serious backpacking or off-road driving. However one advantage of a clear day was that the major peaks of the park were visible.
At the visitor centre we learnt that the Wrangell Mountains which were visible are volcanic in origin. Today only Mount Wrangell remains active with vents of steam being seen at its summit. It last erupted in 1900. They are covered year round in snow and there are vast icefields and glaciers. Near the coast, North America’s largest subpolar icefield, Bagley Icefield, spawns huge glaciers. We watched a superb film called “Crown of the Continent” which gave you an intimate portrait of the park.
We also sat and listened to a great talk by a ranger about interlinks between the wild animals in the park and their environment. Currently there was a high population of snow hares and as a result the numbers of lynxes were increasing. The eating of salmon by bears and other animals brought essential minerals onto the land.
After exploring the exhibits we then walked the Boreal Forest Trail with fantastic views of the Wrangell Mountains. Mount Drum at 12,010 feet dominated the foreground. To the right we could see Mount Wrangell at 14,163 feet. We also got a glimpse at Mount Blackburn at 16,390 the highest of the peaks. The trail also gave views of the Copper River and then crossed the old Valdez trail. During the Klondike Gold Rush, most stampeders reached the gold fields from Skagway via the Chilkoot Pass. Many Americans objected to Canadian control of that route. In response, the US government constructed an alternative trail from Valdez to Fairbanks.
By the time we returned to the Jeep we realised time had flown by and so we drove only a little further down the road to Copper Center where we found one of the many Princess Lodges for an afternoon coffee and tea. They had some comfy chairs and so we sat and watched the sun and clouds making patterns over the Wrangell Mountains before returning back to base.