Backpacking Beauty in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Wrangell St. Elias Backpacking Beauty

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As the largest national park in the U.S., Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is a wild, vast, untamed land — and perfect for outdoor adventures. It might take a little bit of work to get there, but Wrangell St. Elias backpacking trips don’t have to be unusually hard or complicated.

Want to hit the trail in the “Mountain Kingdom of North America?'” Here’s what you need to know.

Traveling to Wrangell St. Elias backpacking trails

We’re going to assume for the sake of this article that you plan to backpack in the summer, between June and late August. If not, please know that many of the roads we talk about are summer-access only. You can travel to Alaska in the summer by car, plane, ferry, bicycle or by foot. We’ll talk about the most common methods.

If you already live here — awesome. That really cuts down on your travel time. Otherwise, flying into Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage, Alaska and renting a car is your easiest option.

It’s important to remember while traveling in Alaska that road conditions are constantly changing. You could encounter road closures and delays that add significant time to your trip, or find that you must drive much slower than expected because of “ice heave” road damage.

Guide: Wrangell St. Elias Backpacking Beauty
A view of the Chitina River off the McCarthy Road in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

If coming from Anchorage, plan to drive into Wrangell St.-Elias through Glennallen, Alaska from where you’ll either drive northeast on the Tok Cutoff to Slana in the park’s Nabesna District, or southeast towards Chitina in the Kennecott District.

It will take you about 3.5 hours to drive from the airport in Anchorage to the park’s main visitor center south of Glennallen, which is on the far west border of the park and adjacent the national preserve. If you’re coming from Anchoarge, getting to a great backpacking trail will take a little longer. If you plan to access Wrangell St. Elias backpacking off the south portion of the park, you’re looking at a five hour trip. Getting to the north side will run you more like six hours.

You can also arrive in Alaska by car by driving through Canada. Wrangell-St. Elias is the closest national park to the Alaska-Canadian border. If you’re entering Alaska on the Alcan highway, you’re looking at a three hour drive from the border to the visitor center on the north side of the park in the Slana district, with another hour or so drive to great Wrangell St. Elias backpacking.

You can also enter Alaska via ferry with your vehicle. To do this you will sail into Haines, Alaska and then drive northeast through Canada and into Alaska on the Alcan. If you plan to take a ferry, however, book your tickets early — ferries into Alaska in the summer sell out early.

A final option for accessing the most wild portions of Wrangell-St. Elias is flying directly into the park. You can charter a pilot to make this happen for you. We’ll be discussing only the backpacking areas accessible by trail. However, high alpine climbing and Wrangell St Elias backpacking are best accessed by using a local bush pilot service to take you into the park’s remote interior.

Wrangell St. Elias backpacking trails

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is full of great trails, many of them perfect for overnight or multi-night backpacking trips. Like we mentioned above, some of the backpacking areas are fly-in only. We’ll be talking only about the trails with trailheads accessible by car.

Important: Portions of Wrangell-St. Elias border land owned by the Ahtna tribe. While the trails are in the park, some of the parking areas are on Ahtna land. That means you could encounter an Ahtna fee box for parking. Fees, which are subject to change by the Ahtna, could range anywhere from $15 to $25, depending on how long you plan to park. Bring cash just in case.

Guide: Wrangell St. Elias Backpacking Beauty
A view into the Wrangell-St. Elias National Preserve where several backpacking trails lead explorers to sweeping landscape views.

Nugget Creek trail. A great two to three day trip, the Nugget Creek trail terminates at a rustic National Park cabin, which is available on a first-come basis and is a popular destination in the summer. The trail is 15 miles one way, and gains about 1,000 feet. The trail can be muddy and includes at least one stream fording. Read more about this hike from the National Park.

Guide: Wrangell St. Elias Backpacking Beauty
Lichen grows in thick patches next to creeks in Wrangell-St. Elias.

Found on the south side of the park off the McCarthy Road, it will take you two hours to drive to the trail from Glennallen. The Kotsina access road, which is not marked, is at mile marker 14.5. A free parking area is available just off the road, or it’s possible to drive down the access road several miles to the actual trailhead. This single-lane dirt road can be very muddy and includes large ruts, so before tackling it make sure your vehicle is up to the task.  The small parking area for the Nugget Creek trail off the access road has an Ahtna fee box as of the summer of 2017.

Guide: Wrangell St. Elias Backpacking Beauty
You’ll encounter Strelna Creek while backpacking on the park’s south side.

Dixie Pass trail. Another excellent two to three day trip, Dixie Pass is eight to 10 miles one way and winds first through woods, then along a creek, through a canyon and, finally, up into the pass itself for the last several miles. At times of high water, park officials warn, the canyon may be impassable on the trail and require that you hike up and around it on either side. You will ford the creek at least twice on this hike, if not more, depending on how you tackle the trail and route.

Guide: Wrangell St. Elias Backpacking Beauty

After several miles on the trail and along the creek, the maintained trail ends and instead becomes “route,” kept open by animal and human traffic. It’s easy at this point to loose the trail. If that happens, simply continue to follow the creek.

The National Park has a detailed list of suggestions for making the best of this gorgeous hike.

There are many camping areas along the creek. Officials don’t advise camping in the pass itself due to wildlife activity.

Guide: Wrangell St. Elias Backpacking Beauty
A campsite on Strelna Creek

Like the Nugget Creek trail, the Dixie Pass trail is located on the south side of the park off the McCarthy Road. The parking area for this trail head is 3.8 miles from the road and a few miles past the parking area and trailhead for Nugget Creek. As of the summer of 2017, the Dixie Pass parking area does not have a fee box.

Trail Creek-Lost Creek Trail Loop. Located on the north side of the park outside of Slana, this trail starts at mile 29.8 off the Nabesna Road, one of only two roads (the other is the McCarthy Road on the south side of the park) to go through the park. The south side of the Nabesna Road is National Park land, while the north side, where this trail goes, is National Preserve land. For practical Wrangell St. Elias backpacking purposes this doesn’t really make a difference, but it’s kind of interesting.

Guide: Wrangell St. Elias Backpacking Beauty
A view of the Nebesna Road heading east out of the park.

The National Park advices three to four days for this challenging hike, although a Park Ranger told us that another ranger has been known to trail run the entire loop in a single day. The entire route is 31.2 miles, but drops you out on the Nabesna Road 1.5 miles from where you started (so plan accordingly). It gains about 3,000 feet in elevation and features stunning views, the park service says.

You’re likely to get your feet wet on this hike, and need to be prepared to read a map and find some of your own way, as it is largely route, not trail. Check out this detailed hiking guide from the National Park Service.

Soda Lake Trail. The Soda Lake backpacking trail starts at mile 30.8 off the Nabesna Road with a trailhead sign visible from the road. With sweeping views off the arctic tundra, this is a gorgeous hike with campsites along the lake at the end, according to the park service.

One tricky spot to note on this hike is about two miles in where you will encounter the old trail. Hikers are warned to not take this trail since the new one will veer off in about a mile near Lost Creek and follow an entirely different route. Speaking of, use your time near Lost Creek to refill your water supply — you may not encounter another source for eight or so miles.

Guide: Wrangell St. Elias Backpacking Beauty
Just a taste of what you can see off the Nabesna Road.

The Soda Lake trail technically doesn’t start until you reach Soda Creek, about 12 miles into the hike from the road. From here you’ll hike another 2.5 miles before you reach the lake. You can read more details on this hike from the National Park.

Wrangell St. Elias Backpacking Tips

As in much of Alaska, wildlife can be plentiful in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. It’s important to be bear aware and practice good safety while backpacking. The trails in this part are remote and, as the park service notes, “help is not readily available.”

Guide: Wrangell St. Elias Backpacking Beauty
Hit up one of the visitor centers in the park for a bear resistant food can.

Backpackers are encouraged to store their food and anything else that has a scent or odor in a bear container. You can get one for free from any of the park visitor centers (where you should also get your National Park passport stamps!) for your Wrangell St. Elias backpacking trip. Simply trade your credit card details for the can. When you return it, they destroy the information. If you keep it, well — you have a new bear can and the park will make a charge on your card.

Be bear aware. Wrangell-St. Elias is a wild place, just like much of Alaska. We saw plenty of evidence of bear during our travels, but didn’t encounter any. We were careful to make noise while we hiked, and even busted out a portable speaker to make sure all wildlife new we were coming. Carry bear spray, or even better (assuming you know how to use it) a bear gun, but keep both in a place that’s easily accessible should you need them. There’s nothing like needing your bear gun and having to dive into your bag for it. Bears don’t usually wait for you to find your weapon before they approach.

Finally, do all other visitors a favor, and abide by leave no trace rules. That means packing out all trash — and that means all — and having good habits when you “go” in the backcountry.

We hope in enjoy Wrangell St. Elias backpacking as much as we did!

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