Adventures in Alaska: A Guide to the Nabesna Road in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
Did you know Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest National Park in the entire National Park Service? Yes, that’s right – coming in at 13.2 million acres of land to explore, it’s the size of SIX Yellowstones and the largest of all 419 units! The park is large AND tall as it encompasses part of four major mountain ranges, including nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. Wrangell-St. Elias is also home to countless glaciers – one of which is larger than an entire state, volcanoes – including one of the world’s largest active volcanoes by volume, a diverse array of wildlife – with some 54 species of mammals, 239 species of birds, 88 species of fish and, while the park spans over 20,000 square miles, there are only two gravel roads that combine to reach just over 100 miles. So, while I’ve seen just a mere 100 miles of the park, it’s safe to say it nearly edges out its competition for the title of my Favorite National Park.
Hopefully I’ve made my case for why you must visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Now it’s time to discuss the how. I don’t have to go out on a limb to say the best way to see much of the park is by taking an airplane. Between seeing the aerial views and the ability to cover long distances quickly, it’s certainly the way to go. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to take a flight-seeing tour during either of my visits to this massive park. What I did have the opportunity to do, however, was explore the entirety of the two gravel roads – Nabesna Road and McCarthy Road – and boy oh boy, what an adventure it was!
The two roads are in different areas of the park and it takes two and a half hours to get from the start of the Nabesna Road to the start of the McCarthy Road. Not only are the two roads in different area, the two roads are drastically different: Nabesna Road was originally built in 1934 for a gold mine and winds 42 miles in the Slana region of the park, offering countless opportunities for outdoor recreation. McCarthy Road on the other hand was constructed in 1909 as a railway to support the Kennecott Copper Mines and has 60 miles of scenic beauty that promptly ends at a footbridge that is a half-mile short of McCarthy and five miles short of historic Kennecott.
As if that wasn’t enough information, it’s time to explore Four Things to do on Nabesna Road in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
1. Visit Slana Ranger Station – Before embarking on the adventure of a lifetime, be sure to stop at Slana Ranger Station at Mile 0.5 of Nabesna Road. There’s truly a wealth of knowledge available within the four walls of this rustic cabin. First and foremost, talk to the National Park Rangers to learn the road conditions and updates. As I’ll explain later, you’ll most likely want an SUV at minimum as the road crosses three creek beds if you take it to the end (please, learn from my mistakes and spend the extra money on a four-wheel drive vehicle!). Next, have a seat and learn about Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve as you watch the park film (played upon request). Ask for a Junior Ranger booklet and work on it as you spend the day in the National Park learning about its valuable resources. Turn in your completed booklet on our way out, in another area of the park such as McCarthy/Kennecott or mail it in once you return home. Before you head out to officially start the drive along Nabesna Road, ask the Ranger for the free Audio Tour CD. You’ll be able to play this in your car as you head down the Nabesna Road and learn about the geology and history of the park’s many interesting points in addition to the animals that live within the park. If you’re more adventurous than me, Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) permits and subsistence permits are also issued here.
2. Stay the Night – If you’re doing it right, you’ll want to stay at least one night in this area of the park. Apparently, you can camp along several of the pullouts along the road. Kendesnii Campground is the only NPS established campground within this entire park, located at Mile Post 27.8. The campground is free and first come, first serve; there are 10 designated campsites with two vault toilets. Those are the options I would suggest to people who don’t do their research. For those who do their research and plan (hello!), you my friend could stay at two of the Public Use Cabins in the park. Caribou Creek Trail and access to Caribou Creek Public Use Cabin is at Mile Post 19.2. Aside from making a reservation up to six months in advance, the only requirement for staying at this free cabin is the three mile hike up to it. Nestled between two ridges, the cabin has two twin sized wooden bunks, a wood stove, rustic pit toilet, small table, porch, and breathtaking views. The other Public Use Cabin is located at Mile Post 21.8, the Viking Lodge Cabin. Again, this is a free option provided you make reservations up to six months in advance to the day of your request. The walk to this cabin is much shorter, requiring only a quarter mile of hiking. This cabin was built in the early 1970s by a homesteader and is slightly bigger offering two twin sized wooden bunks, a loft area, table and chairs, kitchen counter, wood stove, outside firepit, and rustic pit toilet. Water should be packed in although there are streams located near both cabins – whether they’re dry or not is the question. I’ve had the opportunity to stay in both the Caribou Creek Cabin and Viking Lodge Cabin and wish I could teleport back to both. The Wrangell Mountains Wilderness Lodge is another option for lodging along the Nabesna Road. Formerly the Sportsman’s Paradise Lodge, WMWL is located at Mile Post 28.5 and offers rustic cabins and rooms to rent. There is a bar, liquor store, snacks, firewood, and showers. Most importantly, its owned by the nicest people (more on that soon).
3. Take a Hike (or two) – Hopefully you can get up to Caribou Creek Cabin to spend a night. Either way, I’d recommend taking a hike on Caribou Creek Trail as it’s an easy-to-moderate trail (six miles round trip with 800 feet of gain) and offers excellent views. The NPS did quite a bit of maintenance on the trail in June of 2019, too. Moving on down to the end of Nabesna Road, I hiked Rambler Mine Trial back in May of 2015 and was quite determined to return with my Dad in tow. The trailhead is truly located at the end of Nabesna Road, Mile 42. This short yet steep hike (approximately 1.5 miles round trip with about 400’ feet of gain) brings you to historic mine buildings, artifacts, and spectacular scenery. If you can get there, it’s worth it. If you can’t get there, figure out a way to get there. While the NPS says the road is generally passable by any two-wheel drive vehicles, spend the extra money and reserve get a four-wheel drive vehicle as road conditions significantly deteriorate around Mile Post 28. Depending on the time of year, snowmelt, and rainfall, Trail Creek (Mile 29.8), Lost Creek (Mile 31.2), and Boyden Creek (Mile 34.3) may be impassable. My first visit, I was able to cautiously cross in a Subaru Legacy. My second visit, there was no way we were crossing unless we had a high clearance vehicle. Remember when I said I was determined to show my Dad this trail? Plan B? C? D? was enacted and we got there with our faith restored in humanity (mother nature on the other hand…) After three miles down from Caribou Creek Cabin, 1.5+ on Rambler Mine Trail, and three miles back to the cabin, we decided to take a “zero day” instead of exploring Skookum Volcano Trail (…someday…). See more hikes here.
4. Make a Stop at Wrangell Mountains Wilderness Lodge/Sportsman’s Paradise Lodge – I mentioned it previously, but I can’t speak highly enough about Wrangell Mountains Wilderness Lodge (formerly Sportsman’s Paradise Lodge). Owned by Michael and Victoria Rego, my Dad and I had the opportunity to spend some time with Victoria, her two kids, and their pups during our visit to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in June of 2019. Michael and Victoria were married at Copper Lake in 2010 and know the area extensively. They can help you plan your visit and if you prefer electricity, flush toilets, hot showers, and nice people all within the boundaries of the National Park, this is the place to be year-round. Whether you book one of the three cabins here or not, at the very least stop in and reward yourself with a cold beverage after a day of exploring the great outdoors.
It is my hope by doing at least the four things mentioned above, you’ll have the opportunity to see the scenic vistas, explore the hiking routes, relish the wildlife, and learn about all that the park offers (glaciers, volcanoes, cultures, mountains, and more) all while enjoying the vast, remote wilderness. Enjoy the road less traveled, it’s always an adventure!