Hiking in the Wrangell - Saint Elias National Park can be a fun and rewarding experience as in other national parks. It is a great way to both see and experience the park.
Hiking in this vast undeveloped park is very different from hiking in national parks in the "Lower 48". There are no maintained trails within the park or preserve. There are very few trailhead signs indicating the starting point for a route or trail. For ideas on where to go, begin by looking at a map to get familiar with the lay of the land. Then, contact Park headquarters or one of the air taxis for more detailed information.
More than 8,700,000 acres of the Park and Preserve have been designated as "wilderness" by Congress. A trip into the Wrangell - Saint Elias Wilderness provides an unparalleled opportunity for solitude away from roads or concentrations of human activities. It also carries the responsibility of minimizing the impact of your stay so that others may enjoy this unique wilderness experience.
Most backpackers and day hikers start from points along the Slana-Nabesna or Chitina-McCarthy roads. Tent camping is allowed anywhere within the boundaries of the park, except on private property.
Traditional transportation means such as airplanes, snowmachines, dog teams and horses may be used throughout the Park and Preserve regardless of wilderness designation. But helicopter landings are not authorized on National Park Service lands for recreational purposes. Flightseeing occurs throughout the area and is most concentrated in the Kennicott basin. A list of licensed air taxi operators is available from the Park Service.
A successful backpacking trip requires adequate planning. The hiker should be prepared for everything and should not count on aid or rescue from others. Caution and good judgment are key ingredients for a pleasant expedition. For many hikers, hiring the services of a local guide will make the trip safer and more enjoyable. Contact the Park Service for a list of licensed guides.
In general, the areas above tree line (3,000 feet) afford the easiest hiking and best views. These areas are often accessed by chartering a flight to one of the many possible "bush" landing strips. Air taxis will often land on gravel bars or on the tundra. If you prefer not to see others on your trip, ask a ranger or pilot about some of the lesser known areas. A list of licensed air taxi operators is available from the Park Service. Be flexible and prepared for alternatives. Your air taxi or the Park Service may know of high water conditions, wildlife hazards or overcrowding in an area and may encourage you to choose an alternative.
Backcountry permits are not required, but travelers are encouraged to complete a "Backcountry Itinerary" available at any park office. Additionally, leave your route and expected time of return at home with your family or a friend. If you fail to check in from a backcountry trip, rangers will not initiate a search until a specific request is made. If you are flying in or out of a remote airstrip, your pilot will be your main communication link to safety. Be sure to discuss "what if" scenarios with your pilot before you are dropped off. Carry food for several extra days in case of unexpected delays. Assistance may be days or miles away, so be extraordinarily careful in this vast region.
Ask Park Service rangers or local residents about weather conditions and the reasonableness of trying to reach certain points. Walking across the spruce muskeg with a pack or crossing rivers can take much more time than expected. From a distance the landscape may look like easy hiking, but place a foot in it and you quickly find out the land tests your endurance as you hop from tussock to tussock and try to avoid hidden pools of water. On rugged, unmaintained routes, you may only travel a few miles a day.
The prime backpacking season is from 20 June to 20 August due to snow depths at higher elevations. Some years the snow melts early and arrives late extending the backpacking season. Consider hiking at lower elevations or be prepared for slogging through snow in this "shoulder" season. Hunting season, primarily in the preserve, is from 10 August - 20 September. The main mountaineering season is mid-March through early June. Wildflowers and mosquitos peak in June and July. Consider bringing a headnet. June and July are also the warmest months, but it can snow any month of the year in the highcountry. Drizzling rains are common throughout the summer and, in general, rainfall increases in August and September, especially along the coast. The main wildfire season is May through July in drier years.
The Nabesna Road offers access to lowland tundra, home to moose, caribou, wolves and bear. The clear water creeks and lakes are teaming with waterfowl and fish. The picturesque highlands of the Mentasta and Wrangell Mountains offer opportunities to spot Dall sheep. On a clear day, you can see the steam plume rising from the active volcanic crater of Mt. Wrangell. Activities such as hiking, fishing, bicycling, flying, and hunting are possible. Rustic campsites exist in many places along the road and four pullouts have picnic tables.
Backcountry access by off-road vehicles on specific established trails is allowed with a permit, which can be obtained from the ranger station. Please respect private property located in many places along the road including the Nabesna Mine. No trash cans are provided, please carry out all your refuse.
Within the legislated boundary of Wrangell - St Elias National Park and Preserve, lie almost one million acres of non-federal lands. Native corporations own 770,000 acres of land within the boundaries. The remainder are private, state or University of Alaska lands. If you have a question about whether or not there is an easement across any of these private properties please check with the National Park Service.
Land status maps are available at all park ranger stations. It is the hiker's responsibility to know the land ownership along the routes they are planning to hike. Hiking or camping on private land is trespassing. Places where numerous private parcels are interspersed with public lands include: McCarthy, Kennicott, May Creek, Dan Creek, Chisana and along the McCarthy, Nabesna and Kotsina Roads.
The National Park Service and the State of Alaska cooperatively manage the wildlife resources of the Park and Preserve. An Alaska State fishing and/or hunting license is required for all hunters and anglers age 16 or older. Bag and possession limits vary by species and by area. Always check current hunting and fishing regulations. NOTE: In the National Park only subsistence hunting by local, rural residents is allowed. In the National Preserves both sport hunting and subsistence hunting may occur. For further information on Alaska fishing and hunting regulations contact:
Alaska Department of Fish and Game
PO Box 47
Glennallen, AK 99588
An Alaska fishing license is required and all state rules apply. Release or cut your line when a bear approaches.
Salmon provide food for bears, bald eagles, gulls and other creatures that forage the stream during the annual run. They have also been important to Wrangell - St Elias people for several thousand years.
Fish are one of Alaska's greatest renewable resources. By practicing proper catch and release fishing, today's anglers preserve quality fishing for the anglers of tomorrow. Use artificial flies and lures to catch fish that you plan to release. Use barbless hooks and an appropriate hook size. Pliers can be used to pinch down barbs on conventional hooks.
Catch and Release Methods
Always have someone "spot" bears for you. Often anglers become so involved in fishing that they forget to watch for bears.
Maintain a minimum of 50 yards from a bear, 100 yards from a sow with cubs. Stop fishing well before a bear approaches within these designated distances.
Know how to break your line. The splashing of a fish will often catch the attention of a bear. Break your line quickly and move out of the water until the bear passes.
Mountain Biking opportunities are limited in Wrangell - Saint Elias National Park and Preserve. Lack of maintained roads and rough, boggy conditions make riding difficult, though the McCarthy and Nabesna Roads are appropriate for mountain bikes. Both offer spectacular scenery and wilderness experience. Bikers should be prepared for wet, muddy, uneven, and rocky biking conditions.
Dry creek beds along the Nabesna Road suitable for mountain biking include Lost Creek and Trail Creek.
Suggested routes from the McCarthy Road include the Kotsina Road and the Nugget Creek Trail. From McCarthy one can ride to the ghost town of Kennicott and to the Nizina River. The Copper River Highway, south out of Chitina, is also good for bikes.
Wrangell - Saint Elias and Glacier Bay National Parks, and their Canadian neighbors, Kluane National Park and Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Provincial Park, were set aside to preserve the foothills, glaciers and peaks of the Wrangell, Chugach and St.Elias mountain ranges. This World Heritage Site includes many of the highest mountains and largest ice fields in North America. The setting provides for superb mountaineering experiences found nowhere else in the world.
The severe changes in elevation, avalanches, ice, remoteness and extreme winds and weather of this region require extensive knowledge of wilderness and mountaineering survival skills. Access is usually by chartered aircraft. Climbers must be fully prepared and self sufficient. Rescue and evacuation opportunities are slim and time consuming.
The best time of year for climbing activity is April through June. It is recommended that all climbers fill out a "Trip Itinerary" and leave it at park headquarters, or one of the ranger stations in Slana, Gulkana, Chitina or Yakutat.
All climbing expeditions that enter Kluane National Park, Canada must secure a permit in advance from the:
Kluane National Park
Contact Park Headquarters for a current list of mountaineering guides authorized to lead climbs in the Park. For specific information on climbing in the St. Elias Range contact the:
Yakutat Ranger Station
PO Box 137
Yakutat, AK 99689
Kayaking Icy Bay
Since 1900, four huge tidewater glaciers retreated to form Icy Bay on the coast of Wrangell - St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The protected blue waters, surrounded by spectacular glacial scenery and an abundance of wildlife, are ideal for sea kayaking.
Most kayakers access Icy Bay by chartering a small bush plane to drop them off at Kageet Point on the eastern edge of Icy Bay or Pt. Riou, located on Chugach Alaska Native Corporation land southeast of Icy Bay. Before flying into Point Riou, visitors should request permission by writing:
Chugach Alaska Corporation
560 E. 34th. Ave., Suite 200
Anchorage, AK 99503
Access to Icy Bay is restricted to small bush planes only, so most parties use collapsible kayaks. At this time, there are no folding kayaks available for rent in the area.
A list of licensed guide companies that lead trips in Icy Bay is available. For more information write:
Yakutat Ranger Station
P.O. Box 137
Yakutat, AK 99689
Waterproof matches in airtight containers, metal matches, fire starter and �tinder' are suggested. Extra food and clothing, a signal mirror, smoke flare, durable space blankets, plastic bags, and a good first aid kit are extremely valuable if you plan on being out for several days. Cord can be used to make a shelter and hang food in trees. Most hikers carry water purification filters or chemicals. Some even carry pocket strobe lights, and a few carry personal locator beacons. Plan to be self sufficient in any emergency. The land is vast and remote, and you cannot count on early help if you have difficulties.
Try and keep your gear lightweight yet durable. Equipment should withstand rigorous use in a rough, mountainous countryside. Help could be many hours away should something go wrong with your gear.
Bring your food, equipment and other supplies with you. Avoid food such as bacon or smoked fish, soaps, and cosmetics with strong odors as they attract bears. Bottles and cans are hard to dispose of. If you take them in, you are expected to carry them out. Without some sort of bear proof storage, you should be prepared to hang your food as high as possible. Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibit carrying fuel in containers such as stoves on commercial airlines.
Boots should be a sturdy hiking or mountaineering type that provides good ankle support. Some hikers prefer boots with the rubber shoe and leather upper, like the Maine Hunting Shoe. You can count on your feet getting wet regardless of your boot type, so durability and support should be a prime concern. Many pair of socks are essential. Tennis shoes are good for crossing rivers.
Insect repellent and head nets are highly recommended.
You can purchase maps of the area at the U.S. Geological Survey, 1-800-USA-MAPS. The Yakutat District Ranger also sells USGS maps.
The following maps cover the Malaspina Forelands, Yakutat area and Dry Bay at 1:250,000 scale:
Mt. St. Elias
Durable rain gear that covers both the upper and lower torso is a must for hikes of any length. The rain gear should keep out water in a steady down pour. Since you will eventually get wet in any significant rain storm, wool or synthetic clothing that insulates when wet is highly recommended for wear under rain gear. The weather in Wrangell - St Elias can change quickly and without warning. Expect rain and drizzle. Summer temperatures range up to 65�, while lows do not drop below 50�. Hypothermia is always a possibility with wet conditions and cool temperatures.
A gasoline stove is essential. Wood is scarce and often wet.
You should have a tent with a waterproof floor, rain-fly, and a no-see- um netting, and this tent should be designed to withstand strong winds. Bring plenty of extra stakes and strong cord to keep the tent secure. Synthetics like �Polarguard' or �Fiberfill' are better than down in the wet environment of Wrangell - St Elias because synthetics will insulate when wet while down will not. Even in summer, Wrangell - St Elias' temperatures may drop below freezing, especially at higher elevations. A sleeping pad will provide insulation as well as comfort.
The staff at Wrangell - St Elias National Park urges you to stop by, write to or call the Headquarter office or visitor center for help in the final planning of your trip. A variety of terrain can be encountered. Some is easy walking, but streams must be crossed and glacier or mountaineering experience may be needed to climb the surrounding mountains. Depending on the mountain's condition, crampons and ropes may be needed on the snow or ice fields. Steeper slopes require an ice axe.
There are no maintained backcountry trails. The best hiking routes are along river bars, lake shores, and gravel ridges. Even on the best routes, you must occasionally cross rivers or fight through dense brush or marshy flats. Routes often selected are wildlife trails. Stay alert for bears and moose as you travel as wildlife also seeks the easiest routes through brush and forest.
Stay away from low-lying tundra flats because tussocks and marshy ground predominates there, making hiking extremely difficult. The mosquito is king in this environment. Alder thickets on hillsides, and willow patches along the water courses are often impenetrable. They may also hide bears. Be sure to make noise.
Most backcountry routes in Wrangell - St. Elias National Park and Preserve require numerous creek and river crossings. Bridges and log crossings are virtually nonexistent. Hikers must be familiar with safe techniques for crossing rivers and streams. Many are impassable, even for experts. Others can change quickly from trickling creeks to raging torrents, so be especially cautious.
The water volume, clarity and velocity may vary drastically according to season, time of day and upstream weather conditions. On warm days melting snow and glacial ice can swell streams that were easily crossed in the morning to flood stage by mid-afternoon. In glaciated areas, hotter, sunny days cause higher volume in the streams due to the ice melt. Voluminous, warm rain is also a contributing factor. Safe footing is difficult to obtain: silty water obscures channel bottoms while clear water allows for slippery algal growth. Icy water numbs feet quickly and even shallow streams are surprisingly swift when flowing down steep inclines. This combination of factors makes stream crossings one of the most hazardous parts of any backcountry experience.
Keep these points in mind when crossing water channels:
Choose the safest TIME to cross.
Cross early in the day whenever possible.
Be aware of storms in the area; cross before storms whenever possible.
Choose the Safest PLACE to Cross
The widest or most braided portion of the channel is usually the most shallow.
Straight channels usually exhibit uniform flow while bends often reveal deep cut banks and swift Water on the outside edge.
Water has less momentum on level ground than when flowing down an incline.
Cross with care using a stick or partner for stability (ask a ranger or guide to describe techniques).
Protect Your Feet
A Tidebook is an especially important item if boating, kayaking, fishing or hiking the coast. Remember, camp above the hightide line, always secure your boat or kayak when on shore and access the outwash streams and river channels at high slack water. If you cross a stream or walk the beach at low tide remember that conditions may be drastically different should you return by the same route a couple hours later. The tide changes from high to low every six hours. The water is very cold (34� F).
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
Carefully designing your trip to match your expectations and outdoor skill level is the first step in being prepared. Adequate trip planning and preparation helps to accomplish trip goals safely, while minimizing impacts on the environment and on other users.
Know the area and what to expect, including regulations and special concerns of the area.
Travel in small groups, during seasons or days of a week when use levels are low.
Bears may be present; balance safety concerns in bear country with ecological and social impact concerns.
Select appropriate equipment to help you Leave No Trace.
Repackage food into reusable containers, creating less trash to pack out.
2. Camp and Travel on Durable Surfaces
Whenever you travel and camp, confine your use to surfaces that are resistant to impact.
In popular areas, concentrate use. In remote areas, spread use.
Hike on existing trails to minimize disturbance to wildlife, soil and vegetation.
Choose an established campsite, one with a slight slope so rain water can drain.
Store food so that it is unavailable and uninviting to bears and small animals.
Before departing, make sure your camp is as clean or cleaner than when you arrived.
3. Pack it In, Pack it Out
The Wilderness Act states that wilderness "... is recognized as an area... where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,...with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable..." People come to the wildlands to enjoy them in their natural state. Allow others a sense of discovery by leaving rocks, plants, archaeological artifacts antlers, and other objects as you find them.
Minimize site alteration when camping, do not build structures.
Avoid damaging live trees and plants.
Avoid disturbing wildlife.
Leave natural objects and cultural artifacts for others to enjoy.
It is illegal to remove any cultural objects from Wrangell - St Elias National Park and Preserve.
Cultural artifacts are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. All these "pieces of the past" contribute to our understanding of human and natural history, including the effects of disease, climate changes, and shifting animal populations on the land and her people. Removing these artifacts takes them out of context and removes a chapter from an important story. If you discover an artifact, enjoy it where it is. Leave it as you found it.
6. Minimize Use and Impact from Fires.
The use of campfires in the backcountry, once a necessity, is now steeped in history and tradition. Stoves are now essential equipment for minimum-impact camping trips because they are fast and eliminate firewood availability as a concern in campsite selection.
Use dead and down wood only.
In high use areas, build campfires in existing fire rings to concentrate impacts.
These principles and practices depend more on attitude and awareness than on rules and regulations; they must be based on a respect for and appreciation of wild places and their inhabitants.
Avoid surprising animals at close range. Whistle, talk, sing, or otherwise make noise when hiking in areas where visibility is limited or bear sign present. Take no pets; they are prohibited in the backcountry. A dog's valor may turn into retreat bringing an infuriated bear to you.
Be alert to sign (droppings, diggings, fresh tracks, etc.), sounds, or other indications of bears. Be particularly wary when hiking wildlife trails, salmon streams, or other areas where bears concentrate.
Food and beverages should never be left unattended. Foodstuffs with strong odors such as fish, cheese, sausage, and fresh meats should be stored in a food cache, a bear resistant container, or suspended 10 feet above ground. Carry all refuse and garbage out! Buried refuse will attract bears.
Keep packs and other personal gear on your person. It is easy to become separated from belongings left lying on the ground when a bear unexpectedly approaches. Bears will investigate, often destructively.
Bears approach anglers because they have learned to recognize them as a source of food. Stop fishing when bears are present.
If you keep a fish, you should remove the fish immediately to a proper food storage area.
Do not approach bears
The minimum safe distance from any bear is 50 yards; from a sow with young it is 100 yards. These are MINIMUM distances, there are many times that greater distances are required!
Regardless of precautions taken, you may come across a bear. Usually they will run away. A bear standing on hind legs may only be trying to sense you better, not preparing to attack. Even a charge is often a bluff, ending abruptly short of physical contact.
If you see a bear at a distance, turn around or make a wide detour. Keep upwind if possible so the bear will get your scent and know you're there. Talk in an assured tone to communicate your presence. Treat animals as if cubs are nearby. Assume the bear will be defensive. Do not approach closer to scare a bear away as you may be considered a threat.
Avoid actions that interfere with bear movement or foraging activities.
Be satisfied with a distant photograph, or use a telephoto lense. Many fatalities and injuries have been related to photography.
Do not corner an animal. Allow them plenty of space and an escape route.
Bears are typically solitary animals. Much of their communication at feeding aggregations, such as occur on Brooks River, serves to maintain spacing and avoid conflict. Bears appear to have only a limited repertoire for this purpose. These behavior patterns are not highly ritualized, as in some species; therefore, their meaning is largely dependent on the context of the situation.
Descriptions of some behavior and a general interpretation of meaning follow to help you understand what a bear may be trying to tell you. Remember, each bear is an individual and each encounter is unique.
Standing on hind legs - A bear standing bipedally is typically not expressing aggression. Bears generally stand on their hind legs to gain more information, both olfactory and visual.
Stationary lateral body orientation - A bear may stand broadside to assert itself in some instances. In encounters with human, it has usually been interpreted as a demonstration of size.
Stationary frontal orientation - If a bear is standing and facing you, it is certainly not being submissive. This is an aggressive position and may signal a charge. It is likely waiting for you to withdraw.
Huffing - When a bear is tense, it may forcibly exhale a series of several sharp, rasping huffs. A mother may also huff in order to gain the attention of her young.
Woof - A startled bear may emit a single sharp exhale that lakes the harsh quality of a huff. If her cubs woof, a mother will immediately become alert to the situation.
Jaw-Popping - Females with young often emit a throaty popping sound, apparently to beckon their cubs when danger is sensed. A mother vocalizing in this manner should be considered nervous and extremely stressed. Bears other than sows also jaw-pop.
Growl, snarl, roar - Clear indication of intolerance.
Yawning - Indicates tension. This behavior may results from the close proximity of another bear or human presence.
Excessive Salivation - A clear sign of tension, salivation may appear as white foam around the bear's mouth.
The vast majority of charges are ones in which the bear stops before making contact. The intensity of the charge or associated vocalizations may vary, but it is distinct in that it is an aggressive or defensive act clearly directed at another bear or human. Bears may charge immediately, as a sow fearing for her cubs, or may emit stressed or erratic behavior before charging.
There is no guaranteed lifesaving method of reacting to an aggressive bear. Some behavior patterns have proven more successful in close encounters than others. Take a calm assured posture. A firm voice and gradual departure are better than a retreat in panic. Include the nature of your surroundings in your reaction.
As a last resort, lie face down, protect your neck with your hands and arms, and don't move. This requires considerable courage, but resistance would be futile. Numerous incidents exist where a bear has sniffed and departed without serious injury.
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