Glacier Hiking in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Preparing to Hike the Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska (Photo credit: Amy S. Eckert, c 2012)

I’m no stranger to ice and snow. I’ve lived all my life in the Upper Midwest. But walking up a 60-degree slope of sheer ice? Well, that’s just something we don’t do in Michigan.

Yet here I was, strapping crampons on my feet and making my way nervously up an ice face of the Root Glacier in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

According to the National Park Service, Wrangell-St. Elias is America’s largest national park, sprawling across more than 13 million acres, the equivalent of six Yellowstones and more territory than in all of Switzerland. Within the park’s boundaries lie nine of the continent’s highest mountain peaks.

And if that weren’t enough superlatives for you, Wrangell-St. Elias is home to North America’s largest collection of glaciers. I set out to hike one.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the nation’s largest and one of the most spectacular national parks.
  • There’s nothing like trekking across a glacier to get a perspective on your place in the world.
  • Alaska’s glacier’s are warming…and shrinking. Who knows how long Wrangell-St. Elias’ glaciers will last?
  • Good for adventurous fit travelers who don’t mind some ice and cold.

Flying into the Wild

It’s 60 miles each way from Chitina, the nearest town outside the park, to McCarthy, one of only two towns within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. It’s a trip that takes about 3 hours each way by car owing to its single-lane, rough gravel surface. Since most rental companies won’t permit driving off-road in Alaska and because most visitors have limited vacation time, Wrangell Mountain Air does a brisk business in flying people into the heart of America’s largest national park.

Trekking across the Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska (photo credit: Amy S. Eckert, c 2012)

I hopped into Wrangell Mountain Air’s little Cessna in Chitina for the flight to McCarthy. Up we quickly soared, following the Chitina River to the rocky slopes of imposing Mt. Blackburn, at 16,390 feet one of the highest mountains in Wrangell-St. Elias. We flew past the abandoned Erie Copper Mine, alongside the Stairway Icefall and over the Kennicott, Gates and Root Glaciers. On a sunny day you can sometimes see moose in the clearings below. Any day it’s a view you can scarcely believe is real.

Meeting the Root Glacier

Once we landed I headed off with my husband and about half a dozen others to the Root Glacier. We took one of the park’s commercial shuttles a short distance to Kennicott where we were fitted for crampons. And after cinching them onto our backpacks, the whole gang set off along the Root Glacier Trail, our boots tramping over the hard-packed gravel of glacial moraine, our route brightened by swaths of brilliant pink fireweed.

Tricked out in Crampons at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska (Photo credit: Amy S. Eckert, c 2012)

The Wrangell and St. Elias Mountain ranges looked large enough from a plane. Here at ground level they loom larger than life. Their rocky slopes and boulder-strewn glaciers readjusted my sense of scale. All around me, entire ecosystems flourished as they had for millennia unmindful of the modern world’s break-neck technological advancements just a quick flight away. It was humbling.

The Root Glacier loomed larger as my boots carried me over and alongside the Bonanza and Jumbo Creeks until finally, after nearly two miles, the trail curved downward over the moraine to the icy toe of the Root Glacier. I strapped my crampons onto my boots and headed onto the ice.

Ice Worms and Moulins

The vicious teeth of our crampons look like they mean business, and they do here on the ice. We didn’t hike across the glacier so much as stomp on it, digging the metal spikes into ice flecked with bedrock shavings called “rock flour.”

Moulin at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska (Photo credit: Amy S. Eckert, c 2012)

Flat surfaces were easy enough. The slow march across the cold surface allowed time to look for tiny black ice worms that spend their lives riddling through this frigid world. If I listened closely, I could hear fizzing and popping sounds, a phenomenon called “ice sizzle,” where tiny air bubbles pop as the ice melts and releases the pressurized air trapped within. Braided streams join to form a single rivulet of purified water (so pure you can fill your water bottle with it), then divide again to go their separate ways down the mountainside.

Long bulges in the icy surface covered the glacier like giant, frozen folds, so up I went, tense with the uneasiness of walking straight up the slick rises. Atop one fold we discovered a glacial stream running into a “moulin,” a narrow, tubular chute that drops straight down into the heart of the glacier.

The water glows an iridescent blue—so I guess you could call this a “Moulin Bleu”—and I wonder how far it drops. But I don’t dare get too close. There’s only one way out of a glacier. And the journey lasts a thousand years.

Practicalities

Wrangell Mountain Air isn’t the only outfitter guiding glacier hikes in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. But they’re a great one-stop shop, offering everything from flight-seeing tours to wilderness backpacking and the glacier trek described here. Fly-in glacier trekking trips last 8½ hours from take-off to touch-down in Chitina. The National Park Service provides details on Wrangell-St. Elias’ geography, wildlife and additional outfitters.

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