Wrangell-St. Elias – Episode 76
We began driving East on the Denali Highway towards Wrangell-St. Elias National Park at about 6:00 am. It was July 30th, Bill’s birthday, and a special gift to be driving on one of the best roads in America. Even though most of the highway was gravel and dirt, it was a pleasure.
While on our early adventure we saw several caribou running on the road. It was exciting to see them racing like reindeer ready to fly. Alisa forgot to fill up the water before we started traveling. There are no stores, gas stations or other conveniences on this remote highway. To our good fortune we found the Clearwater Creek Wayside. We filled up a few containers and drank the water from our Lifestraw®.
After driving for a few hours we stopped on the side of the road to stretch our legs. The winds were strong and we could see two very large mountains in the distance. They were both within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The first is a shield volcano over 16,000 feet in elevation called Mount Sanford and the other is a stratovolcano over 12,000 feet in elevation called Mount Drum.
Even though we had a full tank of gas before we started, we got very close of running out of gas shortly after we got off of the Denali highway. This area of Alaska is very isolated and there are very few business establishments. At the first trading post we reached had no fuel and was closed. With only about 20 miles left of gas in our tank, we finally found another trading post. The gasoline was expensive at about $4.50 per gallon, but we were glad we could purchase the fuel. I would not want to be stranded with my family along the side of the road.
We were thrilled when we arrived at the visitor center in Slana. We were in the largest national park in America. It was our 56th with only three to go to accomplish our quest. This park is so big that it is separated into two parts (preserve and park). You can hunt in the park for survival and the preserve for sport.
We drove on Nabesna Road until stopping to hike the six mile round trip Caribou Creek Trail. On this hike we came across the cold, narrow and fast creek. We had to take our boots off, cross barefoot and continue up the ridgeline. The weather was spectacular and when we reached the overlook we relaxed. Alisa took off her knee brace and we all took a brief nap. We were once again all alone together as a family in the wilderness. This is exactly what we search for when we explore. This is our pursuit of happiness.
We hiked back to our car and continued driving on Nabesna Road until we reached a flooded area. Nervously, we drove through it and finished our adventurous day. Our lodging was at the Hart D. Ranch. The wonderful woman owner celebrated Bill’s birthday by baking him a cake. It was very thoughtful and a sweet treat to end our day.
The next morning was beautiful. We could clearly see the top of Mount Sanford. It was covered by snow that looked like a gorgeous marshmallow topped mountain. This 13 million acre National Park and Preserve has three distinct visitor center areas. Yesterday we were at our first. Today we are going to our second at Copper Creek and continuing to the third at Kennicott.
We hiked the short Copper River Bluff and Boreal Forest Trails and then drove to Liberty Falls State Park. Luke enjoyed slowly walking barefoot on the rocks extremely close to the falls. Alisa did not want him to climb anymore because she was worried that he would get his leg caught in between the rocks. She thought he would lose his leg.
After Luke safely returned back we drove to the Chitina District Ranger Station. This is where the 60 mile McCarthy Road begins. It’s a gravel-surfaced road that ends near Kennicott where our lodge is for the next three nights. Before we drove we filled up the tank with gas and shopped at the IGA Copper valley grocery store to stock up on food. At each visitor center the boys have canceled their national park passports as Alisa enjoyed becomes a Junior Ranger.
As we drove on virtually empty McCarthy road we crossed the 525 foot long and 238 foot high Kuskulana Bridge. It was built in 1910 for the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad. Further along the road we saw many majestic mountains and picturesque ponds. We stopped at a few to enjoy the peace and quiet as well as the phenomenal views.
Since we were in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve we wanted to go for a hike before we reached the end of the road. We found a trail off the road at mile marker 34.7 called the Crystalline Hills Trail. It was a warm 70 degrees outside and very quiet. The hike was buggy through the dense spruce forest. The 2.5 mile loop trail was not maintained and a difficult wilderness experience. The vista at the end of the trail was fantastic, but the bugs had us leaving the area immediately.
When we reached the end of the road, we parked our car and had to walk across a footbridge. We pulled our luggage with a wagon and waited for the Kennicott Glacier Lodge to pick us up in their shuttle. Once we got to the lodge we unpacked and enjoyed a picnic dinner outside overlooking Root Glacier. The room was small, but with an amazing view. We were thrilled to finally have a place to stay for three nights. We watched the sunset over the mountains and everyone had a good night sleep.
It was August 1st when we woke up before 5:00 am. We quickly left our room and walked in the town of Kennicott and hiked the Erie Mine Trail. We passed Jumbo Creek as we got closer to Root Glacier. The trail parallels the massive Root Glacier which is the second largest ice field in the world. When we reached the glacier we were able to walk on it for a few steps. A lot of the glacier ice was covered in silt and it was the first time we ever stood on a glacier.
It was very exciting to explore, but Alisa was nervous that something bad could happen. We decided to not take any unnecessary risk. However, where we stood we could see the cuts in the blue ice and several crystal-like features. We walked off Root Glacier and sat next to it for a brief breakfast meal. We were all alone as a family in a perfect place for a picnic. Winston ate an apple as Luke enjoyed an Elk Sausage with some Wheat Thins.
As we hiked on the Erie Mine trail it became steeper and more rocky. We saw bear scat on the trail as we continued to call out “hey bear” as we hiked. The trail became so steep in one area that Alisa slipped. She thought she could not make it to the end. The boys motivated her that she could do it. She even slide down on her butt at the steepest places. Some of the trail toward the end was only a foot wide with a forty foot cliff on one side.
Winston discovered numerous areas of snow and even slipped himself. Sometimes the tough adventures are the most rewarding. At the end of the slightly maintained trail we had a perfect view of the 1000 foot Stairway Icefall. It connected to the Root Glacier and was breathtaking to see. Alisa was very proud of herself as the sun finally came over the mountains and shined upon us.
Luke and Bill decided to venture a half mile farther past where the trail ended. It is always special when a father and son explore a little deeper into the wilderness. We saw a variety jagged breaks and cracks in the glacier exposing turquoise blue water. The Icefield was like a giant movie screen featuring Mother Nature’s prizewinning film. It was one of the best looking landscapes we have ever seen.
On our way back, there was a gorgeous black bear just off of the trail. We kept our distance and admired it. The bear was eating berries and did not seem to care that we were there. It is always tremendous to be in the presence of wildlife in their habitat.
During the hike we had grand views of Mount Blackburn, Regal Mountain, and Donaho Peak. When we got back to Jumbo Creek, we took off our boots and socks, stuck our feet into the freezing glacier water, and yelled for a few seconds as our toes became numb. It actually is a fine feeling after the initial shock of the cold and hiking over ten miles.
The next morning we decided to hike the Bonanza Mine Trail. It begins as an old mining road and changes into a very difficult elevation change of over 3,800 feet. Winston started his early rise with a hit cocoa and once again we were hiking before 5:30 am. It was truly exhausting climbing up each step. It was not long when we came across what we thought were wolf footprints on the trail. Alisa thought she heard wolves howling too. However, no one else heard anything. Soon we took a short break and ate our picnic breakfast overlooking Root Glacier and the surrounding mountains.
As we continued to hike up the steep incline we encountered several places with snow. The trail eventually disappeared because it was covered by snow. Alisa doesn’t like hiking on the slick compacted snow especially when the incline is so steep. She doesn’t want to slip in particular because she has no ACL and is wearing a knee brace. We decided to take our time and march slowly in the snow. The boys thought it was fun as we took each step seriously. When we finally made it back on the rocky dirt trail we were very close to the Bonanza Mine.
There was remnants of garbage from the abandon mine scattered around the top of the trail. There was also the old remains of the tram system that carried ore down to Kennicott from the mine. This is where the richest copper strike was in world history. This 4.5 mile hike was very strenuous, but justifiably rewarded with astonishing panoramas.
Once again, we were all alone as a family on top of a mountain. It was the perfect place to relax, soak up the beauty, and take our time eating lunch. We had a can of smoked clams (a lot of protein… 17 grams) and smoked sardines. They are light and easy to pack. They are also tasty between two Wheat Thins. As Bill was eating the largest sardine in the history of our quest, he kept looking at one particular mountain. He started telling the rest of us that he wanted to climb it. Even though Luke and Winston said he would never make it, Bill took Winston’s backpack with some water and adventured towards the mountain alone.
Bill wanted to look over a specific ridge and see what was on the other side. Climbing this mountain provided him the opportunity to accomplish it. The ambitious climb was not exactly vertical, but sheer enough to be problematic. The terrain was mostly small loose rocks. Bill climbed for about 30 minutes from side to side to gain the best possible footing. He was about halfway to the summit when eventually exhausted Bill gave up and quit. He named the mountain “Ain’t Gonna Happen Mountain.”
Returning from reaching our final destination is a very different feeling. Back on the difficult portion of the trail that was covered with snow, the boys had an orderly snow ball fight. Our endorphins are high and we usually take our time. Furthermore, we are joyous from our accomplishment and we talk a lot more. When we explore and adventure to new places Bill leads the family. On our way back Luke and Winston are the leaders.
The next morning we treated ourselves to the Kennicott Glacier Lodge breakfast buffet. We were the first and only people when we arrive 15 minutes early. We were enormously excited to eat as we slowly sipped our coffee and hot cocoa. When the friendly staff said we could eat, we each got a plate with our favorite items and sat back down together at our table to say grace. We were very thankful to have only three more American national parks left to accomplish our quest. Moreover, we were blessed with good health, no major troubles and spending quality time with each other.