The geography of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park contains an incredibly diverse array of natural features and provides a spectacular opportunity for scientists and visitors alike to explore and learn. Plate tectonics, volcanoes, glaciers, and erosion have all contributed to the formation of the landscape of our largest national park. Studies have concluded that there are as many as seven distinctive types of bedrock or terranes that make up the area in and around the park. Some may have formed as far south as the coast of California, making their way to Alaska by the motions of crustal plates. Over hundreds of millions of years Alaska's massive mountain ranges were lifted up as the massive Pacific plate crashed into the North American plate. Glaciers, rivers, and wind have eroded them into the soaring snow-covered peaks, vast U-shaped valleys, and high plateaus we see today.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is comprised of 13.2 million acres making it the largest national park in the United States. When the protected lands immediately adjacent to the park, in both the United States and Canada, are added to the equation, this land area becomes the largest area of protected land in the world. It is no wonder this terrain is so wild and untouched, the ideal place for a wilderness experience.
The Chugach, Wrangell, and St. Elias mountain ranges converge here in what is often referred to as the "mountain kingdom of North America." The largest national park in the United States and a days drive east of Anchorage, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park includes the continent's largest assemblage of glaciers and 9 of its 16 highest peaks. Mount St. Elias, at 18,008 feet (5,488 m), is the second highest peak in the United States. And 14,163 ft (4,316 m) Mt. Wrangell is one of the largest active volcanoes in North America. 16,390 ft (4,995 m) Mt. Blackburn rises a mere 25 miles (40 km) from the towns of Kennecott and McCarthy providing a stunning backdrop for visitors to the area. Seen from the air, the moraine striped glaciers look like smooth highways between the jagged mountains that march off into the distance. Surprisingly, these mountain ranges are relatively unexplored and even the most prominent peaks see few, if any attempts to climb them each year.
Copper, silver and gold, as well as many other minerals have formed in the mountains of the park. The perfect amount of time, pressure and heat all united over millions of years to help form the rich veins of copper that were discovered in the Kennicott Valley. Some of the richest copper ore in history was found here in the early 20th century. Read more about these fascinating times on our history page.
Almost 25 percent (5,000 square miles) of our largest national park is covered with glaciers, and superlatives are hard to avoid when describing them. The Malaspina Glacier covers an area larger than Rhode Island and the Bagley Icefield is the world's largest sub-polar icefield. These prehistoric giants give life to the park's mighty rivers and shape the future landscape as they lumber down valleys and mountains.
In the Kennicott Valley, a walk out the trail to the Root Glacier is a lesson in the natural evolution of the land, as well as recent climate change. Only 100 years ago the Root and Kennicott Glaciers towered approximately 300 feet higher than they do today. As the glacier receded, it left behind huge glacial erratics, large boulders carved out of the mountainside and deposited along the valley’s edges where the glacier used to flow. These giants are scattered throughout the former path of the glacier, reminding us of the constant movement and incomprehensible power of these slow-moving rivers of ice.
A closer look at the terrain near the glacier, shows the natural succession of plantlife as new land is exposed. The land closest to the glacier is bare rock and sand, lifeless moraine left behind when the glacier melted away from that area. A bit further away, pioneer species, such as dryas, take root and live in the rocky soil by creating their own nitrogen and making way for other small plants such as Eskimo Potato. A bit higher up the valley’s edges bushes and larger flora, such as willows and young spruce take root. Still higher, older, well-established spruce trees are evidence that the glacier has not flowed in that area for many years.
The gradual retreat of the Root and Kennicott Glaciers is similar to that of glaciers around the world, however, it is important to note that there are also advancing glaciers located in and around the retreating glaciers, and they continue to gain length and width. This is just another example of Alaska’s amazing and mysterious geological processes.
Glacial rivers weave their way around the park and are amazing indicators of the changing landscape. The river levels fluctuate drastically throughout the summer as the weather warms and cools, ice plugs break and drain glacial lakes and the river creates new braids as it surges forward. Rafting these rivers in the summer months, you may note the carved out hillsides, evidence of many landslides and erosion, and the ever-changing course of the powerful, cold rivers. In the winter months, these rivers all but disappear as they freeze over and are covered with snow. River travel changes from boats to skis and snowshoes as the rivers become snowy wilderness highways into the backcountry.
The park contains a diverse array of plantlife that reveals itself as the summer season progresses. As winter melts away and spring enters the park, many flowers and berries including pink fireweed, blue monks hood, yellow shooting stars, wolly lousewort, wild blue berries, raspberries, soapberries, and hundreds of other valley and alpine plants come to life and bloom furiously for a short growing season. The land bursts into a bright patchwork of colors. As autumn nears and the nights become cooler, the mountainsides are splashed with red and orange.
As is the case in most unpopulated areas, our largest national park is an ideal place for many wild animals. Brown and black bears are found throughout the park, with the largest concentration focused in the Kennicott Valley. It is also not uncommon to see moose, fox, owls, a large variety of songbirds, sheep, goats, caribou and hares. In addition, the rivers offer excellent areas for spawning salmon and other species of fish that travel up the rivers in the summer months.
The weather in our largest national park is as varied as the terrain and visitors should come prepared for anything from 80 degree "heatwaves" to cool, rainy days. In early spring and summer, temperatures are usually mild with highs in the 70's and lows in the 40's. Precipitation increases as the season moves towards autumn, and dustings of snow are common on the higher peaks in late August and September. Winter finds the area snowbound with temperatures well below freezing. Click here for current weather as well as seasonal weather statistics for the Wrangell St. Elias National Park.
Given its extreme northerly latitude, the Wrangell St. Elias National Park sees large swings in the amount of daylight it receives throughout the year. On June 21st (the summer solstice) we see 19 hours and 45 minutes of daylight. For most of June and July nighttime is more of an idea than a reality. It would be better described as an extended twilight. Most lodges in the area provide visitors with thick, dark curtains to help them sleep at night, however, a sleeping mask can be a handy item to travel with in Alaska. Click here for a chart of daylight hours to help you know what to expect.
Although sightings are rare, the aurora borealis or Northern Lights can be seen from the Wrangell St. Elias National Park when the nights become dark in the late summer and fall. Click here for the current aurora forecast.
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