Denali's alter ego: Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of April 18-24, 1996
Denali's alter ego: Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias
Doggy dos and don'ts in national parks
Block Island: Your funky, affordable Nantucket
Activities on Little Cayman Island
Backcountry in Arizona's Petrified Forest
Top trips for groups, from Utah to Maine

Denali's alter ego: Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias
Question: I am planning on traveling to Alaska to do some hiking this summer. My question is twofold: I have heard that Denali National Park is a nightmare in the summer. Where can we go to get a great experience that is not going to be packed with tourists? The second part of my question is about dogs. I have heard many different opinions about hiking in bear country with a dog. Some people have told me that a dog would be fine because bears will leave it alone except under unusual circumstances. Others have told me that dogs will attract bears. Do you have any ideas?

Molly Delano
Burlington, VT
[email protected]

A 13.2-million-acre spread to yourself: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
Adventure Adviser: Unlike tourist-infested Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park has not yet become a household name in the Lower 48, which means you'll have much of its 13.2 million-acre spread to yourself. Not only is it America's largest national park, but it's also home to nine of the country's 16 tallest peaks; fast-flowing, ice-cold rivers; and--like much of the Last Frontier--plenty of bears.

Be prepared, though, to pay your dues: This crowd-free wilderness requires a 200-mile drive east of Anchorage to Chitina and then a 60-mile slog along an old gravel railroad bed to the churning Kennicott River. From there, you'll need to load yourself into a cable-suspended tram car that'll carry you safely over the menacing whitewater to the copper-mining-era town of McCarthy, a good starting point for backcountry forays. Once you're there, the possibilities are plentiful. For a couple hundred dollars, round-trip, an air taxi can fly you to a gravel strip in the midst of the St. Elias range. If you're dropped off near Skolai Pass, you can spend five days traversing sheer scree slopes to Chitistone Canyon, where, with any luck, the pilot will find you again. Call Wrangell Mountain Air (800-478-1160) or McCarthy Air (907-554-4440) for more details.

If summit-bagging is high on your list, climbs of Blackburn, 16,500-foot Mount Bona, and other peaks can be arranged through St. Elias Alpine Guides (907-277-6867). St. Elias also runs one-day ice-climbing seminars on Kenicott Glacier, near McCarthy ($80 per person). To explore the area on two wheels, tackle the dusty washboard of the McCarthy Road itself or hook onto the narrower Kotsina Road in Strelna, at about mile 13, and pedal to the Nugget Creek Trail, a good 15-mile blitz to a first-come, first-served public cabin. For a complete list of mountain bike and backcountry outfitters, call park headquarters in Copper Center at 907-822-5234.

As for your dog question, you should first know that dogs are permitted off the leash on backcountry trails in Wrangell-St. Elias. That said, however, you may want to rethink bringing Fido along for the ride, since curious, overexcited dogs can disturb bears by barking or chasing them. If you can't bear (sorry!) the thought of leaving your canine companion at home, make sure he/she's either on a leash or under a load at all times and--this almost goes without saying--exceptionally well-trained. As Rod Perry of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game so aptly recommends, "Pack 'em heavy enough so they stick to business, or leave 'em at home." For more bear-related info, call Fish and Game at 907-267-2373. Also, be sure to check out "Alaska's Untamed Parks" in the Destinations section of our May 1995 issue.

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