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When reading the fact sheet for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, you'd think it'd be the most popular national park in the United States. In fact, the park only receives roughly 87,000 visitors per year. Contrast that with Yellowstone National Park, which receives over 4 million visitors per year. Wrangell-St. Elias' location and inaccessibility keep all but the most die-hard RV campers elsewhere. But it's definitely worth the effort.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest national park in the United States at 13.2 million acres. To put that in perspective, the park boundaries could hold both New Hampshire and Vermont within it. It's located in the southeastern corner of Alaska, bordering both the Yukon Territory and the Gulf of Alaska. There are only two roads into this massive preserve, and both of them are dirt. The park houses four mountain ranges, twelve volcanoes, and has the highest concentration of glaciers in North America. Water from these glaciers eventually finds its way into the Copper River, a world-famous spawning area for sockeye and Chinook salmon.
Natives lived in these barren ice fields for over 10,000 years, mastering the art of winter survival. Europeans eventually arrived in pursuit of the park’s mineral resources, including copper and gold, and opened some of the largest mines in Alaska. These mines are preserved today, though some small-scale extraction still occurs. The incredibly massive and intact ecosystems of Wrangell-St. Elias earned it status as a World Heritage Site in 1979, followed by designation as a National Park and Preserve a year later in 1980. Don’t let its location spook you – finding a rental RV in Valdez-Cordova County and exploring the Wrangell-St. Elias area will reward you in countless ways.
One of the draws of Wrangell-St. Elias for the RV campers who do venture here is its remoteness. Despite this, it's still possible to explore everything the park has to offer. The interior of the park is best explored by hiring a guide to take you in by plane. That's the only way that one can begin to appreciate the sheer size of this beautiful park. If you'd rather stay on the ground, there are still operators that can shuttle you in along the dirt roads for rafting, fishing, and hiking excursions.
If you'd rather explore at your own pace, be sure to know the limits of your rental RV. The two roads are maintained dirt roads, but stream crossings and flying gravel can damage windshields. You can find several hiking trails branching off of Nabesna Road in the northern district and McCarthy Road in the southern district. These trails, ranging from short easy hikes to longer, more strenuous hikes, lead to glaciers, mountain meadows and streams, and views of steaming volcanoes.
Be sure to visit the historic sites if you end up in the southern district near McCarthy. The Kennecott Mine, at the end of McCarthy Road, is on the National Register of Historic Places as the best-preserved copper mine in the country. There are several hikes to numerous other mining sites from McCarthy that can easily take up an entire day.
Wrangell-St. Elias is home to 54 species of mammals, 239 species of birds, and 88 species of fish. This diversity, along with the backdrop of mountains, volcanoes, rivers, and coast, makes it perfect for wildlife viewing and photography.
There's only one established RV campground in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, along Nabesna Road in the northern district. This first-come, first-served primitive campground has ten sites with picnic tables and fire rings. The campground can only accommodate smaller RVs, and you'll want to be sure that you're allowed to take your rental RV along the dirt road.
There are still many other RV campgrounds near Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Stay at Grizzly Lake Campground in Gakona if you plan on exploring the northern district. This campground is next to a lake with grand mountain views and trails from the campground. Amenities include a dump station, electrical hookups, fire rings, and picnic tables. This campground can accommodate larger RVs. You'll find that dogs are accepted almost everywhere, and the campgrounds near Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve are all pet-friendly.
If your itinerary takes you into the southern district, Northern Nights Campground in Glennallen is a beautiful RV campground. This campground has 28 sites that can accommodate RVs up to 60 feet in a mix of back-in and pull-through sites. Campers have access to hot showers, laundry, and bathrooms. Each campground has a fire pit and picnic table. The RV sites have water and 30-amp electric hookups; smaller tent sites could accommodate a motorhome rental less than 24 feet long, but you won’t have hookups.
The park has a beautiful modern visitors' center that everyone camping near Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve should check out. The modern buildings contain a great bookstore and exhibit halls featuring natural and human history. There’s also a cultural center, theater, and walking trails. It's located in Copper Center, a few miles south of Glennallen.
One of the biggest attractions in the area is Valdez, one of the few year-round towns in the region where you should check out Shoup Bay and the nearby glaciers. Stop at Liberty Falls during your drive down to Valdez for a quick hike to this scenic waterfall. Denali National Park is the most famous park in Alaska, home to the highest mountain in North America, and is five hours to the west. If you've already hit up Denali or are saving it for last, you may also want some time to explore the scenic seaport of Seward.
You won’t find much in the way of provisioning near Wrangell-St. Elias. Your best bet is to stock up for your RV camping trip while in Anchorage if you can, where you’ll find numerous big-box stores and cheaper fuel. Anywhere between Anchorage and Wrangell-St. Elias is a great place to feast on fresh-caught local salmon, a staple in this part of the continent.