The Road to Wrangell St Elias National Park

With time to spare in our rental car, we decided, why not head all the way over to Valdez? According to the map we picked up from the local visitor center the road between Anchorage and Glennallen (called the Glenn Highway), followed by the Richardson Highway to Valdez is supposed to be beautiful – and of course if it is written in a tourist brochure it must be true!

Autumn foliage and foggy views

Unfortunately we had torrential rain and wind for the first day of our drive, so although we could occasionally get a glimpse of the autumn foliage and mountainous views between windscreen wipes, we didn’t really get a feel for the scenery until the following day. We spent the night at the Matanuska Glacier campground, and luckily our tent didn’t blow away with most of the foliage that night. The next morning we ventured out and were amazed by how gorgeous the area was (who knew those giant mountains and a glacier were hiding behind the fog?).

Early morning view from the campground

Autumn foliage and beautiful views along the Glenn Highway Autumn foliage and beautiful views along the Glenn Highway

Matanuska would have to be our favourite spot along this drive, and we made a point of stopping at this campground on the way back too. This is the largest glacier in Alaska that can be reached by road – not that this should be a selling point for you to go there.

View of the Matanuska Glacier from our campground

After reaching the junction of the Glenn Highway and Richardson Highway, which would take us to Valdez, our plans started to fall apart. Apparently the only road to Valdez had flooded after record rainfall, and the road wouldn’t reopen for some time. We were in the middle of nowhere with only a flashing “road closed” sign and no town or campgrounds in sight. After reviewing the information we had at hand – being a Frommers guide and a tourist map – we thought, why not go to the Wrangell-St Elias National Park since it is close by? After careful review of our fuel and food/water supplies, we decided we could last a few more days (remember that grocery stores are not exactly in abundance here). And off we went.

sign pointing to the "Wilderness"

Wrangell-St Elias National Park is the largest national park in the United States, with 13.2 million acres of wilderness (which is even signposted). We stopped at the visitor center for the park, located 15 miles south of Glennallen. We bumped into a few others who had also changed their plans from Valdez and were feeling a bit lost, and luckily the staff in the visitor center were very helpful and assisted us in formulating a plan of attack. The park has 2 roads, both gravel – which of course you would never take a rental car on…….

Sam standing on the Gilahina Trestle

We took the McCarthy Road and entering the park you definitely get the feeling that you are off the beaten track. This is not a place that most tourists venture to. The road was originally built as a railroad to support the copper mines. An impressive reminder of this bygone era is the wooden structure used for the railway called the Gilahina Trestle which was originally 890 feet long and 90 feet high, made from half a million feet of timber, and built over eight days in the winter of 1911. Surprisingly, even in this harsh climate, some of the bridge is still standing.

Autumn views of Wrangell St Elias National Park - McCarthy Road Autumn views of Wrangell St Elias National Park - McCarthy Road

Something that we found bizarre about this park is that some of the time it is called a National Park, other times a Reserve, and you also switch onto private land at times. We saw a few properties for sale – motivated sellers if anyone is interested!

For Sale sign - motivated seller

How would you like your own little piece of wilderness?


  1. If I owned this blog I would be selling these award winning photos. Really dazzling photography…and out of hundreds of travel related blogs we see, your pictures really stand out…super nice! Some of the land that is “private” you mention could have been offered homestead a hundred years back accounting for the division of private and nature preserves owned by the government. Will return another day for more great travel articles on this great blog… Regards, R Terry California