Rarely does a backpacker find a place like Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. I could say "never" but I haven't been all over the world to verify this......yet.
Wrangell - St. Elias Park Location Map (New window)
However, I can say, in the years I have been traveling the wilderness parts of the North America, I have never experienced a place like this. The largest national park in the country, six times bigger than Yellowstone, larger even than Switzerland, containing 8 of the 16 largest mountains in the United States, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is like no other. The country here is as rugged yet beautiful as any to be found. The Bagley Icefield is the largest subpolar icefield in North America. A friend on a recent trip here phrased it this way; "Denali doesn't have anything which even comes close to this!" The remoteness of the park alone makes it a great place for solitude, without the rigmarole of more popular, 'controlled' backcountry areas of other national parks. One of my favorite places in the world is Skolai Pass, deep within the park, and cradled between some of the most scenic mountains and glaciers I have ever seen.
[Sunset at Skolai Pass, Wrangell-St Elias National Park, Alaska]
A trip to Skolai typically starts with a flight from the community of McCarthy using one of the local bush pilot companies. McCarthy is located a few miles south of Kennicott and is a quaint little remnant of a town which requires no more than 5 minutes to walk its entire length, yet one could spend days walking and talking with the locals about various historical facts and near-facts. I highly recommend doing this before a trip to Skolai to glean what possible information and tales you can from the folks who live here. On the flight to Skolai Pass, enjoy the trip up either the Nizina or Chittistone drainage, and stare in wide wonder as the bluffs glide by.
Skolai Pass is a place of true beauty, nestled high in the mountains, deep within the park's boundaries. Here, you are literally "miles from anywhere", yet the place gives you the impression that reality somehow got turned around up here; maybe it's "anywhere" that is miles from here! Spend at least 2 days in this high mountain gulf, exploring the reaches of Russell Glacier, with the rugged University Ranges in the background, and hike up into the cliffs of Hole in the Wall, a unique formation of glacial fingers running out of the mountain face like fudge off ice cream, with the colors reversed. Scramble out onto the moraine and feel the mountain of ice buried beneath you move, groaning and creaking as its icy bulk shivers. Inhale the mountain air, alive with the scent of dozens of alpine and tundra flowers bursting into the summer with a vibrancy found only in a place dominated by a long harsh winter. Scope for Dall Sheep and mountain goats on the surrounding ridges, and keep a wary eye out for the awesome grizzly. Feel the power of the mountains here like nowhere else, as you watch the huge fingers of ice crashing down from high on the cliff faces they created many years ago. It's easy to get lost in this creation, as you watch, hear and feel it happening. Looking around, captivated, you begin to feel a part of this, and stare in awe at a place so powerful in its beauty, so rugged in its barrenness, so simply amazing that you don't want to leave.
[Hole in the Wall, Skolai Pass.]
Hiking up the ridge from Skolai Pass to Chittistone Pass, you get a feel for just how huge this place is. The Russell Glacier drainage comes into view to the south, where it runs northward through Skolai Pass toward the White River. Westward, Skolai Creek and the Frederika Glacier feed into the Rohn and Regal Glaciers, eventually forming the massive Nizina Glacier. Slowly the Chittistone valley comes into view to the southwest. Castle Mountain, with its uniquely turreted peak, sits, sentry-like, to the northeast as the pivotal point for this amazing geographical wonder; study it closely, and look at the incredible array of ridges, drainages, colors, textures and materials it's composed of. 'Sensory overload' has never before held such meaning. I could easily sit and look out over this area for a day or more and still not take it all in. It really is THAT beautiful.
[Camping on Chittistone Pass, with the University Range & Russell Glacier in the background.]
Chittistone Pass is also a good place to view wildlife. Wolves, caribou, Dall sheep, mountain goats, grizzly bears are all found here, along with marmots, ground squirrels and willow ptarmigan. Various waterfowl frequent the muddy waters of Skolai Lake also.
As the Chittistone valley begins to take form, you begin to get a better idea of just how big this park is. Looking at a map of the whole park and find this drainage on it. You'll see that it's no more than a brief line running a couple of inches down the middle of the map, yet standing in front of you is a gorge that rivals the Grand Canyon in its size and beauty. The trail sweeps down close to the headwaters of the Chittistone River, and you walk over the moraine, rocky debris that's a reminder to the power of ice and water. This used to be part of the mountains high above you. Leaving the moraine behind, rocks continue to lay scattered, unceremoniously dumped by the melting glacier, requiring careful footing. To sprain an ankle here would be cause for concern, and in all probability mean the end of your hike. As you walk beneath the shadow of the huge unnamed bluffs on your right, scramble up higher to enjoy a view of Chittistone valley. The mountains and ridges lying around it are simply breathtaking. This is also a great place to camp and to view Dall Sheep.
[Dall Sheep lambs play high on the mountainsides of the Chittistone Valley.]
It's a couple of miles down the river valley from here to the series of gorges that give this trail its name; steep sided, scree-covered ravines that require patience, balance, route finding/following techniques, and more patience. The first 3 serve as a great introduction for what is to come. The trail here is relatively easy to follow, and the footing stable enough that you can get across without too many complications. As you crest the final ravine, you get a view of the beginnings of a more serious adventure, about 1/4 miles along the trail. The final gorge is a thing of eerie power, and not to be taken lightly. It's here that the sheep and goats have created a maize of trails leading, or appearing to lead, across the gorge. Check with your pilot/guide before you leave for as much detailed information on this as possible, ask for a picture and have them draw you a line across it where the trail runs. Inquire as to the number of people who have been across in the current season, and the conditions of the trail here. Getting stuck here would be a very bad situation, and at worse, a fall would, in all probability, result in serious injury, at the least. BE CAREFUL!!!! Stay high, the lower route is VERY deceptive, and should not even be attempted.
[Top: Final ravine of the goat trail crossing. Treacherous stuff.]
[Bottom: Backpacker crossing one of the first ravines along the Goat Trail.]
Once across this gorge, sit down, eat some lunch, have a drink, and enjoy an incredible view of Mt. Bona, a 16,000-foot beast to the south. The view is outstanding. Behind you, to the north, lies the ridge separating the Nizina and the Chittistone River drainages. Climbing up this ridge to Wolverine or Contact Gulch affords outstanding views of the awesome University Range to the south, as well as a close up of rock formations such as 'The Fin', and a look at the mighty Nizina Glacier. Hike down towards the Chittistone, however, and you'll hear the river LONG before you see it. Chittistone Falls imply the awesome power of the river. That such thunderous waterfalls could stem from such a narrow river is incredible, tribute to it's shear speed and volume.
[The land is continually being changed by the Chittistone River.]
A beautiful campsite sits here on the knoll above the falls, looking nearly due south up the Chittistone Glacier drainage, and views to both the west and the east are breathtaking. The Chittistone valley can be seen in all it's glory from here, and the cliff face down toward the river provides a great place to hang food in effort to keep it from the reaches of the pesky grizzly bears that frequent the area.
[The breathtaking scenery of Chittistone Valley.]
From here, the hiker has numerous options. A climb to Wolverine and exploration of the high bluff area above the Chittistone Valley, a hike over into the Nizina drainage and pickup at Doubtful Creek, or crossing the Chittistone River and hiking parallel to it's length, and a pickup at Glacier Creek landing strip. Each option holds its own reward, as well as peril. River and creek crossings are dangerous both along the Chittistone and Doubtful Creek trails, and the climbing, route finding, and scree hiking to Wolverine can also inhibit even the most experienced hiker.
The most common route is Glacier Creek. In order to cross the Chittistone River, the trail descends meanderingly from the bluffs, through thick alder, to the riverbanks below. Turn and head back up the river towards the falls, going as far as possible to reach the shallower braided reaches of the river in order to cross. Crossing below the junction of Chittistone River and the Chittistone Glacier is NOT recommended.
[View back up the Chittistone Valley from the riverbed: An artist's pallette.]
Upon crossing, follow the route of the river as it tears westward down the valley. The trail becomes non-existent again, at times, and hikers should exercise caution, not staying too close to the riverbanks, as often erosion hauls huge chunks of dirt from the bank. The only other crossing of note is Toby Creek, a deep, narrow creek that is, in the words of an astute local fellow, "just haulin' ass!" Again, take your time, and thoroughly explore the length of the creek for the most suitable crossing. From here, it's only a short hike along the valley floor to reach the Glacier Creek landing strip, and a newly built log cabin a 1/4 mile from it. Be careful in this area, I had a grizzly walk within 2 feet of the cabin, along its edge and on beyond the porch, not 5 seconds after I had stepped inside.
[Mountain Light in the Chittistone Valley.]
Another option is to allow time at the end of the hike to enjoy this cabin, and explore the area. An easily followed trail runs along Glacial Creek south, through wonderful forest, with some great views of small glacial flows, streams, and high peaks surrounding the valley. This area is vastly different to the high mountain passes earlier, and worth a day hike to explore.
And on a Final Note: Ensure a trip to the only pizza place in town when you arrive back in McCarthy, and enjoy a latte and pastry as well. It's the only way to wind down after a trek in the great wilderness of the greatest national park in the world.
- Carl Donohue -