July 5, 2015

On the Way to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Tok is often referred to as “Mainstreet Alaska,” partly because everyone driving to or from the state must pass through this town.  Tok is where you are faced with a major decision.  Do you travel toward Fairbanks and then counter-clockwise around the state, or do you head toward Valdez and/or Anchorage and then clockwise?

If it’s sunny in Valdez, the advice is to go there, since that town is best appreciated when the sun is out.  Other determining factors include weather in general and the location of any forest fires.  Of course, if you’ve already made reservations somewhere, your decision is an easy one.

If you are still unsure, the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Tok has a wealth of trip-planning information for the entire state and is worth a stop.  We were able to pick up a handy map for $1.00 with all of the public campgrounds depicted.

Tim and I had considered both options before we left Haines and had decided to go clockwise and make Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and then Valdez our first destinations.  We even went so far as to make reservations for a day trip into the national park on July 4.  We were actually surprised that we had no trouble getting tickets for a holiday weekend.

We left Tok on July 3, the start of the three-day weekend, and drove southwest on the Tok Cutoff toward Glennallen.  For the second half of the drive, the road skirts the edge of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and I’m told that the mountains there are spectacular.  Unfortunately, those mountains were hiding behind clouds and the haze from forest fires.  That was a disappointment, but the drive was still beautiful, especially when the mighty Copper River came into view.

Mountains Obscured by Clouds and Haze

The Mighty Copper River Is a Braided River

We spotted four moose beside the road, including a baby who hadn’t yet learned that the road itself is no place to hang out.  Hopefully, he learned his lesson as a large truck drove past and scared him.  No one got hurt, and we watched him and his mama scurry back into the woods where they would be much safer.

Getting a Little Too Close to the Highway

Get Out of the Road!

We picked up the Richardson Highway and stopped at the main visitor center for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park just six miles south of Glennallen.  We watched the film, toured the exhibits and learned a lot about this little-known park.  Wrangell-St. Elias is the nation’s largest national park.  It’s so large, in fact, that six Yellowstones could fit within its boundaries.  Four mountain ranges meet in the park, and nine of the sixteen highest peaks in the United States are located here.  It seems as if the park is all about numbers and scale, and isolation.

The Visitor Center for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Is Not Even In the Park

The park is also very new.  Wrangell-St. Elias did not become a national park until 1980.  Most of the park is wilderness, and only two small roads penetrate a portion of the interior.  If you don’t want to drive the unpaved roads, there is another option – flying.  Flightseeing is one way to view the mountains and glaciers and attempt to grasp the enormity of this untamed land.

There are also scheduled flights that take off from the small airstrip at Chitina and land in McCarthy, where you can walk around the town for a bit and then travel five miles to the Kennecott mill town, the best remaining example of early twentieth century copper mining in the United States.  That’s the tour that Tim and I had booked.

To get to Chitina we traveled the Edgerton Highway and began to get a glimpse or two of the Wrangell Mountains that typically make this drive so scenic.  We had decided to forego staying at a campground and began our search for a suitable boondock site.  Although we knew that there were great sites on the Copper River just past Chitina, we were arriving on the Friday of a holiday weekend.  Plus, the salmon were running, and we knew that every available spot would be filled with fishermen and their families out to enjoy a great Independence Day.

If You Look Closely, You Can See the Massive, Snow-Covered Wrangell Mountains Above the Trees

Just past the airstrip, we passed a series of lakes alongside the highway.  There were pull-offs that we knew would work, but we decided to explore a little more.  Just past One Mile Lake, we spotted a large tent along the shore.  We pulled into the little road to see if there might be more than one site.  Although that was the only site along the lake, there was another spot nearby that was perfect for us.  It was just our size, and had clearly been used as a campsite in the past since there was a fire ring.  We backed in, leveled up and settled in.  We congratulated ourselves on finding such a great spot for our first boondock of the Alaska trip.  To make things even better, we were amazed to discover that we had Verizon 4G service – in a boondock site!  That’s the first 4G we’ve had in six weeks!  We were happy campers.

Our Boondock Site

Our Site Wasn't On One Mile Lake, But It Was Close

Stay tuned for our memorable Independence Day in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.


  1. Yes, you hit the jackpot with that boondocking site!! Good job! Looking forward to what you discover in the NP:) Love those adorable moose. I hope that baby learns its lesson soon!!!

    1. Sometimes dumb luck wins out! I hope you'll enjoy our tour of the national park, although I know you would have chosen the "hiking on a glacier option" instead of the mill tour. I wish we could have done both.

  2. Ok I am going to try this again. What is boondocking?

    1. Oh, sorry about that! I should have explained the term for the non-RVers out there. Boondocking is camping away from a campground and "off the grid," so to speak. Some people call it free camping in the wild. Alaska, as well as much of the West, is perfect for boondocking because there is so much public land where you can just pull off the road and stop for the night.. Usually, unless a site says no overnight parking, it is ok to camp there. Common sense is also important in selecting a site, so we are being careful where we decide to stop.

  3. Your boondock site was 100X better than our campground site. I can't wait to hear about your trip to the mine...

    1. With so many people in town, I can't believe that we found such a great site. We were so lucky. Even our neighbors who were camped by the lake didn't want to deal with the crowds of fishermen near the bridge.

  4. Nice ... boondocking in Alaska is going to be a high priority for us ... another reason why we think we should wait to downsize before we attempt the trip. But I don't know if I want to wait that long either ... decisions, decisions.

    1. The opportunities for boondocking are wide open up here. Although it's easier for a smaller rig to get into out-of-the-way places, there are lots of options for large rigs as well. You know what they say about waiting - don't wait until it's too late. There probably will never to be a perfect time or set of circumstances.


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