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February 1999

The Colors Of Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias

Wrangell-St. Elias National park is known for its jaw-dropping scenery, but there's just as much beauty at your feet.

Expedition Planner

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Getting there: Take Route 1 (the Glenn Highway) east out of Anchorage 180 miles to Glennallen. To get to the northern part of the park, make a left to continue northeast on Route 1. At Slana, stop at the ranger station and fill out a backcountry itinerary. Then head southeast down Nabesna Road. The Tanada Lake trailhead is on the right at mile 24.

Trails: Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest national park in the world, but there are very few trails. Most backcountry travel involves making your own route. There are countless valleys that are equally as spectacular as the Grizzly Lake/Jacksina River valley. Contact the park for more ideas and information. If you choose Grizzly Lake, an old ATV trail leads you part of the way (up to Tanada Lake). From there, follow Goat Creek. Good route-finding skills are a must. The hike into Grizzly Lake will take about three days. We took a bush plane to get to the heart of the backcountry quickly.

Access: Contact the park service for a list of bush pilots. We flew with Alaska Airventures, located at mile 147 on the Glenn Highway. Owner/bush pilot Bart Bartley flew us into Grizzly Lake on his float plane for about $600 round trip per person. Bart and his wife Rosemary will put you up in a small, comfortable cabin at the beginning and end of your trip for free. Contact: Alaska Airventures, Snowshoe Lake, Mile 147.3, Glenn Highway, HC 1 Box 2510, Glennallen, AK 99588; (907) 822-3905.

Maps: USGS Nabesna A-5 covers most of the Jacksina Valley, but also take a larger scale map, like Trails Illustrated’s #249 Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve ($8.99, 800-962-1643), so you can identify distant peaks.

Walk softly: Parts of the Alaskan tundra are quite delicate, so always camp and travel on the most durable surfaces available. Sand or stable rock (not scree) should be your number one choice. Grasses and sedges are next best, then leafy herbs. Avoid lichens, mosses, and other “pioneer plants,” those rugged little species first apt to colonize an area that has lost its vegetation due to some disruption (rockfall, fire, people, etc.). Also steer clear of wet ground and steep, soil-covered slopes habituated by low woody plants, since they are traumatized by just a few boot tracks.

Season: The hiking season extends from June through September. We avoided bugs by going in late August/early September. Be prepared for any weather. Hunting season is August 20 to September 20 and Grizzly Lake is a prime hunting destination, so wear bright colors and try not to look like a sheep.

Resources: Watercolors are tiny and virtually weightless, so they’re easy to pack. Windsor & Newton makes the Cotman Field Box ($43.95), the same kit we used on our trip. The company makes a number of different models ranging from $13 to $100, available at most art supply stores. If you’re interested in improving your own trip journals, check out Hannah Hinchman’s A Life In Hand: Creating the Illuminated Journal ($17.95; Gibbs Smith Publishers, P.O. Box 667, Layton, UT, 84041; 800-748-5439; for inspiration and ideas.

Contact: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, P.O. Box 439, Copper Center, AK 99573; (907) 822-5234.

-K. Hostetter

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