Wrangell-St. Elias National Park: Southern Traverse

Thirteen days of tough travel takes you through the heart of the world's largest protected wilderness.
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Thirteen days of tough travel takes you through the heart of the world's largest protected wilderness.

Be warned: This is easily the roughest trip we've ever published. Only one person had ever traversed the first 9 days from Tebay Lakes to the ghost town of Bremner, and our scouting party was the first to thru-hike the entire 94 miles to Iceberg Lake. If you're up for the challenge, you'll cross nine passes, six icefields, two major glaciers, and two dozen streams that often run thigh-deep. But the biggest obstacle is simply the footing: steep sidehills, thick vegetation, and unstable talus. Only about 10 miles of this trip could be called easy terrain.The reward is a remarkable trek through an unspoiled mountain environment in the world's biggest wilderness.

This is the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias, which when combined with Canada's neighboring Kluane National Park forms the largest stretch of wild country on earth, 24 million acres of raging rivers, turquoise lakes, flowing glaciers, and monster mountains.

Basically, though, the route runs west to east through a range of mountains delineated by the Copper River to the west, the Chitina to the north, and the Bremner to the south. From Tebay Lakes, you hike southeast, round massive Hanagita Peak, and descend the Klu River Valley before winding south again through high passes to Golconda Creek and the gold-rush ruins of Bremner. From there, the route turns south through a network of glaciated passes to Iceberg Lake.

Despite the remoteness and challenges, you shouldn't need any special equipment aside from tough, waterproof boots, wading shoes, good raingear, trekking poles, and probably pepper spray. We carried crampons but never used them, since the midsummer glaciers proved gritty and the crevasses wide open. Leaving them behind creates more room for food and fuel.

MORE INFORMATION
Guide Service: Trek Alaska (907) 350-3710; trekalaska.com
Contacts: Backcountry Connection, LLC: (907) 822-5292; alaska-backcountry-tours.com; Caribou Hotel: (907) 822-3302; caribouhotel.com; McCarthy Lodge: (907) 554-4402; mccarthylodge.com; Wrangell Mountain Air: (800) 478-1160; wrangellmountainair.com
-Mapped by Steve Howe and Kris Wagner

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 151.9

Waypoints

STT001

Location: 61.1800155639648, -144.391265869141

Be warned: This is easily the roughest trip we've ever published. Only one person had ever traversed the first 9 days from Tebay Lakes to the ghost town of Bremner, and our scouting party was the first to thru-hike the entire 94 miles to Iceberg Lake. If you're up for the challenge, you'll cross nine passes, six icefields, two major glaciers, and two dozen streams that often run thigh-deep. But the biggest obstacle is simply the footing: steep sidehills, thick vegetation, and unstable talus. Only about 10 miles of this trip could be called easy terrain.

The reward is a remarkable trek through an unspoiled mountain environment in the world's biggest wilderness. This is the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias, which when combined with Canada's neighboring Kluane National Park forms the largest stretch of wild country on earth, 24 million acres of raging rivers, turquoise lakes, flowing glaciers, and monster mountains.

Basically, though, the route runs west to east through a range of mountains delineated by the Copper River to the west, the Chitina to the north, and the Bremner to the south. From Tebay Lakes, you hike southeast, round massive Hanagita Peak, and descend the Klu River Valley before winding south again through high passes to Golconda Creek and the gold-rush ruins of Bremner. From there, the route turns south through a network of glaciated passes to Iceberg Lake.

Despite the remoteness and challenges, you shouldn't need any special equipment aside from tough, waterproof boots, wading shoes, good raingear, trekking poles, and probably pepper spray. We carried crampons but never used them, since the midsummer glaciers proved gritty and the crevasses wide open. Leaving them behind creates more room for food and fuel.

*******
From the remote landing strip @ Teabay Lakes, hike SE picking the least resistant route through willow and alder. Scout your route from the air before landing.

STT002

Location: 61.1682319641113, -144.401733398438

Continue SSE, winding through thick brush and marshy pits. Your goal is the rocky point to the L. Consult the gps info and map often in the beginning to avoid cliffs.

Tip: Yell, and we mean yell, "Hey Yogi" when entering a thick scrub to warn grizzlies you're coming. We never saw any grizzlies on our 13-day trip, but there was lots of bruin sign (tracks, fresh scat, even dens).

STT003

Location: 61.1464157104492, -144.352157592773

After a long climb, cross through this pass. From here, its several miles of sidehilling through waist-high wildflowers with tipsy boulders.

STT004

Location: 61.1283988952637, -144.321792602539

Camp 1: This flat spot is just big enough for a 2-person tent.

STT005

Location: 61.1245651245117, -144.317733764648

Cross moraine field, and keep traversing at roughly 3,500 ft.

STT006

Location: 61.1151847839356, -144.310012817383

Possible campsite on flat bench

STT007

Location: 61.119083404541, -144.248779296875

Slope up to the 4,000-foot contour line to stay above the cliffs.

STT008

Location: 61.1247482299805, -144.233993530273

From here, you can see a clear route down to the river.

STT009

Location: 61.1296005249024, -144.220809936523

Cross swift creek between rapids then pick up an impressive grizzly trail, a staggered row of plate-sized divots where generations of grizzlies had stepped in the exactly same spots.

STT010

Location: 61.1259155273438, -144.220993041992

Camp 2: A raised flat spot within the tight gorge. There's also an undercut rock good for cooking away from the tent, and in case it's rainy.

STT011

Location: 61.1145172119141, -144.226043701172

Small pond

STT012

Location: 61.1032676696777, -144.220443725586

Walk along the flat benches with white caribou lichen

STT013

Location: 61.0962333679199, -144.149520874023

Wade across a swift, icy stream

STT014

Location: 61.0751647949219, -144.06462097168

Camp near the headwaters of the Little Bremner after 3 days of hard navigation.

STT015

Location: 61.073917388916, -144.063629150391

Cross braided stream with gravel bars

STT016

Location: 61.0681838989258, -144.044143676758

Stay on left side of stream

STT017

Location: 61.062183380127, -144.035278320312

Purple flowers dot the rich tundra. Begin wrapping E around the flank of an unnamed peak. Glaciers miraculously hang from upper cliffbands in S, and every so often you hear the thunder of rockfall.

STT018

Location: 61.0561180114746, -144.018020629883

Pass to Harrys Gulch

STT019

Location: 61.0564002990723, -144.003219604492

Easy walking on flat green carpet. Continue marching through the druidic landscape of Harrys Gulch, descending mist-shrouded gullies through coal-black cliffs and crossing loud, cascading streams on remnant snow bridges.

STT020

Location: 61.0584678649902, -143.955307006836

Wrap N around multi-story waterfall. Avoid the thick alder by climbing up to about 4,000 ft. This will take a few leg-burning hours then slowly sidehill NE, dropping into side gully.

STT021

Location: 61.069450378418, -143.906234741211

Cross cold creek then onto more land draped in bone-white caribou moss; continue E-NE

STT022

Location: 61.0746841430664, -143.876693725586

Camp 4: Lots of rain and snow at 6,000 ft. forced us to stay two nights. From here, climb into a dramatic amphitheater overflowing with broad, sweeping glaciers and bulky peaks thrusting into the cloud ceiling.

STT023

Location: 61.0907173156738, -143.817962646484

Quickly traverse on the N side of a string bean-shape tarn. Watch for falling rocks then drop into the headwaters of the Klu River. The higher up you cross the Klu the better.

STT024

Location: 61.1188011169434, -143.76335144043

CAMP 5: The marmots on this grassy knoll whistled and chirped near our tent for hours. I don't think they knew what to make our grey tent.

STT025

Location: 61.121898651123, -143.74577331543

Cross creek

STT026

Location: 61.1279678344726, -143.729415893555

Stay on grass bench along talus for easiest hiking. Lots of mountain-side traversing ahead in order to stay above the thick brush.

STT027

Location: 61.1357002258301, -143.668655395508

Cross stream

STT028

Location: 61.1279678344726, -143.630859375

Possible camp with a teardrop pond.

STT029

Location: 61.1161155700684, -143.611480712891

After a long day, we pitched Camp 6 on a gravel creek bed.

STT030

Location: 61.1154518127441, -143.610992431641

Cross creek then walk up the natural ramp choked with a rainbow of wildflowers. In a few hours, you'll hike S into the easiest walking valley on the whole trip.

STT031

Location: 61.0620002746582, -143.585037231445

This was one of our potential bail out points. A remote supercub airstrip.

STT032

Location: 61.0413017272949, -143.55810546875

Camp 7 is in a wide valley with stellar views of many unnamed glaciers and giant peaks. From here, head E following the creek then up talus and snow to the pass.

STT033

Location: 61.0414009094238, -143.493438720703

Walk along the N side of the glacier

STT034

Location: 61.0419502258301, -143.482986450195

Unnamed pass: Descend the gritty glacier (easy ice walking).

STT035

Location: 61.0702018737793, -143.488159179688

Stay on talus and boulder fields above ponds then wrap S

STT036

Location: 61.0564842224121, -143.460052490234

Pass: We had to kick snow steps for the last few hundred feet up to this pass. Move swiftly but safely. We spotted wolf track at the top.

STT037

Location: 61.0520668029785, -143.451354980469

Ruins leftover from mining days @ Bremner, including an old shaft, pipes, even a car and tractor.

STT038

Location: 61.044750213623, -143.427307128906

Ghost town: We stayed the night in one of Bremner's inhabitable cabins. There's a lively population of marmots here, who madly whistle warnings when predators like wolverines roam through the broad, open valley.

STT039

Location: 61.0266151428223, -143.433700561523

Bremner Airstrip; a good pickup point if needed.

STT040

Location: 61.0158843994141, -143.383346557617

Unnamed pass with bear tracks. We saw lots of grizzly sign in the Monahan Valley below.

STT041

Location: 60.9949684143066, -143.349609375

Cross creek on flat rock

STT042

Location: 60.9819183349609, -143.328506469727

Camp 9 was on a windy knoll above the buggy bogs of Monahan Creek.

STT043

Location: 60.939151763916, -143.249786376953

Ford creek

STT044

Location: 60.9343490600586, -143.247055053711

Cross creek again; lots of swampy willow to bushwhack through

STT045

Location: 60.9228324890137, -143.251113891602

Important: Keep high above the brush when possible and don't drop too soon.

STT046

Location: 60.9184837341309, -143.25

Carefully zigzag down the cliff bands and through thick alder to the Tana Lobe of the Bremner Glacier. Once on the glacier, head S. The crevasses are wide open, but the gritty ice is flat and easy to navigate.

STT047

Location: 60.886474609375, -143.233871459961

Take steep coulior up

STT048

Location: 60.8780174255371, -143.216217041016

CAMP 10

STT049

Location: 60.8695030212402, -143.175476074219

Beautiful alpine lake makes a great lunch spot

STT050

Location: 60.862548828125, -143.161880493164

Final pass; continue SE, staying at about 4,000 ft. The scenery here turns outrageous with rank after rank of nameless pyramids erupting above the Bagley Icefield.

STT051

Location: 60.8342018127441, -143.093551635742

CAMP 11

STT052

Location: 60.8297348022461, -143.047622680664

Leave the moraine line and take the glacier to Iceberg Lake

STT053

Location: 60.7882347106934, -142.962677001953

Airstrip on sandbar bench overlooking Iceberg Lake. This 3-mile lake drained itself days before leaving acres of giant ice blocks resting drunkenly on the sand.

****
MORE INFORMATION

Guide Service: Trek Alaska (907) 350-3710; trekalaska.com

Contacts: Backcountry Connection, LLC: (907) 822-5292; alaska-backcountry-tours.com; Caribou Hotel: (907) 822-3302; caribouhotel.com; McCarthy Lodge: (907) 554-4402; mccarthylodge.com; Wrangell Mountain Air: (800) 478-1160; wrangellmountainair.com