Wrangell-St Elias National Park is a very special place. The largest national park in the United States and the largest protected wilderness area in the world, it contains over half of the country’s highest peaks and some of the largest active glaciers in North America, forming some of the most dramatic landscapes you can possibly imagine. Also preserved within the park are the National Register of Historic Places-listed Kennecott mine sites, imbuing the area with a unique mix of both cultural and natural significance.
Despite these many superlatives, only about 80,000 people a year make it to Wrangell-St Elias, compared with the 4 million that visit Yellowstone. Think of this as a boon – there are no crowds here. That being said, it is worth booking well ahead of time if you plan on staying at the Kennecott Glacier Lodge, the private lodge maintained within the old mill town that provides a convenient base for exploring the park without having to pitch a tent.
Also be prepared for a fairly long drive to get there from Anchorage….for us anyway, I’m sure a 7hr drive would be considered a day trip for Alaskans. It is a scenic one, however – more on this in upcoming posts.
Staying at the Kennecott lodge over the Labor Day long weekend, we have a full day to explore. A popular attraction in this area is Root Glacier, an easy 1.5 mile walk from the mill town, and guided tours are available to take visitors onto the ice. We are keen to get some better views of the park and the mine sites, however, which means onwards and upwards.
There are three mine sites that visitors can hike out to from Kennecott – Erie, Bonanza and Jumbo (5 mines supplied ore to the mill). All of these I would consider as fairly strenuous. The Erie mine trail is a continuation of the Root Glacier trail, long and flat, but the guides indicate that the last portion up to the mine is not clearly marked and requires route finding, i.e. for experiences hikers only. Both the Bonanza and Jumbo Mine trails have more elevation gain, Bonanza the most, so be prepared for 4-5 miles of uphill slogging.
We set off on the Bonanza Mine Trail, 9 miles round trip, with 3800ft elevation gain ahead of us. It starts out steep, and then gets steeper. The first 1.5 miles to the Bonanza/Jumbo junction is fairly slow going as our legs warm up. It’s gravelly, with little to see but shrubbery and I wouldn’t be surprised if some hikers choose to take ATVs or bikes through this section.
The reward comes when the trail emerges from the tree line, just past 2 miles in, onto a ridge that provides a panoramic view over the Kennecott Glacier moraines. This time of year, fall colors are also out in force, covering the valley slopes in beautiful shades of red, rust and gold. Keep an eye out for remnants of the old tram systems that transported copper ore from the mines to the Kennecott mill.
The trail then turns away from the valley, heading further up-slope towards Bonanza Mine. The last portion of the trail is very steep and mostly scree. The trail is not so clear up here and seems to split into two or three branches. Keen to get to the top at this point, we take the shortest, steepest trail up, which involves a bit of scrambling. A longer trail that forms a switchback along the flank of Bonanza Ridge is definitely the safer option on the way down.
The mine site itself is pretty spectacular. An old bunkhouse sits against the slope, just under the ridge. You can hike up further onto and along the ridge for even better views of the valley, including a glimpse of Root Glacier.
We see plenty of greenish-hued pebbles scattered amongst the limestone gravel on the way up, but it’s really at the top of this ridge that evidence of the richest copper ore deposit ever discovered is clearest – veins of green malachite and blue azurite running through big boulders, and exposed cliff faces that are entirely green, it’s a geologist’s dream.
I can’t really think of many hikes we have done in Alaska that are as dramatic as the Bonanza Mine Trail – it would be a tough pick between this and the Harding Ice Field Trail in Seward for top spot. For anyone traveling this way, I very much hope you have the opportunity to visit Wrangell-St Elias and experience it for yourself as words and photos cannot do it justice. More on logistics, McCarthy and Kennecott in upcoming posts!