Best single day in Alaska for families with teens? We think so!
“Wrangell-St. Elias National Park? Never heard of it.” That’s typically the response that I get. And honestly, part of me wants to keep this place all to myself. But such an immense national treasure should be shared. And I do mean immense! Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is 13.2 million (yes, that’s million) acres in size, making it the largest national park in the country. It’s more than six times the size of Yellowstone! Four major mountain ranges converge inside the park which include nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States. The high country is blanketed by ice fields and glaciers; the Malaspina Glacier itself is larger than the state of Rhode Island!
This park is most ideal for the truly adventurous family. If you’re going to make the arduous journey to get here, plan to do things that you’ve never done anywhere else: glacier hiking, ice climbing, and ice caving, just to name a few. For that reason, I think that this park is best visited by families with older kids. The level of adventure was perfect for my thrill-seeking sons, ages 15 and 18.
Park admission is free.
Again, this park is unimaginably large. The park service has divided it into four areas for purposes of explanation. The Copper Center Area is on the west side of the park about a 3-1/2-hour drive from Anchorage. Here you’ll find a visitor center. Nabesna Road is to the north about 4-1/2 hours from Anchorage. Yakutat is the coastal area to the south and only accessible by plane or boat.
But my family and I decided to focus our visit on the small towns of McCarthy and Kennecott in the central section of the park. We were enticed by the opportunity to stay at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge and participate in some truly unique adventure activities.
KidTripster Tip: Don’t be confused. The glacier here is spelled Kennicott and named after Alaskan explorer Robert Kennicott. When the mine started in the 1900s, the mining company misspelled it as Kennecott, and it stuck. The lodge is named after the glacier, so it’s named Kennicott Glacier Lodge. The town is named for the mine, so it’s spelled Kennecott.
I’ll be the first to admit that getting here isn’t easy or inexpensive. The drive from Anchorage to Chitina is 4-1/2 hours. Then you start the 2-1/2 hour, 60-mile journey along McCarthy Road, a teeth-chattering gravel road that runs east to McCarthy. You’ll find that it’s best not to go more than 35 miles per hour. Most major rental car companies won’t allow their vehicles on unpaved roads. However, I know that some visitors take a “don’t ask-don’t tell approach,” but it’s at their own risk and potential expense if the vehicle suffers damage. A handful of local rental companies will rent “gravel-ready” vehicles (which are the exact same models rented by the more strict rental companies), but typically the rates are nearly double what you’d normally pay. We drove a Jeep Cherokee on this road and thankfully had no problems.
KidTripster Tip: The threat of getting a flat tire is real. Make sure that you’re carrying a spare and know how put it on.
For tips and tricks on renting a vehicle in Alaska, click here.
Alternatively, you can take the daily Kennicott Shuttle from Chitina to McCarthy. Round-trip cost: Youth (11 and under) $75; Adult $139. If you’re just going out for the day (which I wouldn’t recommend), it’s a bit cheaper. Or Wrangell Mountain Air offers a daily flight. Round-trip cost: Youth (Under 2) Free on lap; Other $280.
McCarthy Road ends at a footbridge that crosses the Kennicott River, approximately five miles from the lodge. Park your car in the designated lot for guests prior to the river and hop in the complimentary shuttle for the 1/4-mile ride to the bridge. Walk over the bridge with your luggage and then take the complimentary shuttle to the lodge; it’s about a 20-minute ride.
KidTripster Tip: Arrive at the footbridge by 9 p.m. to avoid an additional $50 transportation fee.
Where to stay?
Kennicott Glacier Lodge has to be one of the most well-located lodges in all the national parks, overlooking 25 miles of glacier and surrounded by 14 of the highest mountain peaks on the continent. The views are absolutely stunning.
The lodge consists of two buildings: the Main Lodge and the South Wing. The Main Lodge is the original structure and houses the lobby, restaurant, and 24 guest rooms. Nearly every inch of the walls are covered with fascinating memorabilia from the copper mining days. It’s important to know that the rooms are smaller than typical hotel rooms and don’t have en suite bathrooms. There are seven bathrooms and six shower rooms for shared use. Rates start at $225/night based on double occupancy; $30/night for an additional person. However, kids (3 and under) are free and kids (ages 4-12) are half price in the same room as two adults.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re a light sleeper, I wouldn’t recommend the Main Lodge. With shared bathrooms, you hear other guests opening and closing doors all night.
I’d strongly suggest the more modern rooms in the South Wing. These larger rooms do have en suite bathrooms and cozy seating areas outside the room on the expansive porch. Rates start at $295/night based on double occupancy; $30/night for an additional person. Again, kids (3 and under) are free and kids (ages 4-12) are half price in the same room as two adults.
All the rooms are rustic in that they don’t have phones, televisions or refrigerators.
KidTripster Tip: Look online for special packages that include airfare and meals. Discounts also are available for Main Lodge rooms from late May to mid-June, but again, these rooms would not be my first choice, especially for a family.
KidTripster Tip: WiFI is fairly weak at the lodge. However, we were able to get strong 4G LTE coverage on Verizon.
Where to eat?
Like the majority of guests, we opted to add the 3-meal plan on to our stay, mostly because there are very few other options. Granted, it’s pricey. Cost: Youth (under 4) Free; Youth (4-12) $33/day; Adult $65/day. You also can pay per meal. Cost: Breakfast $10-16; Lunch $8-16; Dinner $33-39.
In the morning, there’s a breakfast buffet with both hot and cold options. For lunch, you have a limited menu including salmon caesar salad, bison burger, French dip sandwich, pulled pork sandwich or Caprese sandwich plus two soups and a side salad. On the day when we were away from the lodge at lunchtime, we ordered a packed, to-go lunch the previous night. Dinner is served family-style at 7 p.m. only. There’s just one entrée choice each evening, which is posted at the front desk in the morning. Reservations are required for dinner.
KidTripster TIp: At breakfast, you can get hot, made-to-order eggs instead of the buffet eggs which tend to be lukewarm.
In general, the food is good, and the service is quick - almost too quick. At dinner, I felt like I was on an assembly line with servers too eager to clear away my plates. But my normally insatiable teenagers were satisfied with no complaints.
KidTripster Tip: Because of its remote location, the lodge may not be able to accommodate all dietary restrictions. Notify the restaurant in advance if you need gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian or vegan meals.
The Meatza Wagon food truck is the only other dining choice in Kennecott, but it, too, is expensive with entrées starting at $15 and ridiculously small cups of ice cream priced at $4 each. Plus, it’s only open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The nearby town of McCarthy does have a few restaurants, but to get there, you need to take the McCarthy Kennicott Shuttle. Cost: $5/person/one-way. That means for a family of four to go back and forth to McCarthy, it costs $40! And it only runs about every half hour from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., making dinner in town challenging.
Photo courtesy: Kennicott Glacier Lodge
What to do?
Despite the challenges and expense of getting here, staying here and eating here, my family found the experience entirely worth it - in large part due to one single day’s activities.
St. Elias Alpine Guides offers a long list of single-day or multi-day tours to accommodate various fitness levels: backpacking, base-camp hiking, glacier hiking, ice caving, ice climbing, lake kayaking, mountaineering, river rafting, and skiing. We decided to do a private tour tailored to the activities that best suited our family: glacier hiking, ice caving, and ice climbing. It was an extremely full, 8-hour day at the end of which my husband and I doubted whether we’d be able to move the following morning! (Fortunately, we recovered.) Because of the physical demands (walking 9 miles - 5 miles in heavy climbing boots and crampons - plus carrying gear), I’d recommend the ice climbing portion for older kids, though we were told by our guide that he’d had a 6-year-old boy do the trip.
We were expertly guided by Harrison, a 20-something with superhuman strength, who not only hiked 9 miles with us but did so carrying about 80 pounds of climbing gear! Each of us carried our own backpack with a sack lunch and water, sunscreen, bug spray, rain jacket, down jacket, swimsuit (more on that to come), climbing boots, and crampons. We hiked about two miles from St. Elias’ office (next to Kennicott Glacier Lodge) to Root Glacier. At that point, we slipped on our boots and crampons, which admittedly take a little practice to walk in. We hiked up and down the rocky moraine to our first climbing site: an impressive, 100-foot ice face. Armed with two ice tools, each of us took a turn climbing. Harrison was incredibly encouraging, coaching and belaying from the bottom. It wasn’t easy; the smiles of satisfaction that crossed my sons faces were well-earned. Even I made it to the top of the ice face! The second climb presented a different challenge. Harrison lowered the boys into a moulin, a vertical ice shaft, which they then climbed out of. Again, high fives at the top told the story. Everyone agreed that ice climbing was their single favorite activity out of a jam-packed 16 days in Alaska. We’d climb again in a second.
But the day wasn’t over. Harrison then lead us to a blue pool. Think of it as an ice cold, glacial swimming hole. Harrison estimated the temperature to be about 28°F. Like sensible people, my husband and I sat this one out, but both boys took the plunge. Watch here.
On the return trip, Harrison and the boys scrambled down a sheer cliff to ice caves situated below. I would have liked to see the brilliantly-blue ice, but at this point, my legs were like noodles and not to be trusted. The boys reported back that the caves were “very cool” and that the climb back to the top “wasn’t that easy.” (Translation: that was freakin’ hard!) The cost of the all-day private tour was $660/group or $165/person. Yes, it’s expensive, but the adventure was worth it.
On a separate day, we took the Kennecott Mine Tour, again with St. Elias Alpine Guides. This 2-hour tour covers the fascinating history of how this place came to be and how it eventually became a ghost town after copper mining ceased. Many of the structures from the 1900s are still standing. They’ve been restored so that you actually can walk through the 14-story mine but only on this tour. It’s a long tour for kids, but both my boys agreed that the insight was valuable. Cost: Youth $14; Adult $28.
When to go?
The best time to visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is early June through mid-September when roads are clear and facilities are open. Keep in mind, winter bears down early in interior Alaska; there’s typically snow on the ground by the end of September.
KidTripster Tip: We happened to visit this park during the July 4th holiday. We were treated to a very Alaskan celebration in the tiny town of McCarthy, complete with county fair-type games and a parade. Back in the day, the parade would march down the main street twice - half the town would be in the parade and the other half would watch; then they’d switch! And while there are more spectators today, the tradition of running the 20-minute parade through town twice still continues. The whole event is homespun, quirky, and refreshingly patriotic. On the downside, the holiday meant that outfitters weren’t running tours, instead giving employees the day off to join in the festivities, so you should plan for that.