Copper River Record January 2017
By Robin Mayo
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park rangers maintain an excellent cross-country ski trail at the Visitors Center which the public is welcome to enjoy. It is groomed frequently by several rangers, and used daily when the weather cooperates by the Wrangell-St. Elias Ski Team, a cheerful group of employees who like to take a turn around the track on their lunch hour.
I was excited to be invited to join the ski team for a tour of the trail, but with the temperature at 20 below at midday, we chose to keep our toes warm in mukluks, and explore by snowshoe. Snowshoes, especially if they have claws, can ruin a groomed ski trail, so we were careful to stay off the ski track itself. There was room to walk alongside while wearing our small trail snowshoes. Please note that walking on the trail without skiis or snowshoes will definitely ruin it for everyone else—don’t be that person!
The trail makes two big loops, one north of the visitor’s center and one south, for a total of 1.3 miles. To access it, park at the pullout at the entrance to the Visitors Center at mile 106.8 Richardson Highway. This will put you outside the gates, so your car can’t be locked in while you ski. Then walk east towards the visitor’s center, ducking under the gate if it is locked (outside business hours.) About a hundred yards from the parking area you will see bollards on both sides of the road, and the trail heading into the forest on the Old Valdez trail.
Take a left for the northern loop, which winds through the boreal forest, then turns south and travels near the edge of the Copper River Bluff. As we snowshoed along in the early afternoon sunshine, we were treated to amazing views of Mt. Drum. It was fun to see the familiar visitor amenities such as picnic tables buried under deep snow, and to have the spot all to ourselves.
The trail passes close to the administration building, then heads south to a large gravel pit. This is normally a dusty spot, but the snow transformed it into a perfect bowl of white, with some gentle hills which made me wish for my skiis. We looped past the summer seasonal housing, a normally lively place now shuttered and quiet, then connected back to the old Valdez trail, headed north back to where it intercepts the road.
The whole loop took us an hour, including time to admire the views, take some quick pictures, and adjust our snowshoes. I returned to my office invigorated by the cold air, and inspired by the beauty.
Finding places to explore in winter is always a challenge, so it was a treat to have a guided tour of this hidden gem. I’m looking forward to warmer spring weather to enjoy the groomed trail on my skiis, which are much more accustomed to clattering along on whatever we can find, or breaking their own trail.
The views are spectacular from the Copper River Bluff near Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitors Center. Barbara Cellarius Photo
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.