The Road Less Traveled: Nabesna Road and Skookum Volcano, Wrangell-St Elias National Park
Besides the incredibly raw ghost mining town, the Nabesna road in Wrangell-St Elias also provides access to the more expected experience of a national park: a beautiful scenic drive that leads to several trailheads for great hikes, with a campground and lodges available. But unlike on other park roads, you won’t have to share with experience with a crowd.
The roadThere are only four roads in Alaska’s national parks. The three others are the Denali road which is mostly restricted to park busses, the short Exit Glacier access in Kenai Fjords, and the Mc Carthy road traveled by the vast majority of visitors to Wrangell-St Elias. So being able to drive deep into an Alaska national park is a big deal. The Nabesna Road begins at mile 60 of the Glenn Highway (Tok Cutoff), in the town of Slana. No gas is found in Slana nor along the Nabesna Road. It ends at the unincorporated community of Nabesna which, comprises a few homes, the Devil’s Mountain lodge, and an airstrip. It takes about 1h30 to drive the 42 miles one-way.
The mostly unpaved road is well-graded, but three stream crossings might require high-clearance vehicles or become impassable after rains. Many travelers turn back at Mile 29, the first of the stream crossings, because they don’t want to risk getting stuck on the far side, should the weather turn to rain. Most of the traffic is from locals and hunters. On both my visits, I didn’t see more than half a dozen other vehicles each day there.
Along the road
For the first 25 miles, the road passes through lowlands where thickets lining up the shoulder often obscure views of the distant mountains. However, of interest at closer range, moose and caribou browse the wetlands and lakes. The Wrangell range comprises some of the most voluminous volcanoes in the world. The best views of those peaks to the south are between Mile 15 and Mile 18. From there, they are quite distant and require a telephoto lens.
Lakes of various sizes abound along the road. Around mile 17, there is a large pull-out on the north of the road, overlooking an unnamed lake. From the pull-out, the lake is obstructed, but by strolling down a short distance, I found a fine view. Around mile 21.5, I photographed Rock Lake right from the road.
For a day hike starting from the Nabesna road, I picked the Skookum Volcano Trail, possibly the most rewarding and unique of the several hikes accessed from the road. By contrast to the soaring Wrangell mountains, substantial erosion has reduced Skookum Creek Volcano (7,125 feet), an old shield volcano, to a modest size, but also revealed fantastic shapes and colors unexpected in this landscape.
The trailhead is at mile 36.2, and after a section in the forest and along a stream, the terrain changes to high and open tundra. The trail ends at a high pass (1,800-foot elevation gain, 2.5 miles one-way) which was frequented by Dall sheep and offered great views on both sides. The low cloud ceiling obscured the weird mountains, but I was glad that it didn’t rain. If we hadn’t changed our itinerary upon landing in Anchorage, we would have been soaked in Kenai Fjords!
Instead of retracing my steps, I descended into the unknown on the other side of the pass to complete a loop (8 miles) on trail-less terrain which consisted of tundra followed by a rocky streambed which made route-finding easy. At the transition between the two, a steep ravine required a bit of tricky climbing on crumbling rock.
Where to stayKendesnii Campground, the only developed National Park Service (NPS) campground in the park, is located at mile 27.8. By the way, don’t let “developed” raise your expectations too much: here it just means that there are picnic tables, fire rings, and two vault toilets. However, the location, next to a lake, is quite scenic. I made the photograph below while walking on the campground loop road.
You can also camp primitively at several other waysides along the road. The public use Viking Lodge Cabin (mile 21.8) may be reserved at the Copper Center Visitor Center. There are two private lodges along the road, the Sportman’s Paradise Lodge at mile 28.5, and the Devil’s Mountain Lodge at mile 42. The later also doubles as an outfitter and air service.