Exploring Root Glacier – Hiking in Wrangell St Elias National Park

by Mike Still
Exploring Root Glacier – Hiking in Wrangell St Elias National Park

Alaska is home to countless beautiful landscapes and every time I venture somewhere new it blows me away becoming my new favorite place. Wrangell St Elias National Park was no exception to that rule and is the largest national park in the United States with many grand adventures available. The Root Glacier hike is one of the best ways to access this incredible wilderness giving you the opportunity to see some fantastic mountain scenery along with the Stairway Icefall, the tallest icefall outside of the Himalayas!

Root Glacier Hike – An All Day adventure in Wrangell St Elias National Park – Camping in McCarthy

Wrangell St Elias National Park is only accessible by road for about half of the year and hiking is far and away the best thing to do in McCarthy, Alaska! McCarthy is hardly the bustling mining town that it used to be in the early 1900’s.  These days its a ghost town, shrinking to just 30 residents in the winter but remains a mountaineering mecca throughout the summer!

The Wrangell mountain chain sports some of the best backcountry adventures in the world with dozens of peaks ready for you to climb. If you’re like me and don’t have technical climbing experience and a few thousand dollars for a serious mountain climbing experience then there’s good news! The Root Glacier Hike is very easily accessible to anyone who can take a light stroll through the mountains especially if you book a guide!

Getting to Root Glacier

Whether you hike Root Glacier without a guide or not you can park RVs and tents at Root Glacier base camp near the parking lot and footbridge. From there its 5 miles to Kennecott, you can walk or pay for the shuttle.

The McCarthy to Kennecot shuttle is $10 1 way or $15 for two tickets.

There are plenty of campsites, RV parking and air bnb’s near base camp root glacier.
You’ll find more Wrangell St Elias Lodging suggestions at the bottom of this page!

The Root Glacier trail is about 2 miles long starting in Kennecott and taking you all the way to the toe of the glacier. This well-trafficked path runs along Root Glacier’s lateral moraine with views of both Kennecott Glacier and Root Glacier’s medial moraines creating a natural palette of red and brown earth covering of icy pyramids below.

 

These glacial landmarks have receded quite a bit in recent memory and the Kennecott Mill Town Tour sports some photos from the early 1900’s when the glaciers 300 feet taller!  Ty, our guide from St. Elias Guides, pointed out some of the root glacier ice caves along the trail but today we were heading onto the glacier itself for the full day excursion!

 

If you’re doing a root glacier hike without a guide make sure you have crampons know how to do a glacial traverse and understand the risks involved! Root glacier is considerably more stable than most but it’s still a glacier and can be quite dangerous.  Click Get a Quote and see if World Nomads travel insurance is the right choice for your trip to Alaska and you’ll be surprised to see how affordable and what it covers!



We had a fantastic view of Mount Blackburn, USA’s 5th tallest peak, the whole way even though she often hides behind white clouds. Spending the day staring at one of the world’s most glorious mountains reminded me of our lucky drive through Denali National Park last fall and just how lucky I am to call Alaska my home.

Walking across the next crest Root Glacier was immediately in view creating a beautiful moment that photos or videos will never truly convey. Famous glacial blues and blacks unfold before your eyes as you realize that all of those panoramic views from earlier were just an appetizer!

You’ll pass the last outhouse about a mile from Kennecott so be prepared to dig a hole if you’re camping like Ben, Jenae and I did after our tour. We dropped our overnight packs at some bear boxes about a half-mile from the glacier.  Moments later we paused again to don crampons while Ty gave a thorough lecture about glacial safety and showed us how to walk on the ice.

Our first stop on this full-day expedition was an icy valley of waterfalls. Summer melt carves horseshoe’s and S-curves into the surface of Root Glacier making it the perfect spot to refill some water. We eagerly dumped out our old water and refilled with glacial melt before climbing to a vantage point near one of the waterfalls.

Exploring Root Glacier Alaska

Walking on the glacier was very easy thanks to the crampons and Ty’s instructions, high steps and trust the crampons!  Keep your feet shoulder with apart or you’ll risk stumbling as the spikes catch your pants like I did a few times.

Ty spoke of a secret blue pool hidden among these icy hills and excitedly informed us we all looked like capable hikers and would get to see a lot today!  We continued onward with Blackburn in full view roughly 20 miles from us.

Only 6 miles away and more easily surmountable stood Donoho showing its full alligator-like face when suddenly the next crest revealed the Stairway Icefall!  Donoho is the mostly green mountain with a rocky peak in the photo above.  If you look closely you can see eyes in the twin peaks and the green snout flows down into a long alligator nose.

The stairway icefall is somewhere between 7000 and 9000 feet high depending on if you believe Google or the McCarthy locals. It is a wall of ice so amazing that you knew it must have been George R.R. Martin’s inspiration! 

Game of Thrones puns came up again when Ty pointed to another massif that just revealed itself between two unnamed peaks and proudly declared it to be Castle Rock. The moment stuck in my mind as I realized how incredible it was for this whole land to be littered with innumerable nameless peaks as the natural splendor drew stark details beneath the day’s blue sky.

Things to do in McCarthy Alaska

  • Explore Kennecott with the historic mine tour
  • Root Glacier Hike
  • Root Glacier Ice Climbing
  • Swim, kayak or packraft near base camp root glacier
  • Hike to Bonanza Mine
  • Hike to Erie Mine
  • Hike the West Glacier Trail for a different view of Kennecott and the Stairway Icefall
  • Eat at Potato
  • Go on an epic whitewater rafting adventure!
  • Enjoy a cold beer at the Golden Saloon
  • Pick up a souvenir made by local artists at the shops in McCarthy!
  • Eat lunch at the Meatza Wagon
  • Take a flightseeing tour of Blackburn Mountain
  • Go on a multi-night Wrangell St Elias backpacking adventure!
  • Hike to the top of Donoho for an epic view (on my bucketlist)

We passed a group ice climbing up one of the nearby ice walls and chimed in letting us know we’d made the right choice with the full day hike.  Ice climbing group tours go at a pace to let everyone in the group climb a wall or two.  Unless you’re an advanced ice climber and ready to climb into a moulin he fully recommends the hike as the best way to get the most out of hiking Root Glacier.
My attention came back to the glacier beneath me as the ice formed a second wave with icy cliffs. We veered around this wave and found small but incredibly deep blue pools scattered among the ice.  I joked with Ty if this was his secret one and he responded asking if I wanted to go for a swim!  I said I’d love to but that it would be better for the end of the trek. Everyone joked around for the next hour or so as we climbed up and over more icy ridges revealing strikingly similar yet somehow different views.

Hiking Wrangell St Elias

We paused for a quick picnic and everyone was grateful that Ty had two foam camping mats for us to sit on. It was somewhere around this that I realized I’d be on the lookout for my own crampons and blue mats at Anchorage’s next gear swap. Even more surprising was that my phone had full LTE service with Verizon so I took the opportunity to share a quick Instagram story before we put our packs back on and headed to the medial moraine.

The medial moraine is the middle section of the glacier with dirt and rocks on top of it pushed together by the force of the two outer sections of the glacier. We scrambled up this rocky hill and were quickly rewarded with the biggest blue pool we’d ever seen! No, it wasn’t time for a swim here but it certainly was a perfect photo op.

The azure ripples framed by icy shores will forever be etched into my memory. I didn’t want to leave, it felt like I was in a magical fantasyland but Ty assured us that there was still more to see so we eventually wandered off.

Ty mentioned to follow him carefully, he’d purposely diverted us from some special spots earlier in the day and it was clear that we were headed for another treat. Within moments he put his backpack down and told everyone to stay behind it while he scouted ahead. There was a massive sinkhole in the ice, also known as a moulin (pronounced Mulan) ahead and Ty was going to set it up so we could safely check it out.

He walked up and carved a spot in the floor for us to plant our front foot. Ty made sure he was on solid ground before inviting us up one at a time. He grabbed our backpack and stayed right there in case any of us slipped. This moulin went down at least a hundred feet, or at least that was the longest rope that Ty had ever used to descend into it but today we were just looking at the top.

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One by one we each stared into the abyss before walking a few hundred yards and finding another moulin. This one wasn’t as massive but had a healthy stream pouring into it creating a picturesque landscape and offering up a little mist as it crashed into the ice.  You can barely make out a rainbow from this spray above the shadows in the photo above!  I stood there in awe vowing to myself to one day learn how to ice climb so I could come back here and experience the deep blues beneath the surface of Root Glacier.

Other Things to do in Alaska

Before long it was time to cross back over the medial moraine and make our way towards home. This time Ty pointed out all of the icy pyramids and told us that the bottom of a moulin forms the same feature meaning a few hundred years ago the ice we were standing on was likely a series of frigid waterways!

With our day coming to a close I realized something about spending the day on the glacier. With greenery on either side of the glacier and plenty of wildlife throughout Wrangell Saint Elias National Park, there had been absolutely no life on the glacier. It was eerie to think that we were in a place so alien that it was void of life.

Jenae often talks about the ice worm festival famous in Cordova for the little critters that burrow into the ice but here at Root Glacier there were no worms, no birds, no life, except for a few lichen-covered rocks. At first, I took minimal notice to these perfectly normal rocks but the more I thought about it the more I was intrigued at this sole sample of organic life on the desolate glacier.

Pausing for a few more photos here and there we hiked back along the glacier satisfied with a glorious day exploring some of the earth’s most magnificent sights. We walked up to the next cliff and my excitement grew yet again as a final blue pool revealed itself!

“You can swim in that one if you want” Ty proclaimed at which point I knew I could no longer back down. Apparently talking about it all day made Ben want to jump in the freezing waters too! Ty explained that your brain doesn’t function the same way when you shock your body with almost freezing water and its nearly impossible to say a whole sentence or do anything other than escape the lagoon. He would set up a rope to help pull us in and put down foam mats to keep us from getting cuts on any sharp edges.

We passed our cameras off and mentally prepared for the task at hand. I was disrobing as another guide walked up with two medics from Anchorage and apparently they were all instantly convinced to jump in too! I led the charge jumping in first as someone shouted: “Wow, he jumped out far!”

At first, I hoped to tread water or maybe swim a tiny bit but as soon as I was surrounded by freezing waters my focus was entirely on escaping the waters. Within seconds I was out of the water and soaking in the sunlight, a slight burning sensation crept over my skin as my body tried to cope with what I’d just put it through. Adrenaline pumped through me and I reminisced about all the amazing things we’d seen today while hiking Root Glacier!

We passed a few more silt pools offering gorgeous reflections on the final stretch before finally getting back to the bear boxes and setting up camp.  Keep reading for some more info about planning a trip to McCarthy and be sure to share this post if you enjoyed it or found it informative and stay tuned for my next update!

Getting to McCarthy Alaska

If you’re planning a trip to Wrangell St Elias National Park you are probably driving to McCarthy Alaska from Anchorage.  There is only one road to McCarthy so you’ll want to check the McCarthy road conditions ahead of time but its usually open during the summer.  The drive from Anchorage to McCarthy takes between 7 and 8 hours depending on how much you stop to take in the scenery.   The price spiked an extra dollar per gallon in Chitina and there’s no gas in McCarthy so I recommend filling up in Glen Allen.

Alternately you could drive from Valdez to McCarthy after taking the ferry from Anchorage.
If you want the fastest route to McCarthy then you’ll want to coordinate a flight with your lodge.

Wrangell St Elias National Park Lodging

We stayed at Jenae’s family friends the first night before camping in McCarthy and ending at a lovely Air BNB dry cabin and highly recommend this option if you can handle a dry cabin.

There aren’t many hotels in Wrangell Alaska and we opted to stay at dry cabins and camp most of the time. If you’re interested in an actual lodge or hotel in Wrangell St Elias national park then you have a few options and I highly recommend booking your accommodation in Wrangell St Elias ahead of time since it usually sells out!

Ma Johnson’s and the McCarthy Lodge are one of the favorite historic hotels in McCarthy.  They are more of a living museum and definitely worth booking a room if you love history!

Kennecott Glacier Lodge is the only hotel in Kennecott with rooms starting at $99 and glacier view rooms starting at $169.  These rooms often sell out during the summer but are well worth it if you want to just relax after a long hike on the glacier.


Wrangell St Elias National Park Map

I recommend buying a Wrangell St Elias National Park Map to help plan your trip. Google Maps works in McCarthy and Verizon actually has pretty good service as long as the mountains aren’t blocking your signal. The national park is massive and you don’t need a whole Wrangell Alaska map if you’re just driving to root glacier.  I took a photo on my phone of the area we were hiking in and it’s pretty straightforward without many roads in McCarthy.

Thank you for reading!  If you made it this far down I hope you’ve already subscribed and are excited to read my next story.  Be sure to share this post using the buttons on the left or pin the image below!

More photos from this adventure and others can be found on the @LiveTravelTeach Instagram Account and don’t forget to follow www.LiveTravelTeach.com by adding your email at the top of this page to make sure you don’t miss any of these amazing adventures!

Disclaimer:  This is the internet and It is safe to assume that links and content contained on this webpage provide compensation to the website’s owner.  The opinions here are my own and the information here is accurate as of July 2019.  Unless otherwise labeled, all photos and video were taken by Mike Still.

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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded www.LiveTravelTeach.com as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

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1 comment

Discover Alaska With Photographer Jesse Hasup August 8, 2019 - 9:56 pm

[…] skirts along the borders of the Canadian Kluane National Park, contiguous with Glacier Bay and Wrangell St Elias, forming by far the largest wilderness area in the […]

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