Whether this is your first time Alaska hiking and you are looking to do a some low-key base camping or a seasoned backcountry veteran in search of an ultimate wilderness hiking challenge, you could not pick a more exciting destination than Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
This land will meet and surpass your expectations. If you are like a lot of people who come to Wrangell-St. Elias to embark on a wilderness hiking trip, you probably have at least a moderate degree of hiking experience. You have been around a bit in the Sierras or done a fair amount of hiking in the Cascades or Rocky Mountains. A little off-trail experience and some navigational skills thrown into the mix and you feel ready to take on the rough and rugged Alaskan backcountry.
But the first time you stand at the shore of a raging Alaskan river or the edge of a massive glacier and think, “Oh my god, I have to cross that?”… that's when you'll realize that you're not in Kansas anymore. You may need to add some new skills to your bag of hiking tricks and sharpen up a few of the ones you already feel pretty confident about. Trails? We Don’t Need No Stinking Trails!
One of the things you will notice when you look at maps of the park interior is the trail system – there isn’t one. There are a some trails that begin at trailheads along the McCarthy and Nabesna roads, as well as other places and most of those have been included in the day hikes sections. But when it comes to the backcountry, hiking in Wrangell-St. Elias means leaving the world of trails, sign posts and ranger stations far behind.
Reading a map will require more than determining which fork to take at the next trail junction. You will have to find your own way through a landscape that is often rugged and demanding. Navigation, route finding and map reading are essential skills for Alaskan hiking adventures. You should feel confident with your abilities in those areas before embarking on a cross-country hiking trek.
You Can’t Get There from Here – Navigation and Route Finding
The ability to read a map is critical for safe, hiking adventure. Even if you're trip is all on trails, you should still have a good grasp of map reading. If a topographical map is an incomprehensible mess of squiggles and lines, then you should seek instruction on the use of map and compass. There are many good books available or you might also want to investigate whether there are groups that offer navigation classes in your area. Time spent with a knowledgeable mentor can greatly shorten the learning curve.
If you are considering a backcountry trip, then chances are you have at least some level of skill with reading a map. But if you are used to hiking mostly on trails, you may find that your map-reading confidence is not as high as you thought when there are no longer any trails to help orient and position yourself on the map. The ability to match up the three-dimensional terrain in front of you with its symbolic representation on a two dimensional map is critical to effective navigation and route finding.
Good map reading ability is the single most important skill needed for safe hiking in the Alaskan backcountry. Identifying and following rivers, streams and lakes is generally pretty easy to do. Seeing a river on a map and following it downstream to where it joins another river is not unlike using a road map – you just follow the lines. But if you look at your map and see that you need to turn west at the second stream, how can you be sure that the stream you are standing next to is the correct one? Some seasonal streams only appear in the rainy season and don’t show up on the map at all. You will need to read other clues to determine your map location and verify your understanding of the topography.
Contour lines are drawn at regular intervals and indicate the shape of the terrain. Practice and alaska hiking experience will allow you to evaluate the steepness of a slope, the ruggedness of the terrain and other factors based on an evaluation of contour lines. Sometimes a mountain peak is quite distinctive and easy to locate on the map. But often you will need to make more subtle distinctions between peaks that look very similar. Misidentifying the terrain could result in a navigational error and hours of lost travel time. Even if you are adept at reading contours, there is one important difference between maps of Alaska and the maps you may have used elsewhere – scale. United States Geological Survey (USGS) maps come in a range of scales from 1:24,000 to 1:200,000. If a map is drawn to 1:24,000 scale, that means that one inch on the map equals 24,000 inches of terrain. The smaller the ratio, the more detail a map shows.