Paddle the Parks: Wrangell St. Elias National Park

A seascape of water and ice in southeast Alaska

Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Photo: Chuck Graham
Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Photo: Chuck Graham

Water and Ice

Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Alaska
By Chuck Graham

Kayaking within the long, chilly shadows of the world's largest coastal mountain range and one of the most seismically volatile regions on the planet can force one to contemplate that size really does matter, especially in America's largest national park, Wrangell St. Elias in southeast Alaska.

The St. Elias Mountains tower above the many ice floe-choked fjords, with Mount St. Elias looming higher than all the rest at 18,008 feet. It's the second highest peak in North America, straddling the Yukon and Alaska border.

The massive peak was cloaked in storm clouds when Alaskan guide Carl Donohue and I nosed our kayaks between the floes of Icy Bay. The ice eerily moved counter clockwise to the dark, gray clouds engulfing the daunting peaks above.

When Captain James Cook explored this coast in 1788 in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, a single, massive glacier walled off the entrance to Icy Bay. Since then that glacier has receded approximately 15 miles into three much smaller glaciers, the Tyndall, Guyot and Yahtse.

Minding the tides and the ebb and flow of shifting ice was the biggest challenge to exploring this seldom-visited national park by sea kayak. The floes creaked and cracked, as if threatening to crush our tents pitched in the fragrant, dewy Nootka lupine. Every now and then ice floes would congregate into congested masses, then implode in cannon-shots that resonated across the expanse of Icy Bay.

On the glassy water the air in the rear of the fjords was thick with the pungent scent of natural seepage, the water an oily smooth emerald green. The fjords were continually fed by cascading waterfalls, frigid sheets of water sliding down sheer cliff faces for hundreds of feet. The revolving glacial ice offered convenient haul-outs for puppy-faced harbor seals with their teary-eyed pups, and strikingly beautiful long-tailed ducks.

On the cobbled shorelines juvenile bald eagles scavenged on what the tide provided, their mottled feathers blending with the coastal landscape. Nimble western sandpipers delicately picked their way along the steep berm and breeding pairs of agitated parasitic jaegers were relentless in their dive bombing tactics on two weary paddlers.

Click the links below to read about paddling adventures in a few of our favorite parks around the country:

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Explore Lake Superior’s panoramic coastline in Michigan


Ozark Scenic Riverways

A secret worth sharing in Missouri


Channel Islands National Park

Experience isolation 40 miles south of Santa Cruz, California


Grand Canyon National Park

Experience America’s 2 billion-year-old river canyon in Arizona


Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks

Follow in the footsteps—paddle strokes—of great American explorers in Washington and Oregon


Big Bend National Park

Float through an isolated wilderness on the edge of Texas and Mexico


The Missouri National Recreational River

A journey through time in South Dakota and Nebraska


Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Paddle over the horizon line of waterfalls in Tennessee and North Carolina


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The complete list of our favorite national parks for paddling


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