Packrafting Wrangell-St Elias NP: A 250-mile route from Nabesna to Chitina, Alaska
Updated: Aug 22, 2020
Why Wrangells?: The Wrangells traverse is an Alaskan classic and is often the first route that gets recommended when discussing packrafting in the last frontier. Wrangell St. Elias National Park is the largest National Park in the country and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The route is true wilderness adventure offering a wide variety of hiking and paddling terrrain, from alpine meadows to glacial moraines, and from clear creeks to silty, high-volume rivers. There are a number of variations, and if you are interested in doing the most paddling and least bushwhacking I would highly recommend the variation described below.
Why Packraft?: This is the quintessential Alaskan packraft route, and while this has been done on foot, ski, and even bike (read hiking with a bike), packrafting is the way to go during the summer months. This is not really a "river trip". There are lots of transitions between hike and boat mode, and, ultimately, the packraft will feel more like a tool at times. That said, there are at least eight different rivers to paddle along the route, all of which have enjoyable whitewater. The rivers in the Wrangells are big and powerful and it is hard to imagine crossing some of them without a boat during summer flows.
1.) Paddle the Chisana: Rather than just using boats to cross the Chisana near the townsite, head up to the source of the river at the toe of the Chisana Glacier. The best way to reach this spot is by heading a short distance up the Cross River before heading south over the pass at the head of Washe Creek. The pass offers commanding views of the glacier and after the descent, you will find excellent camping along the lake at the toe. From the toe of the glacier, the river leaves the lake and heads through a windy mini-canyon that cuts through the moraine (II+). This option adds a day to you route.
2.) Goat Trail AND Nizina: I bold the "and" here because for most people they chose one or the other. The Goat Trail is incredibly scenic and exposed hiking that also provides some dramatic views of the Chitistone Gorge. The downside is it deposits you on the Chitistone River, missing all the fun whitewater and dramatic scenery of the Upper Nizina. Typically people have accessed this part of the Nizina by descending west from Skolai pass in what can only be described as class five bushwhacking. A better alternative is what could be termed the "Doubtful Creek Route". This option departs from the height of the Goat Trail though some excellent alpine hiking before descending along Doubtful Creek to the Nizina River. If you do this correctly, you will do ZERO bushwhacking to access the Nizina. (see route map for more detail)
3.) Paddle to Chitina: This options adds a few more days on to the back end of your trip, but travel is fast (we comfortably floated 42 miles in a day). While it is easy to end in McCarthy, there is still some enjoyable and beautiful river downstream. We still hiked up to the town of McCarthy for a day run on McCarthy Creek. It is worth spending a day or two in this quirky and pedestrian-friendly town before exiting via the Kennicott, Lower Nizina, and Chitina. The 2nd Nizina Canyon below the Kennicott has some of the bigger and most engaging whitewater of the trip with big canyon walls and tight bends that will have you paddling inside corner to inside corner. The Chitina is a flat but massive and fast-moving river with a few obvious features to avoid. The take-out requires a big ferry across the Copper River so hug the right side of the Chitina in preparation for this move as the confluence approaches. The move here is to ferry as high as possible to avoid the boily part of the confluence and to ensure you lose as little ground as possible. As you approach the west bank of the Copper, you will likely be forced to portage a few braids in order to hit the takeout at the local fishing access.
Length and re-ration options:
Depending on how long you will be out, you might need to re-ration yourself food. I have heard of this trip being done in as little as two days (insane) and as many as 26 (more than necessary). 8-14 days seems comfortable for experienced groups. You could certainly do this route faster, but why? Skolai Pass and the village of Chisana offer the best options for re-rations. We used Kirk Ellis at Devil's Mountain Lodge in Nabesna.