Backpacking Iceberg Lake Valley in Wrangell-St. Elias, Alaska

5 days among glaciers in the U.S.’s largest national park

Looking down on Iceberg Lake Valley from a ridge with several glaciers visible
All photos by author

Trip specs

  • Location: Iceberg Lake Valley, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
  • Dates: Aug. 5–9, 2019 (5 days, 4 nights)
  • Route: Lollipop loop around the valley, all off-trail. Mileage: ~15 backpacking + ~5 day-hike
  • Conditions: Terrific. We got very lucky with consistently warm, very sunny days and cool nights. Highs in 60s-70s, lows in 40s. 10–15 degrees cooler near the glacier. Sunset: ~10 p.m. Sunrise: ~6 a.m.
  • Travel: Fly to Anchorage, drive to McCarthy (8 hrs), bush plane to Iceberg Lake airstrip (30 mins)
  • Special gear: bear canister, bear spray, InReach or sat phone, crampons or microspikes (no ice axe)
  • Photos: Wrangell-St. Elias on Google Photos
Three backpackers walking across a glacier with crampons

Background

Every summer, I embark on a backpacking journey with a couple of friends from college. We started doing an annual trip over a decade ago, and this year marked our 10th trip. We’ve visited some of the crown jewels of American wilderness: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Colorado 14ers, the High Sierra.

For the past few years, we’ve been tossing around the idea of going bigger, with repeated mentions of Alaska. This year, the 49th State fit the bill. But Alaska is massive—and intimidating. Where to go and how to do it right?

The first thing that comes to mind is the legendary Denali. I don’t mean to disparage it in any way, but it was out for this trip — too many people, too hard to get good permits. Turning my attention elsewhere, I found Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Most of the people I talked to before this trip had never heard of it, nor had I. That’s unfortunate, since it’s the largest U.S. national park — bigger than Switzerland! It forms a huge portion of the Alaska-Canada border to the east and stretches all the way to the Pacific in the south. Standing near its western border at Glenallen and looking east, the nearest road is almost 200 miles away, in Canada. It contains three major mountain ranges (Wrangell, St. Elias, and Chugach) and several subranges. It’s home to the second-highest peak in the U.S. (Mount St. Elias) and nine of the 16 highest. It contains 60% of all the glacial ice in Alaska. It’s the largest designated wilderness in the United States.

NPS brochure for Wrangell-St. Elias with a big map of the park
Source: NPS

Despite all of these superlatives, Wrangell-St. Elias doesn’t feel like a national park. It’s more like a wilderness area or even BLM land. There’s no entry fee and no backcountry permits, there’s not much NPS presence, and it gets 40k visitors per year to Denali’s 600k (and Yosemite’s 4 million).

There’s only one major road into it: the McCarthy Road. The McCarthy Road is 60 miles of dusty gravel washboard that runs east from Chitina (pronounced chit-nuh) and ends at the Kennicott River just west of McCarthy (more about this below). McCarthy is the gateway to the Wrangell interior. From its airstrip, bush planes transport visitors to several backcountry airstrips around the park.

So there we had it: our destination. Now to choose a hike.

Planning

The only major guide published on backcountry routes in Wrangell-St. Elias, as far as I can tell, is this Falcon guide, which contains a collection of day-hikes and backcountry trips all over this massive park. The last edition is currently several years old, but you should still pick this up if you’re considering a trip. It will help you choose a destination, and the beta is invaluable for the tricky route-finding once you’re on the ground.

One of the most important factors in choosing our destination was moderation. None of our group had even been to Alaska before, much less backpacked it, and we were all feeling conservative for our first trip to the Last Frontier. Alaska is a dangerous place, and we felt it was important to stay humble in regards to mileage and technical difficulty.

Combined with its incredible natural beauty, this is why Iceberg Lake stood out. It works best as a short loop trip with day-hikes. You’re retrieved from the same airstrip as drop-off, so there’s less pressure to cover a set amount of mileage. Plus it’s a short flight from McCarthy, so it’s cheaper than many other destinations. The Goat Trail, Pyramid Peak, and a few other options were finalists, but ultimately, Iceberg Lake was too good to resist, and we booked our flights.

Next up were frontcountry logistics:

  • Round-trip flights to Anchorage
  • Rental truck — we had a 4x4 with an extended cab and locking bed topper, which worked great
  • Lodging in Anchorage and McCarthy on both ends

Anchorage hotels are standard fare. But the options in McCarthy are limited. We chose the least expensive, the Lancaster’s Backpacker Hotel, which brought me back to my days of European hostel-hopping: tiny rooms with noisy bunkbeds, shared bathrooms, shower shoes. And no ride from the footbridge. But it did include a solid breakfast at the bistro next door.

Old West-style Ma Johnson’s Hotel on main street McCarthy with a ’20s car
Main Street, McCarthy

McCarthy/Kennecott

McCarthy is a great little town with a big personality. It feels almost like the Wild West (with cell signal). In addition to the few hotels, there are three restaurants, a couple of shops, a bike/watercraft rental spot, the Wrangell Mountain Air office, and a small general store. That’s it. (The saloon has a full bar and solid food; the Potato has good food and an excellent beer selection.) Plan to bring all gear and supplies with you to McCarthy, as pickings are slim.

Access to the town is a little weird and inconvenient. The only vehicle bridge into McCarthy is for locals only. Google Maps will tell you to take this bridge, but you can’t — it’s locked up. Visitors must park on the west side of the footbridge and either get a lift in a van operated by their hotel or walk the mile into town on a gravel road. (All the hotels in town except Lancaster’s provide transportation from the footbridge.) This setup can require some extra running around for your gear and bags before/after the backcountry. For example, you may find yourself walking a mile to your car and back to get clean clothes after arriving hungry and dirty back in McCarthy.

A few miles up the road from McCarthy is the reason this town exists: the Kennecott Mine, which was the largest copper mine on earth. We didn’t have enough time to visit, which was disappointing, but it looks fascinating. The McCarthy Road is built on the bed of the old railroad that hauled the ore west.

The plane

The only ways to get to Iceberg is to fly in on a backcountry air taxi operated by Wrangell Mountain Air or hike point-to-point from a different airstrip such as Bremner Glacier. The prices listed on WMA’s website are one-way and per-person, so this is not a cheap flight.

The landing strip at Iceberg (N 60.79164, W 142.96663) is a big sandbar made of glacial till. The flight in and out over the Chugach range is incredibly beautiful. If weather cooperates, you get views of 16k+ peaks in several directions as well as myriad glaciers, including 17-mile-long Tana Glacier.

This flight is probably not for those with a fear of flying. Takeoff and landing at Iceberg are a little intense, but the cowboys behind the stick are fully capable and it’s a hell of a fun ride.

Wrangell Mountain Air operates out of the McCarthy airstrip. The morning of the flight, they’ll drive you to the plane from their office on McCarthy main street. You can take bear spray on the plane, but they must strap it to the outside of the plane for safety. You can bring isobutane fuel but only from approved brands (MSR, Snow Peak, and Primus). White gas is also allowed. I believe you can take firearms if declared (but you can’t fire inside the national park except in self-defense).

You are encouraged to bring at least an extra day’s worth of food in case of delayed pickup due to bad weather. The guide we spoke with confirmed that this does happen — sometimes for more than one day.

Mountains and glaciers in Wrangell

Iceberg Lake Valley

Iceberg Lake Valley has quickly become more popular over the past several years, and more groups mean more impact on this ecosystem that is already stressed from climate change. Please consider your impact: Keep group size small, and practice clean camp procedures plus Leave No Trace principles at all times (pack out all trash, including TP).

Note that the valley’s namesake lake does not really exist anymore. A few years ago, it drained and has not returned to anywhere near its original size. You can see this difference between Google Maps’ map layer, which shows the old lake shoreline, and its satellite layer, which shows the drained lake (as of this writing, anyway). Most topo maps will still show the full lake too. Walking on the old lake bed with the Tana Glacier towering in the distance is interesting and a little surreal. The old lake bed would not make for good camping (although I did not get all the way down to the current lake/glacier edge), but it is much easier walking than the rocks.

For Iceberg, the book departs from its usual practice of specifying established campsites and instead lays out five general camping areas around the valley, labeled Areas A-E, which I’ll refer to below. I’m not posting an annotated map because you should buy the book and at least one topo!

Our itinerary

Day 1: Our (thrilling) flight to Iceberg was at 10 a.m. and we were on the ground by 10:45. Our plan after drop-off was a short hike to Area A to camp, get our bearings, and prepare for day 2. But we’re not very good at sticking to plans. Instead, we had our biggest day of the trip, hiking all the way to the glacier, crossing it, and proceeding over a few brutal miles of talus fields to the lake at Area B (with me regretting my decision to carry both of our communal meals).

This was a tough decision point on our route, as no decent campsites were apparent to us and this lake is very murky (plus we were out of water). There’s an area on the southern edge of the lake that may have clean water and flat sites, but we decided against that and instead turned to the north, climbing up the ridge toward Area C. Luckily, we didn’t have to get all the way to Area C — which would have been an ugly evening of hiking—and found a flat (if narrow) spot with clean water and an outstanding view just above the rocks. Relief.

Two yellow tents on a ridge above Iceberg Lake Valley with the sun setting behind
Night 1

Day 2: We packed up and headed to Area C, happy to be rested and hydrated. This was a great half-day of backpacking up and over the rocky ridge, and we descended to C’s gorgeous, vividly deep-blue alpine lake to find camping. (Head uphill from the northwest tip to get away from some of the bugs.) After plopping down our packs, we headed to the lake in our skivvies for a shockingly cold but refreshing swim — the next best thing to a shower. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the area’s smaller lakes and waterfalls, and enjoying the view north to a valley thousands of feet below, which looked like prime moose territory.

Looking down on the blue alpine lake in Area C with a glacier in the distance
Area C is a special place.

Day 3: Day-hike. We left our tents up, packed some lunch in our daypacks, stashed our bear cans, and headed up this unnamed peak west of the lake. The early going was easy route-finding with mostly soil and alpine plants underfoot before steepening and giving way to flakes of shale scree. This got a bit sketchy at one point as my imagination started running with images of the whole slope giving way into a rockslide, but we made it up with no problems, and the descent was easier than expected.

I highly recommend gaining a thousand feet or two off the valley floor if you can. Up high, the vastness and wildness of the park becomes apparent: views for dozens of miles in every direction and not a single sign of human impact. Entire mountain ranges and glaciers come into view from up here, some of them truly intimidating massifs with impossible-seeming summits. It’s difficult to imagine these sprawling glaciers melting along with all the others, but they are. At least they’ll be here awhile yet.

The blue alpine lake with two hikers in the foreground and mountains in the distance

Day 4: We had considered moving camp to Area D or E, but the likelihood of having to cross the river on Day 5 seemed high, and all of the advice we received had warned us strongly away from that (a world-class mountaineer nearly died crossing this river). Plus we were stoked to cross the glacier again, so we headed to Area A instead. Here we encountered at least two other groups of people in close proximity to our camp, which was a little jarring after a few days of isolation.

If you’re headed back toward the airstrip or Area A from Area C, make sure to stay to the north and find a safe place to get onto the glacier. The river becomes far less powerful after one outlet from the glacier and we were able to easily step onto it instead of dealing with a dangerous crossing (or what looked like a laughably precarious ice bridge — no, thank you). Finding your way back to the ice entry down-valley can be a little tricky from above too, so have that waypoint handy.

Close-up of the glacier with mountains

Day 5: It was a short trip back to the airstrip, where most of our group set up a sun shade on the “beach” and relaxed while waiting for our flight. I took off on a solo jaunt south toward the Tana Glacier, hoping to get a better look at it while exploring the old lake bed. If I’d had another hour or so, there was a big rock outcropping from which there looked to be a good perspective of Tana, but I forced myself to turn back so as not to miss my only ride out of the wilderness.

Back at the airstrip, we eagerly hopped aboard when our plane arrived, and we were soon back in McCarthy after another gorgeous flight across the Chugach. We voraciously tucked into some burgers and beers at the Potato, and after several more, enjoyed the townie softball game.

Close-up of a glacier crevasse with mountains

The glacier

There are many glaciers in the mountains around this valley, but when I refer to “the glacier,” I mean the monster covering half of the valley floor. It’s amazing and a great glacier for first-timers (like we all were). I highly recommend crossing it even if you don’t have experience on ice—as long as you’re going late enough in the year that there’s no snow left to hide crevasses and holes.

Two in our group had lightweight crampons and two had microspikes. Both worked great. I think it would be possible to do this glacier crossing without spikes at all, but I would not recommend it. Especially near the northwest end of the glacier, there are some larger crevasses to step over or around, and having extra traction adds safety and confidence. Watch where you step at all times! There are some deep holes that are easy to spot as long as there’s no snow, but if you accidentally stepped in one, things could get serious instantly.

It’s important to enter the glacier at the right spot so you don’t have to cross the dangerous river. This location is where we were able to step directly onto the ice when approaching it from the airstrip/Area A. It’s just west of where the river emerges from the glacier in a large ice cave (this location will change as the glacier changes, of course): N 60.81209, W 143.01576

Water

Finding clear water was sometimes a challenge on this trip, especially after the glacier crossing. Most of the glacial lakes are very murky and would soon clog a filter. I recommend bringing extra water capacity (I had 4 liters) and filling up when you can. Here are a few good options for water:

  • Area A (the biggest lake is the clearest)
  • Snowmelt streams near the wetlands (between A and the glacier)
  • Meltwater on the glacier
  • Area C lake

We met a wilderness guide at the airstrip who said he never filters water in the valley. We filtered all of ours, but apparently there is no giardia present in the area (yet). Drink at your own risk, of course, but the water coming off the snow and ice looked delicious.

Safety

Raging river emerging from the glacier with rocks in the foreground and mountains in background
The river emerging from the glacier in a large ice cave

River crossings

Three people died in Wrangell-St. Elias last year, and they were all due to river crossings. Alaskan rivers are dangerous! Read up on this topic before you go and do not underestimate it. Be patient, look for braided sections, and don’t attempt an unsafe crossing.

Bring good river crossing shoes. Trail runners are great for this but they are heavy and they stay wet, which is not ideal if they’re doubling as camp shoes. Regular Crocs might do but can be unstable on uneven surfaces or slip off in fast-moving water. I bought a pair of Crocs Swiftwater Wave and found them ideal for both rivers and camp. They fit more snugly than regular Crocs and have better traction (but are slightly heavier). I was able to do water runs and even some light rock-hopping in them, as well.

Bears

Bear cans are required for backcountry trips in Wrangell, and in Iceberg Lake Valley, there are no trees to hang a bag from even if you had to. Bear spray is recommended—keep it handy and be ready to use it. Know how to handle a bear encounter (“run” is 100% the wrong answer).

We did not encounter any bears in person, but we spotted two from the plane. Another group we met observed bears near their camp in Area A. And another group who had done a 16-day point-to-point trip ending in Iceberg had seen seven bears. They’re here.

Communication/navigation

Our group had two Garmin InReaches and a Spot beacon. I wasn’t familiar with InReach. It’s a full-featured GPS as well as a comms device. It allows you to send a preset “check-in” message to your loved ones, as Spot does, but InReach also has customizable texting to any number via satellite—this is some next-level backcountry connectivity (it’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons of that)! This means you can text with Wrangell Mountain Air to send/receive updates. All the pilots and various other folks we encountered around McCarthy had InReaches, but they are expensive and require an additional subscription. If this isn’t a device you’re going to use much in the future, a rented satellite phone will do just fine. (This can be accomplished in Anchorage or via mail before you leave.)

The need for good backcountry map and nav skills goes without saying. But a GPS is also a good addition to map-reading here in Iceberg to assist with the omnipresent route-finding. Drop waypoints at important locations because the terrain looks different from every angle, and it can be difficult to retrace steps.

Fully packed backpack in McCarthy. Bursting at the seams
Heavier than usual

Gear

You gotta get the gear. And I had plenty — I packed for Alaska’s fickle weather but got none of it. I’m not going to get into weights here because I’m a bit embarrassed by how heavy it was (and I didn’t actually weigh it). Hopefully this can help you keep some of that dreaded weight off.

Packing

  • Backpack, daypack, stuff sacks, bear canister

Sleep/shelter

  • Half of a two-person tent + footprint, 23-degree sleeping bag in compression sack, insulated sleeping pad, inflatable pillow

Clothing

  • Torso: 2 synthetic T-shirts, long-sleeve sun shirt with collar, long-sleeve base layer, lightweight fleece hoodie, down puff coat, rain shell
  • Lower: hiking pants, rain pants, heavyweight thermals, 3 undies
  • Feet: 3 pairs socks, boots, camp/river shoes, gaiters, crampons
  • Head: beanie, sun hat, sunglasses
  • Hands: gloves

Electronics

  • GPS, point-and-shoot camera, GoPro with head mount, headlamp, batteries

Water/toiletries

  • Water bladder, Nalgene bottle, toothpaste/brush, soap/sponge, sunscreen, bug spray, first aid kit

Odds & Ends

  • Bowl/mug/spork, spare fuel canister, hiking poles, bear spray, knife, bug net, small book, space blanket, ziplock bags, miscellaneous items

My comrades toted our stoves, pots, and water filters.

Food

We did two dehydrated dinners on our own and two communal dinners. One was pasta, tomato sauce (packet + paste), olive oil, and lots of pepperoni. Another was seasoned couscous, salmon, pine nuts, and sun-dried tomatoes. Both turned out great. Dehydrated meals are all the rage these days (with good reason) due to their light weight, convenience, and easy cleanup. But it’s also nice to cook a real meal, enjoy it together, and go to bed stuffed.

Large pot of spaghetti and pepperoni being dished out to four bowls

I have a big appetite and have never been able to get by with just snacks during the day. So I bring cheese, summer sausage, and these bread flats to make sandwiches for lunch. For breakfast, I’m partial to granola, dried fruit, and dehydrated milk (you can use hot water on a cold morning and cleanup is easier than oatmeal). I don’t bother brewing real coffee; Starbucks VIA suffices.

Plus snacks: bars, jerky, chocolate.

And a little bourbon, of course.

Gear I found to be essential on this trip:

  • Trekking poles (for talus fields and river crossings)
  • Sturdy boots
  • An extra water filter (in case of clogging)
  • A good sun shirt, hat, and glasses; sunscreen and lip balm (temps weren’t that high but the sun was strong and lasted into the night)

Gear that was nice to have:

  • A mosquito net for face/neck. Bugs were moderate. Regular bug spray should be sufficient.
  • Binoculars. With the massive scale of this place, being able to peer into the hanging glaciers and distant mountain ranges with high magnification was a real treat. Also useful for wildlife encounters.
  • An eye mask. We were tired enough and usually up late enough that the sun wasn’t a big problem at bedtime, but it comes roaring into your tent early.

Gear I didn’t need (mostly due to terrific weather):

  • Rain pants
  • Rain shell
  • Heavyweight thermal bottoms (light or mid would do)
  • Barely needed my puff coat
  • Gloves
  • Lightweight gaiters (however, high gaiters and fully waterproof boots could eliminate the need to change shoes for most crossings)
  • Insulated sleeping pad (uninsulated or foam would have sufficed)
  • Headlamp (but bring it anyway)
  • Extra day’s food (but bring it anyway)

Random notes

  • Do not underestimate the difficulty of hiking here. This is some of the most difficult terrain I’ve ever backpacked (not to mention the route-finding — there are no trails). The book says it takes twice as long as usual to go a mile, but it’s probably more like 3x as long. Six miles is a big day here. There are three main types of terrain: glacier, steep dirt slope with small alpine plants, and talus/scree fields. Rocks are everywhere and many are not stable. This valley is full of ankle-breakers. Go slow. Tired and sloppy is no way to navigate this place.
  • Everything is farther than it looks — much farther. Entire canyons and talus fields will open up between you and the thing you thought was right over there. You are tiny and insignificant.
  • Finding a flat tent site can be a real challenge. Established sites are nearly nonexistent, and thanks to the rocks and slopes, there’s rarely a flat spot. We put up with lumpier and more sloped sites than usual. Happy hunting.
  • Check the aurora borealis cycle. We dragged ourselves out of bed at 1:30 one night when the chances of spotting the Northern Lights were good, but we had no luck; you might.
Close-up of blue hanging glacier

Final thoughts

This trip turned out to be exactly what we were looking for. It’s a great intro to Alaska, to glacier travel, and to backcountry fly-ins. The hiking is hard and slow going, and there are dangerous elements. But it’s all manageable if you play it smart and plan ahead.

This place is mind-boggling and eye-popping. It’s cliche to say it, but the pictures truly do not do it justice due to the sheer scale.

Getting there and back is not a short or cheap trip, but it’s worth it. I wish I had more time there. I’ll be back to Alaska (and hopefully Wrangell) someday.

Additional resources

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store