Wrangell, Alaska—located on an island of the same name—is a sleepy little town of about 2,500 people. Visitors appreciate the chance to get a taste of authentic small-town Alaska life, and Wrangell’s nearby attractions—including the LeConte Glacier and Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory—are some of the best in the state.
Summer temperatures in Wrangell typically peak in the 60s through June, July, and August, with about 80 inches of average annual rainfall—a little less than other Southeast communities. Fall is wet and windy, and winter temperatures are mild, dipping below freezing often enough to generate some lingering snow. If you’re not on a small cruise ship, the only ways to reach Wrangell are by Alaska state ferry or Alaska Airlines jet.
James & Elsie Nolan Center
You’ll find the Wrangell visitor center and museum in the James & Elsie Nolan Center (296 Campbell Dr., 907/874-3770, May-mid-Sept., Mon.-Sat. 10am-5pm, reduced winter hours, museum $7, discounts for children and seniors). As is usually the case, Alaska’s smallest museums are often its best, so be sure to make time for a look into Wrangell’s colorful past.
Chief Shakes Tribal House
From the Nolan Center, take Brueger Street south to Shakes Street, then cross a short bridge to the Chief Shakes Tribal House, an exact replica of a 1700s-era traditional high-caste Tlingit communal housing and community space. You’ll see a few totem poles here, and more in the Totem Park at the intersection of Front and Episcopal Streets. The house is usually closed but may be opened on request for a small admission fee. Direct inquiries to the Wrangell Cooperative Association (907/874-4304).
Petroglyph Beach State Historic Site
You can get another look into the past on Wrangell’s beach at Petroglyph Beach State Historic Site about 0.5 mile north of town via Evergreen Avenue. (There’s no sidewalk, but it’s an easy walk and drivers are considerate.) Go during a reasonably low tide and you can scout for the ancient rock art that remains scattered on the beach; there are dozens of petroglyphs. Please treat them as if you’re in a museum and don’t take rubbings of the originals; there are replicas up on a viewing boardwalk that you can use for rubbings.
Many attractions near Wrangell are best visited by jet-boat tour. The most popular tour company for trips up the Stikine River, viewing LeConte Glacier, and visiting the Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory is Alaska Waters (107 Stikeen Ave., 800/347-4462 or 907/874-2378). Alaska Vistas (866/874-3006 or 907/874-3006) offers all three trips as well, plus guided kayak tours and gear rentals and trip support for anyone who wants to do an unguided trip in the area.
The Stikine River (“Great River” in Tlingit) originates in British Columbia, Canada, traversing 400 miles before reaching the sea near Wrangell. This massive river has carved a braided passage through wild, beautiful valleys; one of the best ways to see it is a jet-boat tour that’ll take you past glaciers, lakes, hot springs, and often bountiful wildlife. In spring, watch for migrating trumpeter swans and shorebirds on the river flats.
The LeConte Glacier—a popular attraction out of Petersburg—is still within easy reach of jet-boat tours out of Wrangell. In return for a thrilling boat ride through the Wrangell Narrows, you can get up close and personal with the enormous face of one of the most active glaciers in Alaska. Every so often, it sheds so much ice that the bay becomes completely impassable; seals use the floating ice as safe places to birth and raise their pups.
Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory
One of Wrangell’s chief attractions is the U.S. Forest Service’s Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory, located 30 miles southeast of Wrangell and accessible only by boat or floatplane. The observatory consists of a viewing platform and a photo blind with a couple of Forest Service rangers on the premises; inquiries are best directed to the Wrangell Ranger District of the Tongass National Forest (907/874-2323). Anan Creek is unusual because it offers a great chance to see black bears fishing. Brown bears come here too, lured by one of the largest pink salmon runs in the state. Often, what looks like algae in the water is actually the fish, packed so densely side by side that they completely obscure the creek bottom.
The chance to see black and brown bears together is highly unusual, as is the chance to see bears walking by right on the other side of the viewing deck railing; a photo blind gets you right down to the water level, where the bears are fishing. Access during peak viewing season (July and August) is by permit only ($10), and only 60 permits are issued per day, with 36 going to commercial tour operators and 24 to private individuals. You can reserve the nearby public-use cabin Anan Bay Cabin (accessible by water only, 877/444-6777).
If you come to Anan Creek on your own, you must be prepared for close-distance, unexpected bear encounters, both on the 0.5 mile boardwalk leading to the observatory and at the observatory itself. The bears grudgingly tolerate the human presence for the same reason they tolerate each other: All those fish are worth it. But they are still wild, and if you’re not thoroughly comfortable handling face-to-face encounters with massive, unpredictable wildlife on your own, you should come with a guide service. One of the closest—and thus most convenient—is the excellent Alaska Waters (107 Stikine Ave., 800/347-4462, from $315 pp), based in Wrangell.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Alaska.