John Muir once said, “To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.” And Wrangell, shrouded in the mists of the nation’s largest national forest, is no exception. Located in the Alaskan Panhandle, Wrangell blends the rich coastal waters and untamable wilds with colorful Native culture, fascinating Gold Rush history, and Russian and Norwegian influences. For the lover of not only wilderness but of culture and connecting, Wrangell has it all.
And with ferries, charter planes, and daily jet services from Seattle, exploring the Alaskan wilderness is almost effortless. I’ll countdown six reasons why Wrangell should be your home base when conquering the coastal rainforests of Southeast Alaska:
6. The Flavors
Wrangell thankfully lacks fast food or restaurant chains. That means that every restaurant, cafe, and diner is owned and operated by a Wrangell resident. Which leads to dishes boasting authentic local flavors. And it also means every dollar spent goes back into the economy of the small island town. But the community’s size doesn’t restrict its flavors!
Like local favorite fish and chips. Zak’s Cafe cooks up locally caught halibut fried perfectly, sprinkled with malt vinegar, and served with thin crispy fries. And another local favorite, the Hungry Beaver’s Pizza. Located in the Marine Bar, you can have a drink with the locals and build your own artisan pizza from their extensive selection of toppings such as anchovies and hot peppers.Or J&W’s savory hamburgers. They offer 12 different hand-pressed and cooked-to-order burgers, along with fresh seafood, chicken baskets, salads, and shakes.
But for comprehensive selections, heaping portions, and international flavors, The Stikine Inn Restaurant can’t be beaten. Their chef churns out mounding plates of international fare such as The Stik Hot Wok, with charbroiled free-range chicken breast served on a bed of caramelized noodles and a scoop of steamed jasmine rice.
And the Elk Meatloaf Manhattan. Now, I’m not usually a fan of meatloaf, but I was licking the plate after we shared a 10-ounce slab of brown buttered elk meatloaf stacked on Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and drowned in wild mushroom jus gravy.
Rooted in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, Wrangell offers some pretty spectacular hiking trails. Some range from less than a mile long with a well-maintained path to several miles long with hundreds of feet of elevation. While many of the trails surrounding Wrangell require boats to reach them, there are quite a few just minutes from downtown. One such trail even begins in the middle of town.
Signs for the Mt. Dewey Trail point the way leading from McKinnon Street up a set of stairs to Reid Street. The asphalt ends, and the darkened trail begins to climb. It doesn’t take long before the sounds of the children playing below fade. The woods smell of damp earth and the lush greens of the forest engulf us as we ascend 300 feet up the mountain. After following the undulating trail for about a quarter of a mile, it abruptly ends. From the platform, we gaze out over Wrangell and the Zimovia Strait. As we stand, catching our breath, we watch as the ferry slowly pulls into port.
A little more than 4 miles from town we find the trail head for Rainbow Falls. The sign marking the trail sits off the road and can be difficult to see. This trail proved slightly more challenging than Mt. Dewey but the extra 200 feet we climbed paid off. A shaded deck opened onto a sweeping view of Rainbow Falls. A slight wind brought the sound of the falling water with the sharp, clean scent of the pines.
“Looks like we just missed a large calving!” crackled our pilot’s voice over the headpieces. Sunrise Aviation pilot, Michael Lane, banked the small single-piston engine prop plane for a better view of the large chunk of ice sending out swirls in the 800 foot deep LeConte Bay.
From LeConte Glacier, we continued between the peaks and over the Stikine Icefield. The frozen river of ice, pocked with brilliant blue pools, wound between the ice-capped mountains.
For a closer view of the glaciers, we took to the water. And few know the waters better than Fisheries Biologists and Alaska Vistas owners, John Verhey and Sylvia Ettefagh. With Sylvia’s knowledge, attention to detail, and uncanny ability to orchestrate, we crafted the trip of a lifetime. Along with their team of like-minded and uniquely qualified guided, we came face to face with the dynamic landscapes of Southwest Alaska. From the back deck of Alaska Vistas 30-foot jet boats, we encountered the towering brilliant blue spires of Shakes Glacier, territorial sea lions, and majestic orcas.
One out of every ten Southeast Alaska jobs depends on salmon. The bounty of Alaska’s waters remain essential to Wrangell’s way of life, and most locals fish both commercially and recreationally. So for solid fishing advice, ask a local. Better yet, let them guide you.
For our angling experience, we sought out John Yeager, Alaska Charter and Adventure owner and guide. The mists struggled to lift as we pulled away from the docks and into the glassy waters of the Zimovia Strait. We didn’t travel far before we anchored and threw our lines overboard. Bobbing hooks ladened with chunked fish on the sandy bottom, we hoped to catch the attention of a halibut or two.
While sipping on coffee, we asked John about his favorite fish. “My favorite to fish for is King Salmon, but I really like halibut as well, especially in shallower water,” he said. “They fight differently. Instead of fishing in 200 feet, where they can just dive and pull, they are forced to swim out, fight harder. They can do some pretty cool stuff.”
And they did. Several times we felt the bump-and-tug of a halibut on the ends of our lines. The line sang as the fish ran with the bait and the rods bent nearly in half. After minutes of reeling the fish in, it would run and drag out more line. By the time I managed to get the fish to the surface, my arms trembled with fatigue. We took turns throughout the morning reeling them in. The day’s catch totaled five with the largest weighing in at about 90 pounds.
2. The Bears
“It’s the only place in Alaska where the eagles fly under you,” shouted Denny Strom over the steady hum of the 30-foot jet boat engines. Skimming across the misty waters of the Eastern Passage, the retired US Wildlife and Fisheries Director – now Alaska Vistas Guide – mused aloud.
A dozen of us stepped off the boat into a light rain. Denny led us down the rain-drenched boardwalk path into the forest. Ancient lichen-covered fir, spruce, and hemlock trees towered over the trail. We stuck close together, watching the trail in front of us so as not the slip, as Denny occasionally let out a “Hey Bear!”
The roar of the falls grew louder, signaling we had reached our destination. Perched upon the precipice of the falls, the world-class Anan Wildlife Observatory commanded a view of the boulder-strewn creek and emerald-colored mountain slope. Hovering just feet above the water sits a covered blind where visitors watch one of natures greatest spectacles unfold before their eyes. Like ghosts, both black and brown bears moved among the trees. Silently, they climbed along fallen trees and giant boulders to the creek below to feast on bounty below.
The usually clear creek churned black as a quarter of a million pink salmon converge on the stream for Southeast Alaska’s largest salmon run. With reckless abandon, the salmon surge upstream, darting between swiping bear claws and leaping cascades in hopes of spawning. A young brown bear dives beneath the churning surface, snapping as the salmon skirt by him. Finally, he comes up victorious.
But bears aren’t the only wildlife found at the observatory. Downstream, harbor seals scour the flats at low tide, searching out injured and stranded salmon. From the trees, imposing bald eagles and massive ravens pick along the rocks for leftovers. We stood for hours in shear awe of the wilds around us.
No matter how beautiful a place may be, to me, the people make it or break it. Luckily, Wrangell honestly earns the “Friendliest Little Town in SE Alaska” title. For instance, on our first night in Wrangell, we decided on a Hungry Beaver pizza over at the Marine Bar. From our table, I could see a green tool shed-like building outside with smoking coming out. I ask our waitress and she explained the owner was smoking salmon. When I later saw him checking the smoker, I went outside, introduced myself, and asked him if I could watch. Introducing himself as Bruce, he graciously answered my questions, allowed me to take some shots, and even let me try a bite! I thanked him for his time and went back inside to finish my pizza. Before we left, he came to our table and handed me a vacuum sealed pack of smoked salmon for the road. That generous gesture floored me. It’s moments like this that make me fall in love with a place.
But Mr. Bruce isn’t alone. Mrs. Becky Rooney, owner and operator of Rooney’s Roost Bed and Breakfast, greeted us with a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies as we entered. Rooster accents complimented the warm stained wood floors and buttercream walls creating an inviting farmhouse cheerfulness. After discussing what Wrangell had to offer, Mrs. Becky started making phone calls to help us with our itinerary. The following morning, the long breakfast table was overflowing with hot coffee, chilled juice, crispy hash browns, cheesy breakfast soufflé, and fresh fruit.
And much like Wrangell itself, Ms. Chris Hatton burst with personality. We followed Ms. Chris down the ramp leading to the docks of Reliance Harbor where we would spend our last nights in Wrangell. The owner of Dockside Float House eagerly expounded on the nuances of Wrangell and how she found herself at home there. We stepped onto the minuscule porch of the floating vacation rental and waved to a passing fisherman in the harbor. Chris bubbled with enthusiasm as she demonstrated the quirks of the tiny floating house she had lovingly designed. Her evident passion for her little town and willingness to ensure we enjoyed our stay solidified Wrangell’s friendly vibe.
We also had the immense pleasure of meeting Mrs. Christie Jamison at the Squawking Raven Bed and Breakfast. After a whirlwind day spent on the water, we settled in at the beautiful A-frame lodging known as the Squawking Raven. A rejuvenating shower in the slate and granite bathroom – complete with hot towels straight off the warmer – ranked second to the evening glow coming through the picture windows.
While Christie prepared us a breakfast of hot sausages, eggs, and toast, she spoke proudly of her Tlingit lineage and tribal heritage. As she explained the Tlingit artwork and photographs adorning her home, we learned she is one of the last Chief Shakes’s grandchildren.
Speaking of Tlingit culture, the beauty of the Tlingit Natives permeate every facet of Wrangell. Shops display elaborate carvings, vibrant paintings, and exquisitely wrought jewelry expressing Tlingit folklore. Masterfully carved totems punctuate the landscape at every turn.
While most of the totems are replicas traditionally carved in the conventional Tlingit fashion, originals are displayed and undergoing restoration at the Cultural House and Carving Facility. They tell of historic floods and monumental hunts. Of legendary chiefs and mystical heroes. To hear more of these stories, we visited Chief Shakes Tribal House, told by Tlingit clan members themselves.
A massive bear carving adorned the front the Tribal House where a small oval door opened into a dimly lit chamber. An intricately carved cedar panel painted blue, yellow, and black presided over a sunken hearth, orca carvings, and a stage. Dressed in tunics of red and black, the storytellers explain the symbols of the clans. With Drums and rattles made of deer hooves, the narrators brought their lore to life.
While these are just six examples of the why Wrangell makes a great Alaskan getaway, there are millions more to be discovered. Of all the reasons, which is your favorite?