What Is North America's Largest National Park?

Jerry Morrison

Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest national park in North America. Located in southeastern Alaska, U.S., the park covers an area of 13.2 million acres (5.3 million hectares) or 20,578 square miles (53,297 km2). It is larger than 21 of the 50 sovereign European states, nearly the size of Croatia. The National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior administers the site.

The Cooper River in Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve contains sockeye salmon.
The Cooper River in Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve contains sockeye salmon.

In 1978, the area was declared a National Monument by executive order of the U.S. president. The addition of the Wrangell Mountains in 1980 created the largest national park in the U.S. system. Bordering Canada's Kluane National Park and Reserve, the two together form the largest International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Heritage Site in North America.

Part of the Pacific Mountain System, the park contains four named ranges. Nine of the 16 highest peaks in the U.S. are found there. Among them is the second highest peak in the U.S., Mount Saint Elias, rising to 18,008 ft (5,489 m). The Saint Elias range is the world's highest coastal mountain range. The Wrangell Mountains contain 12 volcanoes, one being still active.

The high country of Wrangell St. Elias contains the greatest number of glaciers in North America. Almost a quarter of the largest national park is covered by glacial ice. The Bagley Icefield is the largest sub-polar icefield in North America, being 127 miles (204 km) long and approximately 3,000 feet (914 m) deep. With a length of 75 miles (121 km), the Nabesna glacier is one of the world's longest valley glaciers.

Widely varying terrain makes for a diverse and contrasting ecology in America's largest national park. Three climatic zones are covered with over half of all Alaskan plant species present. The boreal forest is a mix of spruce and aspen groves, meadows and marshes. Despite being the coldest terrestrial ecosystem on the planet, it is home to a diverse population of animals, with 49 species of mammals and 239 bird species identified in the area as of 2011.

The 290 mile (467 km) long Copper River is a prominent feature of the park. Sockeye and Chinook salmon spawn there. The river also is home to 19 other fish species. Due to glacial action, the Copper River carries the fourth largest amount of silt among the world's rivers.

Early June through mid-September is the most opportune time to visit North America's largest national park. Two state-maintained roads, the Nabesna Road and the McCarthy Road, provide access. Transport is usually by private vehicle, private bus shuttle service or commercial air charter. Lodging is available in nearby communities, but none is provided by the National Park Service. Camping is allowed in the park, though there are no facilities provided.

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