Audio Tour -- listen to or download an interpretive tour of Nabesna Road.
This is an extended guide to the Nabesna Road that includes sites of interest, historical information, and geology.
The Nabesna Road offers an opportunity to explore the northern reaches of the park. The drive is an adventure with views of the Wrangell, Mentasta, and Nutzotin Mountains. Along the way you'll find campsites, scenic vistas, hiking routes, and opportunities for wildlife viewing. But you won't find many people here. So if you like taking a road less traveled, the Nabesna Road may be right for you.
Nabesna Road Basics:
CAUTION! This road was built to access the Nabesna Gold Mine, which operated from 1925 - 1945. Limited, small scale mineral extraction has occurred since then. The Nabesna Mine and its structures are privately owned and situated on private property (located at the end of the road). Please respect this private property. Park visitors should avoid the Nabesna Mine area altogether. The mine tailings extend onto adjacent park lands and these tailings contain high levels of metals and are acidic. Surface waters in the area contain contaminants of potential concern (COPCs) including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, nickel, and lead. Environmental exposure may be hazardous. NPS is investigating potential cleanup actions at the site as part of an ongoing environmental investigation.
Look for the mile-marker posts along the Nabesna Road and follow along with this guide.
The first several miles of the Nabesna Road traverse relatively flat landscape underlain by accumulations of relatively young sediment. Much of this material is stream sediment, but a good deal of it, especially the beds of silt and fine sand, was deposited in huge glacial lakes which formed when glacial ice blocked off the stream valleys. Additionally, you will see many deposits of coarse gravel that were laid down by the glacial ice itself.
You may notice that many of the culverts beneath the road have small diameter pipes extending from both ends. These are installed to solve a problem that occurs in permafrost areas such as this. Each fall and winter, the culverts freeze full of ice. This is not a problem during winter, when there is no running water through the culvert. As temperatures warm each spring, however, melting snow sends water down the drainages where it is impounded behind the solidly frozen culverts. Such waters flood the road and may cause damage by erosion or ice. To avoid this, highway maintenance crews connect truck-mounted steam boilers to the small pipes to melt the ice and open the culverts.
Mount Wrangell is the more distant, rounded and glacial covered dome southeast of Mount Sanford, with its summit of 14,163'. It is the park's only active volcano and occasionally steam plumes can be seen rising from its summit. Mount Wrangell's broad, gentle form is an excellent example of a shield volcano, in fact, it is the largest andesite shield volcano in North America. Stratovolcanoes form from thick, sticky, viscous lava that does not flow readily. Because of its thick nature, development of the volcano is through infrequent, but violent explosive eruptions. The resulting ash, cinders, and lava form steep slopes as they pile up. Shield volcanoes develop from more fluid lava. Because the lava flows more easily, shield volcanoes have more frequent, but less violent eruptions. These eruptions produce only limited amounts of ash and cinders, but large volumes of lava that flows into gentle slopes.
North of Mount Sanford and nearer to the road is the jagged prominence of Capital Mountain, with a summit elevation of 7,731'. The jagged dark colored ridge north and east of Mt. Wrangell is topped by 9,240' Tanada Peak. Capital Mountain and Tanada Peak are both remnants of once large shield volcanoes like Mount Wrangell, but their volcanic activity ceased and their summits have been heavily eroded and sculpted by the force of glaciers. Geologic studies and potassium-argon dating have indicated that the entire Tanada Peak shield volcano was formed between one and two million years ago and eroded to its present shape only during the last million years. On a clear day, Mount Jarvis can be seen over the right shoulder of Tanada Peak. It too is composed of lavas between one and two million years old, and its summit rises to 13,421 feet.
Flowing northward from the great ice fields of Mount Wrangell is the Copper Glacier. Its meltwaters give rise to the Copper River which flows northward off the mountains, and then westward along the end of the Wrangell Range. From there is turns southward and finally reaches Gulf of Alaska near Cordova. It is the only stream that cuts through the coastal barrier of the Chugach Mountains. Along much of its length, the Copper River marks the western boundary of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
Toward the northeast in the Mentasta Range is a conspicuously multi-colored mountain. The lower slopes are made up of dark reddish-brown and greenish-gray rock unit known as the Nikolai Greenstone. On top of these dark rocks rests a light colored (gray and tan) limestone. Both rock units date to the Triassic. Stream and gravity transport of limestone rubble down valleys and gullies has produced the prominent light stripes extending down the mountain slopes.
The ridges north and south of Twin Lakes are composed of gravels deposited along the margins of glaciers. Such glacial rock dumps are called glacial moraines. These moraines were formed during the Wisconsin Glaciation. This was the last great ice age; it reached its maximum advance 18,000 years ago when ice covered much of Alaska, almost all of Canada, and extended well into the northern states.
BEFORE YOU CONTINUE: Road conditions can deteriorate beyond this point. Trail Creek (Mile 29.8), Lost Creek (Mile 31.2), and Boyden Creek (Mile 34.3) may be flowing across the road. Generally, these creek beds are dry, but during spring run off or following prolonged rain, high-clearance and/or four-wheel drive may be necessary. Carefully evaluate all crossings before driving across.
As you continue down the road, the jagged peaks south of the road are dominated by volcanic rocks ejected from the Skookum Creek Volcano. Volcanic Ash and hot gasses formed a fiery cloud which flowed down the flanks of an ancient volcano to produce the tan and light gray, conspicuously bedded rocks. Lava which issued from several nearby volcanic vents flowed downslope and solidified to produce the more massive pinkish-tan rocks. Radioactive dating of these rocks by USGS investigators shows that Skookum Creek Volcano was active between two and four million years ago. Deep canyons and steep slopes show that erosion has been very effective in wearing down the land during the last two million years.
Mile 42.0 - End of the Maintained Road
Parking: Approximately a 1/4 mile beyond the lodge, there is a gravel parking area that is located on public land. Since the road is not maintained beyond this point, continue by foot to the Rambler Mine trailhead.
Last updated: April 20, 2023