Hiking Alaska's Wrangell St. Elias

National Park and Preserve

by Greg Fensterman

A companion site to the book published by Falcon Guides®

Alaska Hiking Bushwhacking: Wrangell St. Elias National Park

Most hiking in Alaska is done above the tree line. This makes route finding easier than it would be in a forest as your sight lines are much longer. But though there are few trees there is certainly no lack of vegetation, at least at the lower elevations. If words like willow, alder and devil’s club don’t fill your heart with fear and loathing then you probably haven't done a lot of hiking in Alaska. Thick brush is like a political discussion with your in-laws – something to be avoided at all costs and escaped from as quickly as possible. Wandering into either one is generally a sign of poor judgement or a reckless nature.

The worst of the brush is found at elevations of 3000’ and below but can extend much higher depending on local conditions. Green shaded areas on a topographical map indicate vegetation - or at least that's the idea. It actually indicates that some sort of vegetation was visible in the aerial photographs used to create the map. But it doesn't tell you what sort of vegetation or how thick it is. A large green area might turn out to be just patchy brush that is easily crossed. Likewise a valley that shows no green at all on the map can in fact be an alder-filled bushwhack from hell.

On most Alaskan hiking adventures, you should assume that all low valleys are going to have at least some brush, but the volume and density can only be determined on the ground or from the air, but not from a map.

What looks like rather low, sparse vegetation at the bottom of a valley may turn out to be much thicker and higher when you get down into it. With experience you can learn to evaluate the height and density of brush and other ground cover from a distance based on color and texture.

Stay high on a slope as you move up and down valleys rather than descend to the valley floor. The ground may look flatter and easier to cross down low but the time and effort required to struggle through or avoid brush will quickly compensate for the flatness of the terrain.

Another potential brush zone on Alaska hiking treks is stream gullies. A side-hill traverse along the slope of a ridge might involve crossing several streams. Gullies on an otherwise rocky slope can be infested with thick brush. Plan to cross such streams higher up where there will not only be less brush, but the gully is likely to be shallower and less steep. Pay attention to the contour lines at such stream gullies. Closely spaced, sharply formed “V” patterns indicate a steep, deep ravine. Plan your hiking route accordingly or you might find the brush in the ravine is the least of your worries.

Sometimes, despite the best of planning and intentions, a certain amount of bushwhacking is unavoidable. The finer points of travelling through dense brush in Alaska, especially alder, are skills that are best learned in the field. I could delve into a discussion of such tried and true techniques as the hurdle step, the bear crawl, branch walking and the alder rappel but that would deprive you of the joy of discovering such methods for yourself.

You want to keep the use of brute force to a minimum in order to conserve energy, but sometimes you just have to bulldog your way through the stuff. If you are starting up high and descending into a valley, spy out the best route through the brushy areas before heading down. Take a compass bearing to guide you through, as you might not be able to see much of the way ahead once you get into the thick of things. Careful route planning can greatly reduce the amount of brush you have to cross. Nothing is more aggravating than emerging from a truly heinous thicket only to look back and discover that most of it could have been avoided.

Before hiking into what is likely to be an arduous bushwhack, be sure to fill up your water bottle. Muscling your way through brush, especially on a hot day, can be very tiring and lead to dehydration or heat exhaustion if you have to bash your way through for a few hours. Extended bouts can be as much of a mental battle as a physical one so try not to give into frustration and start flailing away.

No one really enjoys alaska hiking through thick brush but once you have pushed your way through a few especially dense thickets you will come to the realization that you can pretty much make your way through anything. It might not be easy or fun, but it is possible. The willingness to take on a little gnarly brush opens up a lot of route possibilities for Alaska hiking trips that would otherwise be closed. The terrain in Wrangell-St. Elias is very rugged and you can’t go far in any direction before coming up against an obstacle like a glacier, stream or brush. Develop the skills and confidence to meet those challenges and a vast world of route possibilities for Alaska hiking routes will open up for you.

Wrangell National Park

Wrangell St. Elias Park