Nabesna Road

Nabesna Road in the Fall. Photo by Wrangell Mountain Wilderness Lodge

Nabesna Road in the Fall. Photo by Wrangell Mountain Wilderness Lodge

Drive down the 42-mile Nabesna Road for tremendous views to rival any road system in Alaska. The Wrangell, Mentasta and Nutzotin Mountains create a majestic panorama, characterized by some of the highest mountains in North America. Nabesna Road is one of two that allows access to Alaska’s largest national park, the Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve. Nabesna Road is located on the north side of the park. McCarthy Road provides access on the south side of the park and offers more services at the end of the road, including accommodations, dining, guide services, air taxis, and explorable Kennecott copper mine ruins. As a result it is much busier.

Nabesna Road wasn’t built to access the park. In fact, it was constructed in 1933, nearly 50 years before Wrangell-St. Elias was established. The purpose: to get supplies in to Nabesna gold mine, and ore out to the Port of Valdez. The mine operated from 1931-1939 and again for a short time during World War II. Before the road was built, high grade ore concentrates had to travel by packhorse, airplane, truck, train and steamship, finally arriving at the Tacoma, Washington smelter.

A drive down Nabesna Road reveals few landmarks from that time. There are some homesteads that were established in the 1980s, and some old mine buildings remain at Nabesna mine and nearby Rambler mine. Visitors can hike to Rambler mine for an excellent view of the area. Nabesna mine itself is on private property and the area also contains old tailings with high levels of metals and acid. (The National Park Service cautions visitors to avoid it completely.)

For travelers along the Nabesna Road, it’s really about the journey, not the destination. That’s because there’s no infrastructure built up at the end of the road like you find in McCarthy. Nabesna mine, at the end of the road, is not set up as a tourist attraction. However, there are plenty of hiking and camping opportunities for the prepared traveler.

Understanding an indigenous perspective

Learning about the history and traditions of the Ahtna and Tanana peoples of this area can give travelers a deeper understanding and respect for the Nabesna Valley. Wilson Justin grew up here, trapping game and fishing for grayling and salmon. Like all Athabascan youth, indigeneous values and knowledge became ingrained through storytelling traditions. Elders taught the next generations how to live with the rhythms of the landscape and to use those resources provided by the land.

The country may look wild and remote to a casual visitor, but it was never “untouched,” said Justin. “It was always held close to someone’s heart, long before there was ever any intrusion by anybody else.” As you look out onto the mountains, rivers and Nabesa Valley, know that it is a place historically connected to global trade routes, where items from Mexico, Siberia and China would regularly make their way through.

As traders, the Athabascans also knew where gold was located throughout the area. In 1913, Justin’s uncle, “Chisana Joe,” guided prospectors to a gold strike on the Bonanza River that precipitated the last great Alaska gold rush. Prospectors then came looking in the Nabesna Valley. Justin’s father, “Nabesna John,” knew where there was a rich vein high up on White Mountain. As an Alaska Native, however, he could not own property or mining claims. With discovery of the gold inevitable, he made the decision to show the location to prospector Carl Whitham in return for a pledge to treat the family well and employ local people at the mine. There was no written contract, but Whitham was good on his word, recounted Justin.

When Nabesna Road was built to access the mine site, it was neglectful of the locations of existing grave sites and Native camp sites, said Justin. When you travel the road, “keep in mind that there are many places where you are stepping on someone’s name, memory or ancestor’s ghost.”

The Ahtna people maintained a network of trails, kept hidden from Westerners, Justin explained. “Trails were never just trails. They were heirlooms with great intrinsic value.” Trails were owned by specific individuals, and even bequeathed as wedding gifts or otherwise passed down through generations. The more trails a clan had, the more value the clan name had. Traveling on someone else’s trail without permission and consent was akin to entering someone else’s house and fixing a meal for yourself in their kitchen

More About Nabesna Road

It’s remote. Nabesna is definitely “the road less traveled.” You’ll see even fewer people and far less infrastructure than on the McCarthy Road, the park’s other access point.

It requires preparation. Expect bumpy roads, fast-flowing creeks, a multitude of mosquitoes and no services to speak of. Cell phone coverage is limited. The road is paved for about the first 15 miles, then it’s gravel. After Mile 29, there are three stream crossings. 4 wheel-drive and high clearance is recommended, as creeks can swell after rains and you could be stranded on the other side. The speed limit is 35 mph, slow enough to fully enjoy the wilderness around you. You’ll want a spare tire, plenty of bug spray/head nets, a full tank of gas, food/water and firewood if staying overnight. Cycling the road is doable, especially by mountain bike. Prepare to wade through the stream crossings, though. It also pays to inquire about road conditions and off-road vehicle permissions at the Slana Ranger Station. Tip: There’s no gas in Slana, the north end of Nabesna Road, and no gas along the road. Gas up in Chistichina (28 miles south) or Mentasta (18 miles north) before-hand.

Not all rental vehicles are allowed on this road, so check with your rental agency before you travel. Or, rent from a company that allows their vehicle on gravel roads, like Alaska 4x4 Rentals, Alaska Overlander, or Alaska Auto Rental.

It’s historic.

  • The Athabascan people have lived in this area since prehistoric times, traditionally moving between river fish camps and hunting camps for moose, caribou and Dall sheep. Two distinct groups lived here: the Tatl’ahwt’aenn (“Headwaters People”), who speak Upper Ahtna Athabascan, and the Ddhał Tot’iin (“Among the Mountains People”), who speak Upper Tanana Athabascan.
  • The discovery of gold in the 1920s drove construction of Nabesna mine, Rambler mine and Nabesna Road.
  • In the 1980s, “Slana Settlement” was the last homesteading opportunity available in the United States.
  • Also in the 1980s, legendary subsistence rights activist Katie John fought for the right to use her family’s traditional fish camp at Batzulnetas (at the confluence of the Copper River and Tanada Creek). She finally won her case in 2001. Katie John first learned English at the age of 14 when she worked at Nabesna mine. She raised her 20 children in the subsistence way of life at locations all along Nabesna Road.

For more information about the people who have lived in the northern section of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, you can read “Along the Ałts’e’tnaey Nal’cine Trail,” produced by the Mount Sanford Tribal Consortium.

Nabesna Road PDF

Free Guide to the Nabesna Road

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Driving Guide Points

Stop here for more infor­ma­tion about the park and local area, exhibits, and ranger-led activ­i­ties, as well as an Alas­ka Geo­graph­ic book­store. Always check on cur­rent Nabesna Road and trail con­di­tions before begin­ning your jour­ney. Recre­ation­al off-road vehi­cles (ORVs) are typ­i­cal­ly allowed on estab­lished trails. How­ev­er, trails can be tem­porar­i­ly closed to ORVs due to main­te­nance and improve­ments. ORV per­mits are required and avail­able at…  ...more

The Slana Road­house is vis­i­ble on the south side of the road. This struc­ture was built in the 1930’s, but there has been a road­house here since 1912. This road­house is one of the few that remain of those that served trav­el­ers on the trail from Gakona to Chisana, the site of Alaska’s final gold rush. It is now list­ed on the Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places.

A short dis­tance of 5 to 6 miles down the Slana takes you to the upper Cop­per River

4‑Mile” Road leads into the Slana Set­tle­ment, cre­at­ed in 1983 when the BLM opened over 10,000 acres north of the road to home­steading. It was one of the last oppor­tu­ni­ties for home­steading fed­er­al land. Eight hun­dred claims were filed, but most were soon aban­doned. Alaskan win­ters took their toll. Many tried to live in hasti­ly-built cab­ins and tents, with tem­per­a­tures down to ‑60 degrees F. Jobs were scarce and the cli­mate was not suit­ed to…  ...more

The north side of the road is Nation­al Pre­serve” where­as the south side is Nation­al Park.” Sport hunt­ing is allowed in the Nation­al Pre­serve but not in the Nation­al Park. How­ev­er, sub­sis­tence hunt­ing is allowed in both the Nation­al Park and Preserve.

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 12 miles

This is a trail with access to Cop­per Lake. Cop­per Lake has oppor­tu­ni­ties for Lake Trout, Grayling, and Bur­bot fish­ing. The first 2.5 miles are suit­able for hik­ing, then the trail crosss­es Tana­da Creek, which can be high and fast, and trail con­di­tions deteriorate. 

Over the next few miles, enjoy the splen­did views of high snow-clad vol­ca­noes of the Wrangell Moun­tains. Mt. San­ford (16,237′) is the tallest moun­tain that can be seen from the Nabesna Road. To the left of San­ford is the round­ed, icy dome of Mt. Wrangell (14,163′). It is the park’s only active vol­cano and occa­sion­al­ly steam can be seen ris­ing from the sum­mit. Wrangel­l’s broad slop­ing pro­file is an excel­lent exam­ple of a shield vol­cano. The…  ...more

This is a great site to take a break for some wildlife view­ing or bird watch­ing. There are views of wet­lands, a small lake, and bore­al for­est. Moose are often seen here and cari­bou migrate through this area in the spring and fall. Dur­ing spring and sum­mer, look for nest­ing ducks and trum­peter swans. Vault toilets.

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 3 miles Elevation Gain: 800 feet

The trail pro­ceeds in a north­east direc­tion towards the hills. The trail is an ATV route, and as such there are some mud­dy areas where you may be required to walk off the trail. The begin­ning of the trail goes through the val­ley bot­tom with low tun­dra veg­e­ta­tion. Views are great. As the trail con­tin­ues, the for­est sur­rounds the trail with spruce, alder, wil­low and wildflowers. 

Quaint cab­in ren­o­vat­ed in 2000, locat­ed about 14 mile north of the Nabesna Road.

This small cab­in sleeps two and pro­vides a base camp from which to explore game trails and ridge­lines with excel­lent views of Mount Wrangell, Mount San­ford and Tana­da peaks. It’s locat­ed at the end of 3‑mile Cari­bou Creek Trail, which is some­times acces­si­ble by recre­ation­al ATV (check with Nation­al Park Ser­vice first), as well as snow machines when there’s at least 6 inch­es of snow on the ground.

Mile 21.8 Nabesna Road. This rest area has a pic­nic table and vault toi­let, and looks out over a lake with a view of the Wrangell Mountains.

You have reached the high­est point on the Nabesna Road, and crossed a major water­shed divide. All waters flow­ing west and south from the divide are car­ried byt the Cop­per Riv­er to the Guld of Alas­ka. All waters flow­ing to the east ener the Nabesna Riv­er, the Tanana, the Yukon, and ulti­mate­ly the Bering Sea.

MP 27.8, Nabesna Rd. This is now called the Kendesnii Camp­ground. This is now a devel­oped camp­ground with 10 sites, with pic­nic tables, fire rings, trails, and restrooms. Kendesnii Camp­ground is a great place to fish and view wildlife. A hie of about a half mile to the south and over the ridge will take you to Jack Lake and more beau­ti­ful views of the Wrangell Mountains.

Season: Year Round Summer $225+ | Winter $199+

Com­fort­able year-round lodg­ing, fire­wood, airstrip, fish­ing licens­es, tav­ern, snacks, liquor store, show­ers, secure park­ing, local area infor­ma­tion, tire repair sup­plies, and emer­gency tele­phone ser­vice on the Nabesna Road inside Wrangell St. Elias Nation­al Park and Preserve

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 22 miles Elevation Gain: 2860 feet

This spec­tac­u­lar back­coun­try route con­nects the Lost and Trail Creek drainages via a 6000’ pass. Explore these trails as day hikes from Nabesna Road or as one big loop in either direc­tion over 3 to 4 days. Trail Creek and Lost Creek were used by gen­er­a­tions of Aht­na peo­ple, who hunt­ed moose and trapped gophers and por­cu­pine. In the 1930s a few cab­ins were built at Lost Creek and the Aht­na res­i­dents made a liv­ing hunt­ing, fish­ing and selling…  ...more

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 25 miles

High­lights: Wildlife, open tun­dra, spec­tac­u­lar scenery. Soda Lake was cre­at­ed by a large land­slide, most like­ly in response to an earth­quake and past move­ment along the Tot­shun­da Fault. The fas­ci­nat­ing ter­rain near the out­let of Soda Lake result­ed from the land­slide, cre­at­ing a topog­ra­phy which con­trasts from its sur­round­ings. The lake now seeps through this land­slide rubble.Hazards: Creeks, espe­cial­ly Soda Creek, may be high on hot sunny…  ...more

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 5 miles

From the trail­head, the trail leads up an allu­vial fan, through white spruce for­est and alder for approx­i­mate­ly 0.8 mile. The trail sur­face is gravel/​cobble and dry.

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 1 mile Elevation Gain: 400 feet

Access: Trail­head is locat­ed at the end of the main­tained por­tion of the Nabesna Road, Mile 42. As you near the end of the main­tained por­tion of the Nabesna Road, you will reach pri­vate prop­er­ty owned by the Ellis fam­i­ly, who oper­ate Devil’s Moun­tain Lodge, estab­lished here in the 1950s. Please respect their pri­va­cy and take care not to park on their prop­er­ty or pri­vate air strip. Con­tin­ue dri­ving on the road through the Ellis property.…  ...more

The dis­cov­ery of gold at Jacksi­na Creek in 1899 was an excit­ing find for prospec­tor K.J. Fjeld, but it proved too remote to devel­op suc­cess­ful­ly. Oth­er prospec­tors were per­sis­tent though, and in 1925 Carl Whitham found a rich lode on White Moun­tain. That find, and his sub­se­quent devel­op­ment of the mine, led to the con­struc­tion of Nabesna Road. At its height, between 40 and 70 men were employed at the mine. It also pro­vid­ed trading…  ...more

Access the Nabesna Riv­er at Cab­in Creek/​Jack Lake for a 55-mile float through the Tetlin Wildlife Refuge down to North­way. For cen­turies this land was beneath the ancient, glacial Lake Aht­na that formed by the huge ice sheets of the last ice age block­ing the Matanus­ka to the west and the Cop­per Riv­er to the south. At Mile 41 of Nabesna Road take a rough road to the left, down Jack Creek, ford­ing it sev­er­al times. It’s 5 miles to Cab­in Creek.…  ...more