With a population of a little over 2,000 Wrangell may be a tiny town but it has a huge history and is one of the state’s oldest communities. As somewhere that has seen native Tlingit, Russian, British and US chapters in its history it is the only Alaskan city that can say it has known governance under four separate nations.
There are many fascinating elements in its story, some of which are now nothing more than pages in a history book such as its Russian and British forts, its fur trade, the many old buildings which perished in a 1950s fire or the fact that Wyatt Earp once acted as the town’s marshal for a few days. Other pieces of the story have left behind evidence which can still be explored today such as the many thousands of years old petroglyphs at a beach, weathered totem poles standing sentinel in the open-air, the large logging concerns and gold-mining relics.
Wrangell is located on the tip of an island of the same name, sitting amid many other islands both larger and smaller. It is a true wilderness destination where boats outnumber cars and where the mighty Stikine River with its gold-mining past, mountains, glaciers, fjords, lakes and all the fantastic wildlife which lives in these environments are never far away. Whether you simply enjoy stunning scenery or are a passionate wildlife enthusiast Wrangell is a great destination.
From exploring a reconstructed Tlingit tribal house to watching bears fishing in a salmon stream or even playing a round of golf, Wrangell has a diverse choice of things to see and do. It also offers a very authentic glimpse into a small Alaskan island community where a warm welcome tends to come as standard. The following will help you plan your day to take in a bit of everything.
A Morning in Wrangell
Your Wrangell adventure will begin with a natural treasure hunt on the beach to enjoy ancient rock carvings and drawings. Afterwards you can head out to a tiny island to view totem poles and Tlingit cultural heritage before exploring the many exhibits in the town’s museum.
The Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park
To give yourself an immediate sense of how ancient the native culture is in this area head to Petroglyph Beach, a walk of just a few minutes from the center of town. While the archaic art forms known as petroglyphs are found throughout Southeast Alaska and therefore not unique to Wrangell, nowhere else are they found in the high concentration they are here.
The 40 or so rock carvings on this Wrangell beach are believed to have been made by the earliest Tlingit people and although such things are especially hard to date experts believe they are at least 8,000 years old. Like so many ancient human-made treasures, no-one really knows what purpose they served; some suggest that the mysterious petroglyphs were created to mark some special occasion such as a war victory, intended to mark territories, had some ritualistic or spiritual significance or were just simply a primitive people’s way of producing art for art’s sake.
All of the drawings which include those of fish, whales and human figures are visible at low tide (some are above the mean high tide mark) making for an outdoor art gallery visit which is also something of a treasure hunt. Some of the artwork adorning the beach’s rocks and boulders is very obvious while some of it takes a little more painstaking searching with the light quality also affecting viewings.
The carvings are approached along a wooden walkway where some petroglyph replicas are displayed for anyone who wants to take rubbings.
Morning Coffee Break in Wrangell
Wrangell is really quite small so options for where to head for a morning refreshment pause are limited. That doesn’t mean the coffee connoisseur has to go without though. Head to the Stikine Inn’s Stik Cafe, widely thought to be the best coffee in town, where you will find trained baristas preparing your drinks from the top-notch beans of the Heritage Coffee Roasting Co. from Juneau in Alaska. Relax in big comfy armchairs at this waterfront spot known for its especially friendly service and which also sells cookies and pastries for a choice of coffee accompaniments.
A firm favorite with the locals because of its reasonable prices, wonderful desserts and alternating daily specials listed on their Facebook page is Zak’s Cafe – also a lunch and dinner venue – which doesn’t try to be anything other than a small town, homely place.
Also offering a homely and cozy coffee break spot is the Cabin Cafe which has a large range of drinks options including caramel lattes, good quality espresso, smoothies, malts and hot chocolate along with some snack choices. The Cabin Cafe is another of the Wrangell cafe options where a warm welcome and great service tend to get mentioned in just about every review you can find.
Chief Shakes Island and Tribal House
After you’ve been refreshed with your coffee break your morning continues its exploration of native culture. This time you will need to make your way across a small wooden footbridge to a tiny green islet which sits in Wrangell harbor. Here you will find the National Register of Historic Places-listed Chief Shakes Tribal House which although not original – this one was completed in 1940 – sits on the very site which once housed the Chief Shake longhouses of long ago and has great cultural significance.
The Tlingit people are one of Alaska’s principle indigenous tribal groups with those of the Wrangell area known to have been especially powerful during the 1700s. Chief Shake was not one person but rather a title, which still exists today, bestowed on a Tlingit clan leader with the current leader referred to as Chief Shakes X.
The principal structure was begun in the 1930s, built using traditional methods and ancestral knowledge by Civilian Conservation Corps workers. A re-dedication ceremony involving a traditional feast known as a potlatch was staged on completion with a new Chief Shakes – Chief Shakes VII – officially given his title during the celebration. 73 years later the re-dedication was repeated following restoration work, this time bringing elders and dignitaries from the entire region together in a weekend of feasting, dancing, carving and ceremony.
The house is surrounded by several beautifully carved houseposts – a native culture item which resembles a totem pole but having a practical use of supporting structures is typically shorter. Two of those here date back to the mid 19th century while the other five are 1930s replicas. If you want to see the originals – believed to be the oldest known surviving houseposts anywhere – head to the Nolan Center in town. There are also exhibits of tools which were used during the house’s construction and an interesting ‘shame pole’ replica topped by three frogs which was originally carved according to one of the Chief Shakes’ orders as a debt reminder to the Kiks.adi clan.
Owned and managed by the Wrangell Cooperative Association, the house’s principal function is that of cultural center rather than tourist attraction. That means it isn’t always open to visitors to view the interior but you are always free to walk around the exterior and enjoy the undeniable peace of this tiny islet which bald eagles often frequent.
The Kik-setti Totem Park
If you haven’t yet had your fill of native culture you can head to the totem park on Front Street. This park with its handful of open-air totems is small and can be explored without taking up much time so it is certainly worth fitting into your itinerary. Each of the beautifully detailed replica totems was carved by a native Tlingit with ongoing re-carvings periodically necessary after the elements have taken their toll. This task is carried out by artists who work in a carving shed located at the side of the Nolan Center and which is sometimes open for viewings. The newest pole was raised in 1987 – the first in over 40 years – during a park-dedication ceremony.
The Wrangell Museum
Housed inside the James and Elsie Nolan Center which is also home to the Visitor Center can be found the town’s small but comprehensive museum. A visit here will guide you through the city’s entire historical story starting from the time of the ancient Tlingit people, through the years of Russian ownership and British control and onto American history which leads into the present day.
Before you even enter the museum the Nolan Centre reception area greets its visitors with a display of Chief Shakes original antique houseposts dating from the 1700s (thought to be the oldest anywhere in the world), petroglyphs, paintings and occasional private items belonging to Wrangell locals. These might include memorabilia, photographs, art and crafts.
The museum explores the four cultures which have impacted the Wrangell story – Native, Russian, British and American – with exhibits covering the gold rush age and the mining this led to as well as the history of fishing and forest industries, the fur trade, military presence and the natural world.
A few of the major highlights include original totem poles, a rare canoe carved from spruce, a native basket collection and hundreds of photographs taken from an overall collection of thousands. These depict Wrangell from its very beginnings and show fascinating moments, frozen in time, from the heydays of gold mining and logging. An extra bonus here and something unusual in museums is that visitors can also take a peek into the museum’s storage area through a viewing window.
The museum has a gift shop attached and while these things can sometimes be blatantly tourist-aimed this particular shop is an example of how it can be done better. With a selection of locally-made art and craft items, Alaska gifts, books, petroglyph stamps and the famous Wrangell garnets this is a great place to pick up an authentic souvenir or two.
Lunch in Wrangell
With its small selection of dining venues you may well find yourself at lunchtime headed back to the same place where you had your morning coffee break. Both the Cabin Cafe and Zak’s Cafe serve lunch with salads, wraps, sandwiches and soups making up the bulk of the menu choices or fish and chips. Zak’s is very popular with locals at lunchtime as it offers a range of daily specials and a fantastic selection of desserts at some of the cheapest prices in town which are advertised each day on their Facebook page.
The Stikine Inn is another spot you may have visited earlier and lunchtime diners can choose from the Stik Cafe or Stikine Restaurant. The cafe offers a range of paninis, soups, sandwiches and burritos while the main restaurant has a large menu ideal for both those who want a lighter lunch option or those who need a substantial meal. While all diners at the Stikine Inn will benefit from the advantages of having a world-class chef overseeing all food preparations those who opt for the restaurant also get a lovely view from the open-air tables on the elevated patio directly at the water’s edge.
Fans of Asian food will be thrilled to know that tiny Wrangell boasts a multi-cuisine restaurant – Michelle’s Taste of Asia. If there was a prize for the Wrangell restaurant serving the prettiest and most colorfully presented food Michelle’s would almost certainly win. While Asian fusion is not typically a hard-to-find concept at this venue it takes it to a whole other level. You can find influences from the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and even Russia with pad thais, curries, sushi, Mongolian beef and more all on the menu. The portion sizes are guaranteed to satisfy even the biggest appetites.
Pizza fans have two options – the Hungry Beaver Pizza on Shakes Street and Notsofamous Pizza on Front Street. The former is a shared half bar/half restaurant space with an outdoor deck and which also serves seafood and burgers. The latter is a small cozy place with an outdoor seating option and known for its friendly staff. It has a big menu offering a choice of crusts and options for either build-your-own or set menu pizzas which can be bought by the slice.
An Afternoon in Wrangell
No-one can say they have truly seen Alaska until they have explored something of its natural splendor and Wrangell makes doing so extremely easy. The glaciers and bear viewing – the two things Wrangell is most famous for – will take up the whole of your afternoon while other possibilities such as hiking, kayaking, golf, and river exploration by boat can be mixed and matched depending on how much energy you have to spare.
Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory
While Wrangell offers a diverse variety of outdoor experiences there is one which tends to rank as number one must-do for the majority of visitors – viewing bears in the wild. For those who arrive here during July and August Wrangell offers a truly exceptional opportunity for this and the extremely rare chance of seeing both brown and black bear fishing a salmon stream side by side.
While those wishing to go under their own steam may have to plan a little in advance to obtain a pass and make transport arrangements those who choose to go with one of the many tours which depart from town to make the 30 mile trip typically find themselves with a ready-made pass and laid-on transport.
Though bear viewing in Alaska is far from uncommon, the Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory is not only an ultimate bear hotspot but also somewhere which provides you with the facilities to watch the bears in safety and a degree of comfort. The reason this area acts as such a bear magnet is due to the exceptionally plentiful food source found here. Surrounded by pristine rainforest, Anan Creek happens to be the location for one of Southeast Alaska’s largest pink salmon runs, hitting its peak in July and August, which not only attracts the bears but all other wildlife that consider fish a feast such as otters and bald eagles.
Getting to the creek, named by the Tlingits who long ago established fish camps here, is not possible by road. Those who want to see the bears have to take a boat ride followed by a half mile mainly creek-side walk along a constructed wooden walkway to arrive at the roofed shelter and observation look-out perched at an elevated height above the river. Both the start of the trail and the end observation platform are manned by Forest Service guides at peak season times who are there to advise on safety and answer any questions you may have.
During July and August when the salmon jumping their way up stream are in high numbers bear sightings are almost guaranteed. If you get especially lucky you will see both brown and black bear fishing at the same time – something of a rare sight anywhere else as these two species seldom cross territories.
While the bears tend to steal the scene they are not the only wildlife you may encounter during your whole experience; seeing bald eagles, sea-lions, seals, otter and wolves is also possible.
Alternative Outdoor Options
While bear viewing tends to take center stage on the Wrangell outdoor option menu (and certainly during July and August) there are plenty of other choices.
The other main stars of the natural world in this area are the glaciers. There are two most commonly visited near to Wrangell – Le Conte and Shakes – and both will need dedicating an afternoon to.
Visiting the Shakes Glacier necessitates a journey up the Stikine River, passing waterfalls as you go, and into Shakes Lake where the glacier terminates in a soaring sheer wall of blue-hued ice. To get an up-close encounter with the still-advancing spectacular LeConte Glacier you need to travel up the iceberg-strewn several-mile-long LeConte Bay fjord surrounded by dramatic mountain scenery. The icebergs – some of which are impressively large and populated by seals and pups – are a result of frequent calving from the glacier. Such a sight and the thundering sound which accompanies this breaking off of glacier sections is a sight you are unlikely to forget should you be lucky enough to experience it during your trip.
While boat trips are a very popular way of seeing the glaciers another option is to fly over them. Float-plane trips from Wrangell will not only take you to the two glaciers mentioned here but also over the ice-field from which they are born. The entire flight will also typically include other spectacular sightseeing highlights made up of mountains, lakes, fjords, coast, islands and wildlife.
If you are more interested in having an encounter with whales rather than glaciers there are also options for whale-watching tours from Wrangell. Otherwise, getting out on the water in a variety of ways is a highly popular activity in and around Wrangell. The Inside Passage’s make up of islands, inlets and bays means many calm, protected waters ideal for kayaking and canoeing either under the guidance of a tour or according to your own schedule with a rental. Exploring in this way not only surrounds you with the naturally magnificent in terms of scenery but also allows you some up-close wildlife encounters as your glide almost silently across the water.
The mighty Stikine River which ends its 400-mile-long journey near Wrangell is another place to explore, justifiably famous for its unrivalled beauty and abundance of wildlife. Canoeing, kayaking and rafting are all possible here but for those who want to make less effort there are also guided jetboat tours and water taxi trips too. The whole breathtakingly-lovely area is a photographer’s and nature-lover’s paradise with plentiful birdlife as well as bears, moose, sea-lions, deer and otters all frequently spotted.
If you don’t mind a short hike you can also combine a nature trip with a soothing soak in the natural hot springs found here with moose and deer passing by as you relax in one of the wooden tubs, surrounded by ultimate calm and unbelievably fantastic scenery.
For those who want to keep their feet on dry land there are also plentiful hiking possibilities to get you immersed in wilderness. Options of this kind range from easy scenic strolls to hikes which only the fit and adventurous will be able to undertake. Leading directly from downtown Wrangell can be found two trails. The half-mile Mt. Dewey trail weaves its way up a 400ft hill from the summit of which you can take in some stunning town and coastal views. The second (and easier) trail begins at Volunteer Park with some wonderful mountain views to be had along the way.
A longer uphill hike leads to Rainbow Falls, passing through forest, with options to continue the trail from the 100ft waterfall to further waterfalls and alpine meadows if you have the time and energy.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Wrangell
Whether you have spent your afternoon bear watching or boating among icebergs you will no doubt be ready for some sit-back-and-relax time before dinner with a well-earned drink in front of you.
If you want to rub shoulders with the locals taking some downtime after a day at work head to either Raymes Bar or the Totem Inn. These no-frills pubs serve all the usual liquor options and you might even be able to get someone to mix you a cocktail.
If you’d prefer to escape the TV screens and jukebox scene and are looking for something a little more elegant head to the Stikine Inn where quality cocktails are supplied by way of a resident mixologist. There is also Alaskan Brewery beer here as well as a good wine and whisky list with a lounge or open-air patio choice of where to sit down and enjoy your pre-dinner drink.
Wrangell has many charms one of which is its tiny town feel. Unfortunately the downside of such a charm is that dining venue choices are limited. All of the options previously set out under ‘lunch’ are also your dinner choices too. Casual and homely are the common theme for dining in Wrangell with the Stikine Inn offering the most up-scale option. With its world-class chef and outdoor waterfront patio or elegant interior table choices, the Stikine is a popular pick for those in town for the day. Its menu includes steak and fresh seasonal seafood options with a decent wine list made up of New Zealand, Australia and California choices along with a diverse whisky menu.
An Evening in Wrangell
Once the last tour boat ties up for the evening or floatplane comes in to land tiny Wrangell has very little going on beyond locals getting together in a pub or restaurant. This is small town Alaska at its most authentic; life is relaxed and slow-paced here although you might find the occasional event being staged during the height of the summer months when the cruise ships arrive in town.
The best way to enjoy the evenings here is to do what the locals do and head to the pub to enjoy some company and award-winning Alaska beer. Or take your time over dinner, lingering with your coffee or cocktails and simply enjoy the escape from fast-paced life for one night. If you absolutely must have something to do take a wander around town, perhaps visiting the small totem park or Chief Shakes Island if you didn’t have time to fit that into your day or alternatively make an appointment for a private viewing with one of the local artists.
If you’re ready to experience the beauty of Wrangell in person, contact one of our vacation planners today!