The Stikine River has drawn anglers, loggers and gold miners to Wrangell for decades. Now this southeast Alaska town attracts tourists, many of whom arrive via small cruise ships.
The only Alaska community ruled under three flags by four nations—Russia, Great Britain, the U.S. and the much-feared Stikine Tlingits—Wrangell boasts a 5-mi/8-km waterfront bike path dotted with ancient rock drawings at Petroglyph Beach. Kiksetti Totem Park, Chief Shakes Island and Tribal House, and the Wrangell Museum provide a glimpse into the rich artistic heritage of Alaska Natives.
Wrangell is located near the mouth of the Stikine River, the fastest free-flowing, navigable river in North America, in an area that naturalist John Muir praised as a 100-mi-/161-km-long Yosemite.
Nearby, accessible by boat or airplane, are the LeConte Glacier, the southernmost tidewater glacier in North America, and the Anan Wildlife Observatory, a traditional Alaska Native hunting and fishing site where brown and black bears go to feed on pink salmon.
In April, as many as 1,600 bald eagles fly in to feast on the annual hooligan run, and 8,000-10,000 snow geese stop by on their annual migration.
Today, Wrangell relies on its salmon-fishing industry and tourism. Since 1952, Wrangell has held a king salmon fishing derby every May and June and draws a crowd of avid fishermen and prize-money seekers (more than US$25,000 is awarded in cash and prizes).
Located at the tip of Wrangell Island and 7 mi/11 km from the mouth of the 400-mi-/644-km-long Stikine River, Wrangell is a community focused on fishing and the outdoors. Jet boats, canoes, kayaks and rafts provide access to the glaciers, waterfalls, hot springs, lakes, sand bars and tributaries of the Stikine.
The Stikine delta is a hot spot for tundra swans, Canadian geese, sandhill cranes, mergansers, waterfowl and more than 200,000 shorebirds every spring and fall.
The community of Wrangell is compact, tucked along Zimovia Strait and around a small cove, with fish-processing plants, fishing boats and seaplanes. Around the harbor are picturesque buildings perched on pilings, wooded hillsides and snowcapped mountains.
In the middle of the harbor is Chief Shakes Island with the thrice-restored tribal house and house posts carved more than 200 years ago. Logging roads crisscross the island, so it's a great place for hiking and biking through previously logged areas.
Wrangell's vibrant history dates back perhaps 8,000 years, when some ancient people carved drawings into the rock along the beach. Their descendants were the powerful Stikine Tlingits, who lived in communities there when the first European settlers arrived in the 1700s. The Russians made their mark in Wrangell next: The Russian-American Company set up a fur-trading operation in 1834. It was leased to the British in 1840. The Brits named Wrangell Fort Stikine. The third flag to fly over the town was Old Glory, which was hoisted after Alaska was sold to the U.S. in 1867.
Stampeders heading for three gold rushes (the Stikine, Cassiar and Klondike) made Wrangell their base of operations from 1860 to 1890. In 1879-80 naturalist John Muir explored the area, was awed by the scenery, and wrote of his experiences in Notes From Alaska.
Several boom-and-bust cycles followed as commercial fishing, canneries (where thousands of Chinese people worked) and Alaska's first sawmill (1888) replaced fur trapping.
Today, two small sawmill operators continue production providing a substantial boost to the economy although it is nothing like the boom times of years past. Plans are in place to seek grants to grow the area’s timber program slightly, but the industrial shift has led to a stronger economic focus on tourism. This means more development along the waterfront to match the demand for those coming to the region for outdoor recreation.
There are a number of things to see in Wrangell. The Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park is a must-see, and be sure to check out the Wrangell Museum and the Kiksetti Totem Park and Chief Shakes Tribal House as well. If you have time, visit the Anan Wildlife Observatory and the Stikine River.
Although Wrangell was legendary for its nightlife in its mining and logging heyday, it's fairly quiet now. You can see movies at the Nolan Civic Center, have a drink and play billiards or darts at the Totem Bar, munch pizza and have a beer at the Marine Bar, or enjoy a quiet evening with a view at the Stikine Inn Lounge. https://www.nolancenter.org/theater.html.
Fresh local seafood is offered at a number of restaurants in Wrangell, as are basic favorites such as burgers and steaks.
Included in this report is a sampling of restaurants in town. Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; and $$$$ = more than US$40.
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