Alaska is full of surprises… Talk about the understatement of the year, right?! As you’ve probably discovered while trying to plan your Alaska trip, there is no shortage of things to do, places to visit, and wonders to behold in The Last Frontier. Just wait until you get there, and your jaw drops at a view of towering fjords with glaciers nestled between them or you’re made breathless by Denali on a clear day.
Everywhere I’ve traveled in Alaska, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and almost always delighted; the small Southeast Alaskan community of Wrangell is one of the places that did both. I made my first trip in 2017 while sailing with Uncruise; I’ve since been back twice – with Alaskan Dream Cruises in September 2021, and again with Windstar Cruises in June 2022. Each time, I’ve been able to uncover more of what makes Wrangell special.
If your Alaska travel plans will take you to or through Wrangell, you might wonder: what is there to do in Wrangell, anyway? As usual, I’m here to help! Below you’ll find some of the best things to do in Wrangell, plus advice on how much time you need to have in Wrangell to do them (and how long to plan for each one). As you’ll see, even these few experiences are more than enough to fill a few days in Wrangell if you have that time in your Alaska itinerary.
So whether you’re visiting Wrangell for work, passing through on an Alaska cruise, or are making a stopover on the Alaska ferry, here are the best things to do in Wrangell. I hope you find it as enjoyable as I have on each visit, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself planning a return trip!
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the Lingít Aaní (traditional lands) of the Tlingit people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
1. Visit Petroglyph Beach
It’s hard to decide where to start whenever I write a list of the best things to do in any destination – and that holds true for the best things to do in Wrangell too! In the end, I decided that visiting Wrangell’s Petroglyph Beach is the top thing I recommend because it is so unique and an experience unlike any you can have elsewhere in Southeast Alaska – and while there are certainly petroglyphs in other parts of the region, there are none you can visit as easily.
Petroglyph Beach is located about three-quarters of a mile from ‘downtown’ Wrangell, but it’s an easy enough walk – or you can rent an electric bike to make the journey easier. (There are guided tours too if that’s more your style.) In any case, aim to visit Petroglyph Beach at low tide, when you can look for up to 40 petroglyphs carved into the rocks on the beach by the ancestors of today’s Lingít people.
2. Climb Mount Dewey
While you might not assume Wrangell is a hiking destination when you’re flying in or arriving by boat, there are a few good trails worth exploring; one is easy enough that most people can do it if they’re able to handle stairs. (There’s another, more strenuous trail further down on this list if you keep reading.)
There are signs all over ‘downtown Wrangell (using that term loosely), pointing you to Mount Dewey. Once you reach the trailhead on 3rd street, it’s a 0.4-mile trail (one way) to climb 250 feet for a nice view looking out over the town and harbor. John Muir – credited as the father of the National Parks system – actually visited Wrangell in 1897 and climbed Mt. Dewey, so you’re walking in the footsteps of one of the world’s greatest naturalists.
The trail itself is primarily a wooden boardwalk and steps, rather than a trail, which makes it easier – but also potentially slippery if you’re climbing on one of Wrangell’s many rainy days. As this is an out-and-back trail, you’ll come back down the way you came, and can probably easily do this trail in about an hour total.
Speaking of rain, the trail is fully forested, but you’ll still want to wear weather-appropriate gear as the precipitation does reach the forest floor.
3. Visit Shakes Island
One of my favorite things about Wrangell is its close connection to the Native Alaskan group of the area; it has, perhaps more than other towns in Southeast Alaska, remained quite local in that way. (In fact, almost a quarter of Wrangell residents still identify primarily as “Indian & Alaska Native (Non-Hispanic)” on census data – and can we PLEASE get that title changed because who still says Indian???)
If you’ve come to Wrangell hoping for a cultural experience, one must-visit place is Shakes Island. As its name suggests, Shakes Island is an island – but only above a certain tide level. At low tide, it becomes connected to the mainland (right in the heart of Wrangell, near the harbor) and this natural defensibility made it a great spot for the Tlingít chief to set up his Longhouse.
Today, you can visit the replica longhouse, which was built in the 1940s by the CCC; there are still authentic historic artifacts on the site, including several totem poles. Additionally, during non-pandemic times, there are daily presentations within the longhouse where you can learn more about the Tlingít culture and why these buildings were integral to the community.
4. Explore Wrangell Museum
I’m pretty sure that the Wrangell Museum was built between my first visit in 2017 and my second visit in 2021; I don’t remember any mention of it on my first visit but was very happy to explore the small museum on my second.
Inside, you’ll find exhibits about Wrangell, including its Native Alaskan people who have lived in the region since Time Immemorial, the main industries of the town, the European settlement and integration of the community, and Wrangell today. Upon entering the museum, you can also see and read about the four House Poles that flank the doors, harkening back to the poles that traditionally hold up Tlingít clan houses.
For not being huge, there’s more here than you might expect, including several side galleries that add even more context to Wrangell’s history and unique cultural blend in modern times. Give yourself at least 60 minutes at this museum, and – as usual – don’t skip the gift shop as it has lots of good options including some made by local artists and makers.
5. See the Kiks.ádi Totem Pole
I’ve been delighted on my repeat visits to Wrangell to hear more locals and guides recommending a visit to Wrangell’s small totem park along Front Street. This spot is easily missed if you don’t know about it – but holds a few monuments to the Tlingit people whose land you’re exploring.
Within Totem Park, there are four traditional totem poles, including one which belongs to the Kiks.ádi people of this part of (what is now) Southeast Alaska. You can tell it from the frogs, which are the crest symbol of the Kiks.ádi.
6. Explore the Stikine River
Wrangell is great for in-town adventures, but there are a few half-day (or longer) trips worth making. One is up the Stikine River, to Shakes Glacier. (Now you know where that name comes from!)
The Stikine River is one of the largest rivers in Alaska, and a valuable resource for the Tlingit people in Alaska due to its strong salmon runs – and the other animals that come to feed on that keystone species. The river runs some 388 miles up across the Canadian border and has been used by both the First Nations/Indigenous people of the region as well as European-descended explorers, prospectors, and – today – tourists.
The best way to explore the Stikine is on a jet boat tour; there are a number of companies that offer half-day and full-day tours from Wrangell. I went out with Alaska Charters & Adventures on my most recent trip, and captain Brenda was a wealth of information as a fifth-generation Wrangell resident. (I think she said fifth, as her great-great-grandparents came to Wrangell!) I was also to spend my half-day with local photographer Ivan Simonek, who has spent over 50 years in Wrangell. These kinds of local encounters are part of why I love visiting and exploring Alaska so much!
7. See LeConte Glacier
For another adventure in the Wrangell area, hop aboard a boat to visit LeConte Glacier. LeConte flows out of the same huge Stikine icefield as Shakes Glacier (which we tried to reach up the Stikine) and ends in LeConte Bay, a short boat ride from Wrangell – making it a perfect day trip when you’re visiting.
What makes LeConte Glacier special is that it’s the southernmost tidewater glacier in the northern hemisphere – that is, the river of ice flows right to salt water and can be accessed by boat. Speaking of, Alaska Charters & Tours also offers a boat trip to LeConte (as well as the Stikine/Shakes Glacier, which is the one I did). The tour is 8-9 hours, so this is one you’ll need a whole day for; I recommend doing this and/or the Stikine only if you have 2-3 days in Wrangell so you also have time to see the town!
8. Go Garnet Shopping
As I’ve mentioned a few times, I most recently made my third trip to Wrangell – a place I never even knew about when growing up in Southcentral Alaska! Nevertheless, I’ve really enjoyed exploring this Alaskan community, and each visit has introduced me to some new experience or aspect of life in Wrangell. One example is the Wrangell garnets.
Garnets formed 90 million years ago in a location along the Stikine River now called “Garnet Ledge.” Wrangell garnets have been mined on and off throughout the centuries, but today are only allowed to be collected by Wrangell children and their families using no power tools.
Today, you can find those same children and families selling garnets most days when a cruise ship or the ferry is due in town. (These smart little entrepreneurs don’t have brick-and-mortar locations, instead of setting up tents near the boat terminal and only operating when their potential customers are available.) You can browse garnets of different sizes and prices, or purchase jewelry made from Wrangell garnets. (Ritchies Rocks is the go-to for jewelry options, as they cut and mount some of their garnets.) They aren’t considered gem quality, but they are uniquely Alaskan and one of my favorite souvenirs.
9. Hike to Rainbow Falls
If you’re looking for a more challenging hike than Mount Dewey, Rainbow Falls should definitely be on your list of things to do in Wrangell. Described as a “short, steep trail,” the trailhead is actually five miles south of the cruise terminal along Zimovia Highway. The trail itself climbs 500 feet in 0.8 miles to a viewing deck where you can admire Rainbow Falls. (This makes Rainbow Falls about 1.5 miles out and back.)
If you want even more of a challenge, Rainbow Falls connects to Institute Creek Trail, which adds another 1.4 miles (so 2.8 more miles, out and back) and climbs to an overlook of Shoemaker Bay.
Both trails – like Mount Dewey – have large sections of boardwalk, so can be slippery in the rain. Be sure to bring the right footwear!
How to Travel to Wrangell
Maybe you’ve already sorted how you’re getting to Wrangell before researching what to do there, but in any case, it’s worth mentioning your options in case you decided to start by asking “what is there to do in Wrangell” and now have decided you should visit – and need to figure out how.
There are three main ways to reach Wrangell:
- By cruise ship
- By ferry (Alaska Marine Highway)
- By plane
All three times I’ve visited Wrangell, I arrived (and departed) by cruise ship. Most recently, that was aboard the Windstar Star Breeze. What’s great about Wrangell is that it is not a common cruise ship port; it can only handle small and mid-sized ships, and Windstar ships are the largest ships that can visit Wrangell. This means it’s a much less touristy cruise port, and you won’t be elbowing fellow passengers out of the way on trails or beaches, or when trying to negotiate for a garnet.
Wrangell is located on the Alaska Marine Highway “mainline” route, which means that the ferry stops regularly in Wrangell. On that route, it’s located between Ketchikan and Petersburg; there are no direct ferries to Wrangell from places like Bellingham or Juneau. The ferry primarily stops on Mondays and Fridays (with occasional stops on Tuesdays and Thursdays) and is usually only in port for 45 minutes (i.e. not enough time to hop off and see anything). If you’re planning to visit Wrangell by ferry, I’d arrive on a Monday/Friday and spend the 3-4 days until the next Friday/Monday ferry exploring the area.
Finally, there are two flights daily to Wrangell, provided by Alaska Airlines. You can fly to Wrangell directly from Seattle, Anchorage, and Juneau, depending on the day and flight. Taking a quick peek at the fare calendar, it looks like the cheapest flights are about $250 each way (so $500 round trip) but summer fares range as high as $500 each way.
Where to Dine & Drink Locally
Wrangell may be a small town, but don’t let that fool you: you can find a number of great spots for food and drink if you know where to look (and learn to follow/ask the locals). For a short stay, here are some of the places I recommend for meals:
- Java Junkie – Located in the Alaska Vistas Tours building – and emblazoned with a sign that reads “Coffee & Tours,” this is the closest spot to the cruise port if you need a caffeine fix. We enjoyed a spruce tip latte and blueberry orange bread (from Sweet Tides Bakery, more below).
- The Stik Cafe – On the ground floor of the Stikine Inn, the cafe serves breakfast and lunch options ranging from burritos and biscuits and gravy (my fave) to sandwiches – and coffee, of course. (This is Alaska, after all!) There’s also a dining room at the Stikine Inn but I haven’t eaten there.
- Nic’s Place – New since my last visit, Nic’s Place is Wrangell’s must-try pizza spot (there’s one in every town!). They do creative and traditional pizza pies, and sell by the slice or whole pizza to order. Most importantly: they’re only open until they sell out. Plan to make a stop here so you can try a few different slices. (I made Mr. V get us some takeaway so I could try it during our port of call in Wrangell!)
- Sweet Tides Bakery – Looking to satiate your sweet tooth in Wrangell? Sweet Tides is the place. Their baked goods are amazingly moist (maybe something to do with Wrangell/Southeast Alaska’s climate) and they’re beloved by locals and visitors (who are lucky enough to find them in their literal alley entrance).
- Hungry Beaver Pizza – Located inside the Marine Bar (one of Wrangell’s two necessary watering holes, the other being Totem Bar), Hungry Beaver Pizza is another great spot for a slice if you’re thirsty and hungry.
- Zak’s Cafe – Open for lunch and dinner daily, this is a good spot for the basics: soups, salads, wraps, and burgers.
- J&W’s – I haven’t personally been here, but everyone who has spent time in Wrangell, including some of our boat crew, recommended lunch at J&Ws. They are only open for lunch though, so be sure to plan if you want to enjoy one of their highly-reputed burgers.
There are other spots too that I haven’t been or heard anything about, so don’t let this list constrain you unless you discover you really love one (or more) of these places and become a repeat visitor!
Where to Stay in Wrangell
If you’re visiting Wrangell by ferry or plane and have a few days to visit (which is what I plan to do for my next Wrangell trip), you’ll need accommodation. As you might expect from a small town, options are limited – but there are options.
- Stikine Inn – The place to stay in Wrangell, the Stikine Inn is right near the cruise terminal, centrally located, and offers all the necessary amenities. Rooms start from $272 per night during the summer months.
- Wrangell Extended Stay – Located across from the ferry terminal (a short distance from the cruise terminal), this is a great option for visitors on a budget (starting from $155 per night) or those who want to visit Wrangell longer (they offer weekly rates).
- Vacation Rentals – Airbnb lists a few places in Wrangell, and there’s one spot on VRBO.
The Wrangell Chamber of Commerce also lists “Squawking Raven B&B” on their site but the website doesn’t work so you should try calling to inquire. The team behind J&W’s also mentioned in a Facebook post that they’re planning to open a new accommodation option, The Cedar House Inn. There aren’t any details presently, but keep an eye out for that if you’re researching a trip to Wrangell in 2023 and beyond, as it may be available by then.
Well, that just about wraps it up – you have all the info you need to plan a trip to one of the most delightful little communities in Southeast Alaska that most visitors miss. Have any other questions about the best things to do in Wrangell, or planning your trip? Let me know in the comments!
Special thanks to Windstar Cruises for hosting me aboard the Star Breeze and carrying me to Wrangell as part of the Alaskan Splendors itinerary. This post was produced as part of a partnership agreement with Windstar Cruises.
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