Hiking Wrangell’s Rainbow Falls
Friday, June 30, 2017
At first blush, this is the kind of place you wouldn’t think to come to: a small village nestled into a hillside in the middle of nowhere. There are no big-name tourist shops. Diamonds International and the like have never had foothold here. And when Norwegian Cruise Line tried to turn this into a major port of call back in 2004-06, it didn’t take.
It might be precisely for those reasons that I love Wrangell, Alaska. I first came here back in 2005, aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sun. And while Wrangell may not have suited guests on that 1,948-guest ship, it is the perfect fit for Seabourn’s 450-guest Seabourn Sojourn.
Today, only small-ship luxury vessels call on Wrangell. Just 24 calls will be made this year, and that’s up substantially from years’ past. But keeping things on the small-ship luxury level allows this gem of a town to stay that way, and the low passenger counts of ships like Seabourn Sojourn means that the town’s guests don’t overrun the place.
Situated at the north end of Wrangell Island just up the Clarence Strait from Ketchikan, the town of Wrangell has a population of approximately 2,300. If you’ve taken other cruises to Alaska before, you’re probably sailed right on past it and never knew: Wrangells is located about halfway between Ketchikan and Juneau.
Wrangell’s greatest strength is its authenticity. A real, working-class village, Wrangell is graced with two grocery stores; a number of cute little shops and cafes; a hotel; and one of the roughest-looking bars (the Totem Bar) in Alaska. Its residents are hugely friendly, and seem to appreciate the small ships that call here. They’re more blunt about Norwegian Cruise Line’s efforts a decade ago. “Those sonsabitches wanted us to sell our stores to ‘em”, one local told me this morning.
If you’re here, there’s plenty to do. Wander along Front Street from the cruise ship dock. If you hang a right on Stikine Avenue (which turns into Evergreen Street), you can walk to one of my favorite spots: Petroglyph Beach. It’s about 1.5 miles away from the pier, and you can reach it in an easy 30-minute’s walk. Here, ancient carvings are still visible etched into the stones on the beach.
Follow Front Street around town and you’ll end up on Shakes Street. This serves as the entrance to Chief Shakes Tribal House, a recreated Tlingit tribal house located on Shakes Island that’s well worth the visit.
Back on Front Street wandering from the ship, hang a right on Campbell Street. You’ll pass behind Bob’s IGA grocery store and end up at the Wrangell Museum. The museum itself is quite fascinating, but the really noteworthy thing is the museum’s great gift shop, which boasts a fantastic selection of local interest books and handcrafted souvenirs. Outside the museum is a great vantage point with beautiful views of your ship.
You should also be sure to pick up a copy of the Wrangell Sentinel. For $1, you can catch up on all the latest happenings in Wrangell. I like the quaintness of the paper, which prints a list of who’s celebrating a birthday or an anniversary in town. It also includes a fascinating police blotter of various disturbances and incidents in Wrangell over the past week.
After walking around town, I departed from my usual routine of heading for Petroglyph Beach and instead joined one of Seabourn’s Ventures by Seabourn shore excursions.
Seabourn offers a total of 12 excursions in Wrangell, three of which are part of its exclusive Ventures lineup. The three Ventures by Seabourn tours for Wrangell are:
- Rainbow Falls Adventure Hike: 5 hours, $179 per person.
- Rainbow Falls Adventure Hike – Up & Over: 7 hours, $229 per person.
- Anan Creek: Exclusive Bear Viewing & Photography: 7 hours, $699 per person.
I chose the first option – the 3.5-hour Rainbow Falls Adventure Hike. The longer seven-hour hike was more strenuous and sounded amazing, but I wanted to have some free time to explore Wrangell.
Seabourn does a great job of preparing you, in their written pre-cruise documentation and on-line, what to expect from each tour. I found the description of my hike through Rainbow Falls, about five miles outside the city, was perfectly accurate.
After a short drive onboard a local schoolbus, we entered into the Rainbow Falls trailhead. The trail is highly accessible, with wooden boardwalks topped with mesh metal grating throughout. While we covered less than a mile in distance, we made up for that with our elevation gain: about 500 feet spread out over 200 steps scattered along the trail.