Chitina and Beyond

Leaving Valdez was hard.  It was a gorgeous place, we had amazing weather, and there was still plenty to keep us busy there that we hadn’t done.  We have learned, though, that you can’t do it all and you have to save something for your next trip!  Knowing that Alaska still had more to offer in other areas, we set off for Chitina.

Chitina is known for being an amazing fishing spot on the Copper River and for being the “gateway” to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, so those are the two things we set out to see.  Because camping options were limited in the area and we ended up in an extremely overpriced RV park, we were keeping this visit to a short one.

Our first night we drove out a narrow, curvy, steep road to a popular fishing spot.  It turns out that most of the fishermen venture out on ATVs further than we were able to go, but we did see one man dip net fishing just near the parking area.  We watched for no more than 15 minutes and we saw him pull in at least six very large salmon during that time.  We don’t envy that job, though.  It looks like really hard work!  Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to get very close to watch since he was fishing on native land that we did not have a permit to be on. We also really enjoyed watching the birds in the area.  A lot of people clean their fish near the parking area and then throw the carcasses back into the river, so the birds were absolutely feasting on what was left behind.

Yesterday, we got an early start to go into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  This is not an easy park to visit.  There are only two roads that go in, both of which are gravel and not especially well maintained.  The McCarthy Road is the one that goes into the park from Chitina and the one we were going to take.  It is 60 miles long and ends just outside of the little town of McCarthy.  We really, really, really wanted to camp just outside of McCarthy and spend several days, but after speaking with a park ranger who did not recommend taking a trailer on the road, we opted for the safe route of just going in with the truck as a day trip. From McCarthy you can walk, bike, or take a shuttle into the old mining settlement of Kennicott, another 5 miles away.  This is where you can tour Kennicott or take your pick of the multiple hiking trails in the area.

First let’s talk about the drive in.  We knew it was going to be 60 miles of gravel.  We knew it was going to be narrow.  We knew it was going to be curvy.  What we didn’t know was that it was going to be absolutely the most washboarded road we have ever had the pleasure (or not) of driving.  Other than the short stretch that was chip-seal, it is not an exaggeration to say that the entire way was washboard.  Throw in a generous amount of potholes and massive clouds of dust anytime anyone drove past, and you have the McCarthy Road.  We are SO GLAD we heeded the ranger’s warning and didn’t try to bring the trailer.  Something would have definitely broken.  As it was, we were quite worried we were going to tear up something on the truck!  If you take out the stops we made along the way, it took us about three hours of drive time to drive the 60 miles.  We have never been so glad to reach the end of a road in our lives!

The McCarthy Road stops about a half mile shy of McCarthy, on the west side of the Kennicott River, and we had to cross a footbridge to get across to the McCarthy side.  Until 1997, visitors had to pull themselves across the river on a hand-pulled, open platform cable tram!  Can you imagine?!  There is a really nice camping area on the west side of the bridge as well, with amazing views of the river, glaciers, and Kennicott off in the distance.  Good information to know for the future since we are hoping our next rig will be more off-road capable!  After crossing the bridge, we had the choice to walk or take a shuttle, and since it was only a half mile and we had some time, we walked it.  McCarthy is an extremely small town with a population somewhere between 100 and 125.  There are a couple of shops, a couple of restaurants, a few lodging options, and a museum.  We would imagine it would be a pretty quiet place in the winter, but while we were there it was bustling with other travelers like us, locals out socializing, and shuttles running here, there, and everywhere.

We took a quick look around and then hopped on a shuttle to go the five additional miles to Kennicott.   The mining town of Kennicott is perched on the side of a ridge overlooking Kennicott Glacier.  It was established in 1906 and mined copper and silver until 1938 when the price of copper dropped and it was no longer economical to mine the area.  The National Park Service has restored some of the buildings and have a few that they utilize as exhibit areas that are open to the public.  The highlight of our trip, though, was taking a tour of the mill building that towers over the other buildings in town.  This tour is the only way to see inside the mill, and tours must be booked with St. Elias Alpine Guides.  During this two hour tour, our guide gave us some great information about the area and the mill, explained some of the other buildings around, and then took us up to the top of the mill building and down through each floor explaining the equipment inside and answering questions.  It was a really great tour that we highly recommend, especially for those who have an interest in mining.  When our tour was over, we wandered around Kennicott for a while longer, taking a look at all the buildings we didn’t see on the tour, and then back down the mountain, through McCarthy, over the footbridge, and back across 60 miles and three hours of washboard, to arrive exhausted back at the Bigfoot.  It was a long day!

Now, our thoughts. 

The “piles of rocks” are actually Kennicott Glacier!

The scenery in the area is spectacular.  The rivers, mountains, and glaciers are so rugged and unlike any we have seen before.  We were very close to Kennicott Glacier and had no idea because it was completely covered with rock!  (See photo above.) It was very strange looking – almost like badlands – and we first thought that it was mine tailings!  We would have loved to have more time to enjoy the scenery via hiking some of the trails around the area, too. There are multiple trails that go to both glaciers and other mine areas we would like to explore.  We could hike for days here!

McCarthy was a really cool little town and it would have been a lot of fun to have some time to explore further and maybe try out one or two of the restaurants.

Kennicott was the best maintained mining settlement we have ever visited, and the mill was the biggest we have seen.  (And we have visited a lot of mining sites!)  We really enjoyed being able to go inside and see what the inner workings looked like.  No other mine site has ever allowed us inside the mill area before! 

You might see a recurring theme here…we wanted more time!  There was so much time and effort put into getting to this spot that we really would have liked to have stayed for a few days, not a few hours!  There were activities to keep us busy for so much longer.  While we are really happy we had the opportunity to see what we did, we probably wouldn’t recommend this as a day trip.  The condition and length of the gravel road are more of a risk than we would be willing to take again for a few hours, even in a place this spectacular.  As a multi-day trip, however, we would highly recommend!

Check out our video from the area here!

Until next time!   

6 thoughts on “Chitina and Beyond”

    1. Sadly, this will likely be our only contact with Wrangell-St. Elias. The other road into the park doesn’t sound any better maintained that the one into McCarthy and Kennicott, so we are going to forego it this time. It is times like this that we are really sorry we don’t have a smaller, more capable rig!

  1. This is David, the local you visited with while trickling fuel in your truck at Kenny Lake Mercantile.
    Get on Facebook and search for Kenny’s Historical Corner-Alaska and beyond. You will find a lot of history and pictures there about the area and the rail road that once connected it to the outside world. In my opinion, the railway was the most amazing part of the whole Kennecott mine.
    By the way, you could have mountain biked the old railway trail from the point where you saw the fish cleaning stations several miles back in. The trail is public, you only have to cross native lands to reach the river. Do it next time. Alaska is an evil mistress…once she gets her claws in you, she is always on your mind and you keep coming back.

    1. Hi, David! Thanks for checking out the blog! We are already talking about our next visit to Alaska and we haven’t even left yet, so you are right about coming back! Thanks for the tips, too. We will definitely look up the info you suggested on the railway. Hope all is well with you! It was great visiting with you while the fuel went into the truck one drop at a time! LOL!

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