Chitina & The McCarthy Road

I’d never even heard of Chitina (pronounced CHIT-na) before I worked out the details for touring Kennecott.  It’s a “must see” abandoned copper mine and our last big Alaska outing.  But it came with a price.  As I’ve said before, getting there is the thing, and the getting there requires the McCarthy Road.  60 miles, one way, of gravel, potholes, washouts, mudslides, and all in our tiny little car.  So, Chitina became the goal since it was a good 20 miles closer, and would shorten Jackson’s lonely day.

To Chitina We Must Go

I didn’t think there was anyplace to stay in Chitina originally, but the folks at the July 4th picnic in Soldotna turned us on to a Native American-run campground.  It has 11 spots with electricity and they don’t take reservations.  A little faith here that one will be open when we arrive.

We left Valdez on a rainy, 49 degree day (yes, it is July) and made our way back to Thompson Pass.   I say the road to Valdez is paved with good intentions and not much more.  Lots of bumps the entire way and we coined the phrase “jangly road”.  This time over the pass, we are on the outside guardrail.  The rail is ON the white line and some of the road signs actually hang over the line.   Ride this white knuckle line in wide Lucy for about 8 miles, paired with hardly any visibility at the top, and you have a stressful roll.  Pat did a great job and the dog and I did our best to panic in silence.


One of our first views of the Copper River and the striking cliffs that tower over it.

The river and cliffs are grand and worth the rough start to the drive.


A beautiful view spot along the highway with just the right vantage point for the braided river.  This is a swift one, very cold, and can be deadly.  These waters carry rocks, trees, and silt along the way.  I loved this quote from the roadside marker –  “When the river carries more than it can move, it puts its burdens down and goes around”.  We could take a lesson from that wise river.


We strolled down to the Copper River on our first night to see the operating fish wheels.  Copper River Reds or sockeye salmon are the prize for this river.  The wheels rotate at just the right speed with the water flow, and act like a big net to scoop up the fish.  One of the owners of this wheel patiently answered all our questions about the process.  It was bright and sunny, so they explained that the fish were likely in shady spots until the evening.  Once it cools down, the fish will swim upstream and they’ll catch about 100 fish in one night!  The family then jumps into action to filet the fish in assembly-line fashion.  Wheels just like this one were up and down the river banks.

The McCarthy Road

I confess that I stressed about this drive.  The 20 miles we cut off was the paved Edgerton highway, so we still have the full 60 mile gravel road to traverse to McCarthy which is end of the line before the mine.  A few weeks earlier, the road was impassable due to a washout from a beaver dam.  I so wanted to try it, but still wasn’t sure.  I consulted with our Texas friends who just made the drive and they said we could make it if we took it slow.  Of course they did it in an F-450, not a low slung passenger car like Bitsy.  Will we, won’t we, do we, don’t we?  I’m still back and forth the night before when a couple across the campground drives up in, lo and behold, a Ford Fiesta!  I can’t get outside fast enough to ask them if they drove the road in that car.  Yes, they did, and no trouble at all.  Took them 4 hours on the way there – yikes – and 2 hours on the way back.  So we are a go, but holy cow, a long haul awaits.

I don’t have many pictures on the drive since we were trying to get there as fast as the road and my Bitsy driving would allow.  We did stop at the Kuskulana River bridge to look down into the gorge.  Pat is walking across in the shot to the right.  I headed to the port-a-potty and then down the side to see the water.  This bridge was built in 1910 and is 238 feet above the river.  Don’t look down, just drive.

We hoped to see some wildlife, but had to settle for ravens and rabbits.  LOTS of rabbits.  Quite a few were road kill and one couple saw a rabbit get hit.  They said before its little dead body could fully settle in on the road, an eagle swooped down and grabbed it up.

The main reason I wanted to make this trip was to visit the Wrangell – St. Elias National Park.  This park encompasses 13.2 million acres and is six times the size of Yellowstone.  It’s touted as some of the most pristine wilderness in the world and showcases the beautiful Wrangell, St. Elias and Chugach mountain ranges that converge in the park.



The McCarthy Road leads to the town of McCarthy of course, and then you must cross a footbridge and take a shuttle into town.  About 5 miles or so.  From there, the shuttle will take you on to the town of Kennecott and home to the Kennecott Copper Mine.  These shots of the Kennicott Glacier are from the mine property.  Top one is the distance shot, then looking straight out over the “foot” of the glacier covered with layers of dust and debris.  The ice here is supposedly 700-800 feet thick.  Finally a close up of the foot with the dirt piles and ice peeking out underneath.

Now, before you grammar police make comments about my spelling, let me explain Kennicott vs. Kennecott.  The valley, glacier, and river are all named for naturalist Robert Kennicott.  He worked on the trans-Pacific telegraph lines in the 1880s according to the National Parks Service.  When the Kennecott Mining Company was formed, the “e” was used in the spelling.  Mistake or on purpose?  Not sure since I’ve read the story both ways.  Anyhoo, the natural features use the original spelling and the man-made stuff has the “e”.  I have a penchant for correct spelling, so this drove me nuts until I finally found the explanation.


A big chunk of the Root Glacier in the river at the footbridge.  There was another chunk that looked like a rock, but it had all the debris in it.  Both were gone when we returned for the drive home.

Kennecott Copper Mine


The Kennecott Mines are designated as a National Historic Landmark.  If you recall the Birmingham post, this is very similar to the Sloss Furnaces.  Abandoned plant pretty much as it was back in the day.  In this case, the day was 1909 through 1938.  With the highest grade copper ore at that time, the five mines were big producers, and all total, resulted in $100 million in profit for the owners.


The 14-story Kennecott Mill on the hillside.

We donned hard hats for the tour inside the mine since there are some low clearance points.  Plus this is an old, rickety building and the only updates were to stabilize it for the tours.  Pat is checking out an electrical thing.  I took a few shots of old crusty valves and a sifting table.  Finally, one of the original windows with a fascinating dimple in the glass.  Yes, Pat and I had a grand conversation about how glass is a liquid and continues to flow over time.  Most of the original windows had been scavenged, but those that were hard to access like this one remained.

The mine had its own town with all the amenities and the workers were immigrants enticed by higher pay than in the lower 48.  Of course turnover was 200% since everyone declined to come back after their 6-month stint.  Bitter cold and dangerous working conditions made sure of that.

The mine shut down in 1938.  To keep the workers in place, they didn’t let on to the imminent closure until 48 hours prior to the closure.  The whole town had precious little time to prepare for the absolute last train out of town.  An overnight ghost town with full pantries, wardrobes, and all the equipment.  People had to just walk away from everything.  One man was hired to demolish the town and mill site.  In the end he pilfered fixtures and only tore down one section of one building.  A dishonest guy is the only reason we have such a well-preserved historical landmark today.

More derelict buildings and abandoned equipment to admire.  The one demolished section and then the huge smokestacks with the Wrangell’s Mt. Blackburn.  Striking natural and man-made contrasts.

A few of the big vats used for the ammonia extraction.  This mine was the first to commercialize that process.  With their sophisticated sorting & sifting equipment, as well as the chemical extraction, they managed to get copper extraction efficiency to 95%.  Captured the blue-green patina left behind from some of the copper that leaked out of the hand-welded vats.


A few parting shots of the Wrangell Mountains with the Kennicott and Root glaciers.

About the drive.  It took us right at 2 hours to get to McCarthy.  On the way, we went through a narrow rock pass and drove around mudslides that blocked half the roadway. We also picked our way very slowly through the washout area still evident from the beaver’s handiwork.  I managed to miss most of the potholes and had no problems on the blind curves and drop-offs.  Although Pat pointed out that I didn’t need to get any closer to the edge.  I hit one post fragment left over from the railway, but fortunately no tires were blown.  That happened on the whiz back and I made it in 1.5 hours.  Yes, I confess to exceeding the 35 mph speed limit just a tad, but all in the name of dog rescuing.


Chitina turned out to be a town complete with lodge and restaurant where we had a surprisingly good meal.  There wasn’t any cell or internet to be had, and that was ‘tragic’ for a 13-year-old camping with her family right across from us.

Also right down the road was Liberty Falls State Recreation Area complete with trails.


No falls at the top, but a sneak peek at some hidden lakes down below.


Pat surveys the scene from the ridge above Liberty Falls

A shadow of ourselves on the bridge overlooking the falls.  Pat surveys the rocks surrounding the falls and finally, the coppery-green rocks and bright orange lichens.


I needn’t have worried about the drive.  This double rainbow was right outside the motorhome window the night before and, for me, meant all is well.

And the day after the big drive?  We turn onto the main road to meet this little guy…

I’m sure he’s in trouble with mama since he ran down the middle of the road for over a quarter mile right in front of us.  We crawled along until he finally leapt off the road.

A great last hurrah in Alaska.  I’m working on a summary of our Alaskan adventure since it is officially complete.  We’re now making our way through lovely Canada.  See you on the way!


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