Wrangell St. Elias National Park is not overly easy to access. The road from Chitina to McCarthy is such that you do not take an RV on it so we made arrangements to fly into McCarthy from Chitina. We abandoned our trusty Minnie Winnie for the three days spent at Kennecott. We parked it at the Chitina airport and would retrieve it on the way back.
Our flight was scheduled for 9:05 a.m. There was not a lot of activity but six other people were also waiting. At 9:00 we spotted two planes coming in to land on the gravel airstrip. The pilot of the Cessna 182 said he could take five passengers and the Cessna 162 could take three. So away we went. It was cloudy and snowing in the distance so the views were not spectacular flying in but Kelly took us over Root Glacier and Kennicott Glacier and pointed out the moraines, explaining that they were jumbled ice covered with a thin (6 feet or more) layer of gravel deposited by the glacier. The Kennicott Lodge van met us at the McCarthy airport for the six-mile trip to Kennecott, which was pretty slow going due to the condition of the road.
Wrangell St. Elias National Park is by far the largest U.S. national park – at 13,188,000 acres – almost six times the size of Yellowstone. Four major mountain ranges converge here: the Wrangells, the Alaska, the Chugach, and the St. Elias – the tallest coastal mountains in the world. Together they contain 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, 4 of them over 16,000 feet. There are more than 150 glaciers. Only two gravel roads and few trails penetrate this park. Some areas are designated as park, some as preserve, and extensive areas are reserved as wilderness. A vast majority of the park is accessible only on foot or by bush plane.
The former mining town and millsite of Kennecott is a National Historic Landmark and is in the process of being rehabilitated. While we were there, work was being done on several buildings, and safety inspectors and others were involved with further restoration plans. At the time, five buildings were open to the public: the Recreation Hall, the Refrigeration Plant, the Train Depot, the General Manager’s Office, and the Power Plant. The National Park Visitor Center is located in the General Store and Post Office which is partially restored for their use. We got my parks passport book stamped, watched two films (one on the Park itself and one on the Kennecott mine and town) and asked questions of the park ranger.
Kennecott Concentration Mill Leaching Plant
Generations of the Ahta people collected native copper and worked it into art, utensils, and arrowheads from the Kennicott Valley. In 1900 two prospectors, exploring in the area of Ahta Chief Nicolia’s mines, looked up at the ridge and saw a large green “sheep pasture.” Upon further investigation it turned out to be a copper deposit, one of the world’s richest concentrations of high grade copper ore, which they named “Bonanza.” Developing the strike would require tremendous effort, ingenuity and financial resources. From 1900 to 1902 Stephen Birch, a young mining engineer, purchased a controlling interest in the Bonanza Mine and organized the Alaska Copper and Coal Company to develop it. With financial support from the Guggenheim brothers and J.P. Morgan, Birch reorganized in 1905 and the new company later became the Kennecott Copper Corporation.
General Manager’s Office Hospital and Bunkhouses
To get the lumber and heavy equipment needed in the isolated Kennicott Valley, as well as to supply the miners and mill workers with necessities, and to get the ore to the port at Cordova for shipment to Seattle, the 196-mile-long Copper River and North Western Railway was built through impressively inhospitable country. Crossing rivers and glaciers and dealing with rugged mountain terrain required almost 30 miles of trestles. Sternwheeler steamships hauled supplies and materials during construction, navigating the winding Copper River until reaching the Abercrombie Rapids. At that point, the boats had to be taken apart and packed by sled and horse from Valdez and then rebuilt on the river above. With the railroad completed in 1911, Cordova became a busy port, Chitina grew up at the juncture of the Copper and Chitina Rivers, and McCarthy emerged as a more “free-spirited” community only six miles away from the company town of Kennecott.
The mill at Kennecott operated around the clock to meet the demand for copper during World War I but by the 1920’s the high-grade ore had been depleted and work slowed. After earning more than $100 million in profit, Kennecott was abandoned in 1938 and fell into ruin. In June of 1998, the National Park Service acquired many of the significant buildings and lands of the historic mining town of Kennecott. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and designated as a National Historic Landmark since 1986, Kennecott is considered the best remaining example of early 20th Century copper mining.
Mill and Power Plant Stacks Inside Power Plant
Kennicott Glacier Lodge is actually a private entity within the park and our lodging package included meals which were outstanding. An example of an evening meal: crab-stuffed cod, fresh green salad, asparagus, angel hair pasta and cheesecake. The evening meals were served family-style and guests were assigned seating at tables for eight. As a result, we met some really interesting people. One evening we were seated with a couple from France, a couple from India, and a couple from California. Conversation in general centered on the park itself, travels and experiences traveling. We discovered that the couple from India shared our bucket list of visiting all the U.S. National Parks. We were about at the same point toward accomplishing that.
We spent much of our time in the park hiking and enjoying the scenery and what felt like a step back in time. We hiked to Root Glacier. We hiked the trail around the perimeter of Kennecott. We walked Silk Stocking Row. We walked around McCarthy and visited the museum there. Although our first two days were overcast and rainy, the third day the sun came out and the mountains were glorious.
Root Glacier Regal Mountain
On the flight back to Chitina, the views of the mountains were magnificent. Steam rose from the vent of the dome-shaped volcano that is Mt. Wrangell and the Wrangell Mountains on the north competed with the Chugach Mountains to the south for the title of most splendid.
Kennicott Glacier Flying back out
For more information: http://www.nps.gov/wrst/index.htm