We had heard a lot about the Kennecott mine and the Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias NP so we decided to gamble on another 200 km (round trip) gravel road. The scenery was really nice but that 200 km stretch of washboard gravel was worse than anything we had in the 1800 kms of the Dempster Highway and the road to Tuk! You could debate if it was worth the bone shattering trip.
The first portion to Chitina was paved and we saw some braided river sections of the Copper River Delta below the snow covered Wrangell mountains. In Chitina we used our painters tape again to seal the compartments from dust and tried to get spots we had missed before. The entry to the gravel road was a narrow rock cut out where traffic could only go in one direction at a time. I guess this was the warning of what was to come. We had another CD from the NP that described what we were seeing as we went along. However it was hard for me to pay attention to what they were describing and try to miss the washboard road sections. It was the July 4th holiday weekend so there was lots of traffic going both directions which meant clouds of dust. It seemed like they hadn’t graded the road at all this year. The road follows some of the path that the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad (nicknamed “Can’t Run and Never Will”) followed to get to the Kennecott Mine so they could take the high grade copper out and bring supplies into the mine. At times you could see old railway wood in the road and we were happy not to find any old spikes! We crossed one of the old railroad bridges (one way traffic and a bit scary to drive across) and saw another one.
Further along the road we got some great reflections of the mountains in the lakes. When we reached the end of the road we were quite disappointed by the camping area they called Base Camp. Supposedly it was at the base of the glacier, which it really wasn’t, and supposedly they had lots of camping spots but in fact they had very little that could actually fit even our sized RV. On top of the fact that the rocks in their driveways were the size of grapefruits!!! The next campground back along the road was full but the guy said we could park in the No Frills and No Fun section for $10 per night so that was far better than Base Camp at $25 per night. Also they had a little patio area where they sold beer and wine so we could even get drinks and still save money😉 After unwinding from the drive we walked across the footbridge to the little town of McCarthy and looked around.
To get to the Kennecott Mine you could take a shuttle, walk, or ride your bike. The shuttles were pretty booked up due to the long weekend so we decided to ride our bikes. It was a 17 km ride from our campground (round trip) and you could either ride on the gravel road the shuttles were on (which would have been incredibly dusty) or you could take the wagon trail. Since we had the MTB bikes the wagon trail was the much better option, no dust and only a few extremely rocky sections. It was a steady climb up to the mine, which of course made the return trip back downhill lots of fun😉
Once at the mine you had great views of the glacier and the surface moraine on the lower section. You could take $28 guided walks through the mine or do a self-guided tour for free so we opted for that. The mine was in operation from 1900 to 1938 and was one of the most productive copper mines of it’s time. They used gravity concentration, ammonia leaching (one of only 3 in the world using this method), and even flotation to extract the maximum amount of copper. Each of these processes were added on at later stage and that’s why the mine seems to be a mish mash of buildings. Even though the mill buildings on the surface were quite impressive it was only half the story as the copper was coming from 5 distinct mines up in the mountains and coming down on tram cars to the mill. Since the mine was closed in 1938 many of the buildings started to deteriorate. The NP service took ownership in 1998 and has been working on building restoration as funds allowed. We toured around for about 4 hours, staying in buildings and the shade as it was extremely hot and sunny. We enjoyed the downhill ride back to the campground for happy hour.
It was good we had stayed two nights as it seemed most of the locals had left on Saturday so the road out on Sunday was not quite as busy. I still had to pull over many times to let faster traffic pass but that was ok. On the way out we decided to spend more time at the Kuskulana Bridge because the CD described that if you were a bit creative and had help from a friend you could climb onto a cat walk that went under the bridge. I decided I was game to try to this so Sharon gave me a boost up and with a few monkey bar moves I was on the cat walk. It was fine walking on the beginning section but as I got over the river gorge the nerves were getting a little frazzled. I made it all the way across and back and got some great shots😉
When we crossed back over the Copper River we stopped and tried to get some shots of the Salmon Fish wheels used to catch fish when they are going up stream to spawn. Back through the narrow rock wall and we had survived another 200 kms of gravel roads.
We returned to the main highway and stopped back in at the NP visitor centre to get a clearer view of Mt. Blackburn and also to use their internet access to upload a blog. At Glenallen we turned to head west and stopped at Tolsona Wilderness Campground for the night.
The following day we were continuing on the Glenn Highway through a section that was supposed to be quite spectacular for mountains and glaciers but unfortunately the forest fire smoke had moved in and we couldn’t see too much. For example we could only see the bottom part of the Matanuska Glacier due to the smoke.
We had an interesting stop at the Apline Historical Park, an open-air museum dedicated to the coal mining history of the area. There were several different displays including part of the structure from the coal wash used by the Wishbone Coal Mining company. Just before Palmer there was a Musk Ox farm, we went into the museum but it was way too hot to spend an hour in the sun doing the tour. They raise the Musk ox for the Qiviut fur that the musk ox shed. Each animal sheds about 4 to 7 lbs per season. It is extremely soft when knit into a garment but pricey, a small skein was $90US .A quick stop at the visitors centre in Palmer to learn about their record size vegetables, and how the area was colonized, before heading to the Matanuska River Park for the night.
We wanted to do some touring in the Palmer area but the smoke was too thick so we decided to head south to a less smokey region. We’ll backtrack later, hopefully when the skies are clear. We took the Old Glen Road stopping at a waterfall before getting on the main highway that lead to Anchorage. This was the first time in a couple months that we’ve driven on a major highway!! We drove through Anchorage towards the Kenia Peninsula with a detour to Whittier. Along the way we stopped to see a moose and hoped to see some beluga whales in the Turnagain Arm area. We passed through the Chugach National Forest, stopping at the visitors centre to see a movie on the area and some of the displays. At the end of the movie they opened a curtain and we had a great view of the Passage Glacier. We then had a new experience in the RV taking a one way 4 km long train tunnel through the mountain to get to Whittier. On the ½ hour you can go into Whittier, on the hour you can leave. If a train comes/leaves then the vehicle traffic gets delayed. Lucky for us, no trains.
We camped at the community campground by the river. Whittier is a small port town that has a deep harbour so cruise boats can dock here. There were a few small shops and restaurants in town but it’s a small place. There are no houses, everyone in town lives in one apartment building!! The main industry is fishing. We went out for dinner and had Clam Chowder, Crab Cakes, and a combo with Halibut and Shrimp, yum😉
We made sure we were out to catch the tunnel passage at 9 am, us and 15 bus loads of cruise traffic!! Since they only open the tunnel our way for ½ hour we were hoping we’d get through since they let all the bus traffic go first. For safety reasons they only let so many people in the tunnel at one time. When you have a bus full of people, they force a large gap before they will let the next bus go through, so it took awhile for the 15 cruise buses to go! We planned to do a couple of short hikes in the Chugach National Forest; the glacier, a short nature trail and the Williwaw Salmon trail (no salmon yet). We drove out of the park, back onto the Seward Highway and made our way through a heavy smoke area that was causing haze on the Scenic Highway ☹. In Seward we were very lucky to get a nice spot at the waterfront municipal campground. We got our lawn chairs out and had a bottle of wine while we enjoyed watching the boats and sea otters. After dinner we strolled along the Waterfront Park to the Iditarod Trail Mile 0.
A lazy start to the day and a no driving day!! We don’t have too many days where we stay put. When you have to take your house with you everywhere, you plan differently. Some days you might only go a few kms to the next camp spot but the change always brings new territory. We walked to the Seward harbour area and visited the Kenia Fjords National Park Visitor Center. They had free wifi so Joel sat outside and got another blog posted. We wandered around the dock area, Sharon did some window shopping and we picked out a restaurant for dinner before going back to the RV for awhile. After a great dinner at Ray’s Seafood (Scallops, Halibut, Copper River Salmon and a very good chocolate cake with salted caramel ice cream) we were entertained by a sea otter who was having a buffet meal from the fish cleaning station.
We were out early the next morning to go to Exit Glacier in the National Park. The ranger had told us it gets busy and it could be hard to park, we didn’t have a problem parking but when we left cars where parked down the road. They were doing a Ranger Guided Hike to the Glacier, so we decided to join that. As you walked the trail they had signs indicating what year the terminus of the glacier was in that location. They had a very nice pavilion built in 1989 and now it seems out of place in the middle of the trail but in 1989 it provided a great view of the glacier. Today all you can see are trees. The Glacier is receding at a rapid pace, the park said they have “given up” on making a path closer to the glacier as it changes too quickly. The stripe in the middle of Exit Glacier is due to the sediment grouping where the glacier is moving the fastest.
Back up the Seward Highway, this time we made a few stops enroute at viewpoints and at the Trail Lakes Hatchery. There wasn’t anything going on at the hatchery but we did get to see a few fry in a tank. Luckily the smoke haze in the area had dissipated so we had some nice views. We turned west onto the Sterling Highway which we could hardly see two days prior. It was Friday afternoon and the traffic was crazy!! This is a popular fishing area and we think all of Anchorage must come down for the weekend. We decided to stop early at Quartz Creek State Forest to ensure we had a spot for the night. It was a nice quiet campground, most people were there to fish in the creek. I’ll finish off this blog post with a sampler pack of beer from Denali Brewing. My favourite was definitely the Chuli Stout with the Twister Creek IPA as second favourite😉