Have you ever explored a place and felt like you could almost experience with all your senses what life was like for the people who lived there long ago? That’s how I felt during my visit to Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark. The old mining town (see a map here) has been beautifully preserved and is being carefully restored, little by little. The result is an unforgettable piece of history deep in the Alaskan wilderness, far from civilization and at the end of a questionable road with no other way in or out.
The mill is one of the oldest freestanding wooden structures in the world, I believe. The tour that took us through the 14-story building was impressive and well worth the money, as we were escorted all throughout the old building (which involved making our way down many sets of steep, narrow stairways that were more like ladders!). The whole building had that awesome old wood smell, and most of the machines and contraptions laborers had used to process the copper were still intact enough to get the general idea.
Several mines in the mountains extracted ore from some of the richest copper veins that had ever been found. A railroad was built from Cordova to Kennecott in the early 1900s through nearly impossible terrain and weather, and now visitors can drive on the McCarthy Road (built over the last sixty miles of the old railroad) to get to Kennecott.
The whole area was bought by the National Park Service, and a tour company runs glacier and mill-town tours. Kennicott Glacier Lodge (yes, the mine and the lodge/town/glacier have been spelled differently for decades) offers rooms and a formal dining area. I could've spent hours just wandering around in the lodge and reading all the early-1900s advertisements they had on the walls! Back on the main street (more like a path) are a few gift shops and more old buildings you can explore and watch videos and or read more history. A handful of people live in the town year-round, but other than that, you’re surrounded by blissful nature and history, history, and more history!
I’m not the type who loves to read all the informational signs in museums or places like this (my husband does!), but I think I almost could have here! I can’t say enough how many fascinating things we learned on the tour and throughout the town. This place was seriously amazing, and I can only imagine the stories kids who grew up here could tell!
If you get the chance to visit Alaska (or you live here already), GO to Kennecott if you can! It quickly became one of the most memorable places I’ve ever been in Alaska. Between the mill town, hiking on the glacier, and driving the unique McCarthy Road, this trip was unforgettable!
After a day of driving, interesting stops, and unbelievable views, we were so happy to reach the bed and breakfast. And once we arrived, I was tempted to just change our plans and hang out there the whole weekend! What a place! But alas, I did not want to miss out on exploring McCarthy and Kennecott.
When coming from a city the rest of Alaska sometimes refers to as “Los Anchorage,” stepping onto the lawn of the Alaska Halfway House Bed and Breakfast was like finally exhaling after holding your breath way too long. The peace and beauty of this place washed over me immediately, and the kindness and hospitality of the owners added to that.
The Chokosna River runs through the property, and a few chairs and a bench swing were set up along the bank. Fireweed bloomed in abundance, and pictured above is dwarf fireweed, which I had no idea was a thing until Kayane, the owner of the B&B, explained. My mother-in-law and I learned a lot from her about foraging for Alaskan berries and greens and got tips for making better jams and syrups. Who knew we’d get an edible-nature class with our stay at their property?
They had gorgeous grounds, including a garden, greenhouse, and various outbuildings. As this is an off-the-grid B&B, they use solar power and a back-up generator. They gather their water from the river or a nearby spring, and we had an outhouse available to us during our stay, as well as an outdoor solar shower.
My husband and I camped on the lawn both nights and fell asleep to the calming sound of the water, and his parents stayed in a quaint cabin on the side of the barn. We had delicious hot breakfasts in the house, complete with homemade jams and syrups and fresh greens from the greenhouse. Kayane and Bud were so kind and helpful, and we enjoyed our stay immensely!
And here's the deal: this lovely B&B is for sale at a fantastic price! Since I loved it so much but can't buy it myself, I want to share the info. You could make this property your dream off-the-grid home or vacation home, right in the middle of America’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias! Feel free to share this info with anyone you think might be interested. You can see the real estate flyer here.
After our first night and a great sleep, we got on the road for the last thirty-three miles of driving. The McCarthy Road is only sixty miles long, but since it is not kept up much and can have bad potholes, “washboards,” and even old railroad spikes, the speed limit is 35 mph. We found the road to be in pretty good condition and made good time.
Visitors cannot drive into McCarthy or Kennecott. Everyone parks on one side of a footbridge, and after you’ve crossed the Kennecott River, you can either hike a mile to McCarthy (pictured below) or five miles to Kennecott, or you can pay to take a shuttle. McCarthy is a quirky "end-of-the-road" town with a colorful history. I would love to come back and spend a little time looking around. Just a few main buildings make up the "downtown," and between Kennecott and McCarthy, only about twenty people actually live there year-round.
We took the shuttle straight to Kennecott so we could hike to the Root Glacier. We also had reservations for a tour of the old copper mill, which I’ll talk about in the next post! It was an AMAZING experience. You won’t want to miss the pictures of that!
We had a great two-and-a-half-mile hike down to the “toe” of the glacier. The mosquitos enjoyed our company a little too much, but this is Alaska! The weather was really warm that day, so I was sweating but didn’t want to take my hoodie off completely and have my arms exposed to the bugs.
The trail was well kept and not too difficult. People of all age groups were hiking. We crossed a few beautiful creeks and saw interesting vegetation we don’t normally see. The most interesting plant was called Dryas, pictured, which is one of the first plants to spring up in an area where a glacier has receded. You can read a short, fascinating article about “plant succession” here. The locals call these Little Einsteins because they look like they have crazy white hair when they open up!
Finally the trail branched off at a ninety-degree angle and we headed downhill toward the glacier. We stopped to eat the lunch we’d packed and take in the gorgeous view and refreshing, cool breeze coming off the ice, and then we continued on down. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of time to explore around on the glacier, since we had to get back in time for our mill tour. Glacier tour groups were hiking farther back on the ice, and if we come back we’ll be sure to factor in more time to explore! Glaciers are so fascinating!
Once again, the fresh air out here was incredible, and the scenery was almost surreal. Our eyes took in the grandeur of enormous mountains, blue glaciers, flowers, and the Copper River Valley. It was my favorite hike of the summer!
Stay tuned for the final post in this series, where I show pictures of the incredibly preserved mining town and copper mill. Thanks for following my “off the grid” experience!
I didn’t know how refreshing being off the grid for a few days would be until we did it. As we drove back into town, I felt some sort of sadness to be back to “easy” life in civilization. I got a glimpse of the hard work required to live so far away from modern conveniences, but I admire those who live that way daily. You experience a special peace when you get away from life’s noise and fast pace.
For those of us Alaskans who don’t live a total subsistence lifestyle and have jobs that require us to live in town, we are fortunate enough to have these kinds of places to drive, boat, or fly to. A couple weeks ago my husband, his parents, and I got to enjoy an off-the-grid retreat via the historic McCarthy Road, located in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
What a trip! The scenery of the Glenn Highway northeast of Palmer is incredible. I’m blown away every time. The road winds through a canyon, following a river that begins at the gorgeous Matanuska Glacier (a fun place to hike!). Tall, rugged mountains hug you from both sides as you drive. The greenery this time of year is lush and beautiful. Unfortunately, I didn’t really get pictures of this drive, as I was preoccupied just staring out the window! Here’s a shot of fireweed, one of our beloved Alaskan wildflowers. You can see just a bit of another glacier in the background coming down between the mountains. I took this once we got out into more wide-open land.
After a quick stop at The Hub of Alaska in Glennallen, a quirky place to stop for gas, snacks, and random Alaskan souvenirs, we stopped at Circle F Ranch to see the yaks, and this country girl LOVED it! My husband knows my dream is to move out of town and have at least a couple acres but still live close enough that he can commute to work. I learned from this rancher, who supplies starter herds to people all over the state, that we could have a few yaks with just a couple acres! Hmmm…
Supposedly they have tasty, lean meat, and their fur is soft but strong and can be made into a yarn similar to but not as expensive as qiviut, a luxurious yarn made from musk ox fur. The man who runs this hundred-acre ranch has worked hard to raise a tame herd. We walked right in among them and even got close to their newborn calves!
We continued on toward the B&B we were to stay at and stopped to look at the fish wheels set up on the Copper River. New fish wheels aren’t allowed anymore, so only the existing ones that have been grandfathered in are still standing on Alaska Native corporation land.
After the sleepy but charming town of Chitina (pronounced “Chitna”), we turned onto the famed McCarthy Road. The current road was built over an old railroad created to haul copper from the Kennecott Mine in the early 1900s. The road is still rough, so you have to drive slowly the whole way, but we were pleasantly surprised at the current condition it’s in. Here’s some interesting info about the road.
We pulled off on a small dirt shoulder high above a canyon so I could get a few photos of the beautiful Chitina River. I scrambled down fifteen feet, and I could only see wilderness all around me. We saw no cars on the road for quite a while, and at this part of the road there were no visible buildings anywhere. What refreshed me the most, though, was the smell! Almost all of Alaska’s air is really fresh, but Anchorage’s air has nothing on the wild air of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the United States' largest national park! I dragged myself back to the car after deeply inhaling the pure oxygen, and we continued on.
A little later, we came around a bend toward an old, high bridge that my father-in-law recognized as the Kuskulana Bridge, which they’d walked across when my husband and his brothers were young. He drove the car down a muddy path and parked underneath the bridge, and then we hoisted ourselves up onto the concrete base and then the metal-grate walkway.
I would not call myself scared of heights, but walking on this thing made my body involuntarily shake! I enjoyed looking down at the rushing river 238 feet below me, and I made it out to the middle point (the whole bridge is over 500 feet long), but it was a pretty crazy—and memorable—experience.
Stay tuned for more of our off-the-grid adventure! Next up, the bed-and-breakfast with million-dollar views and a hike on a magnificent glacier! (Read it here!)
I'm a mom of twins, published author, editor, amateur photographer, and nature enthusiast with an unlimited supply of curiosity. Come discover the little wonders I find during my everyday life in Alaska.
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