One of the many day trips I had scheduled was Kennicott Mine. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. I knew it was a long drive on a poorly maintained road, and mines in general are really not my thing. Still since so many of our guests take this day trip from the campground I wanted to give it a try so I could give my honest opinion about it, and since it was an overcast day it seemed like a good choice. Overall I was pleasantly surprised, not in small part because my expectations were so low. I wouldn’t rush to do it again, but it ended up being a three-moose-sighting day and that’s never a bad thing!
Instead of taking Richardson Hwy all the way down to Edgerton Hwy we decided to take Old Edgerton Hwy instead. The road was rougher and mostly woods, but along the way we did pass this family graveyard and I stopped to take a couple of pictures. Many of the cemeteries here follow the Russian tradition which is a reminder of the impact that Russians have had on the culture up here. Next to the cemetery are the ruins of a log cabin, but the graves themselves were obviously tended. Perhaps the descendants decided to move a little closer into town.
Once we entered the new Edgerton highway (at Kenney Lake) the drive was the same as previously covered in the post First Time at Liberty Falls and Chitina with the notable exception of a native gift store that we stopped at this time along the way. This little store wasn’t open the last time we came through, and it was so worth the stop. There is a sign along the road right before the yak farm (yes that’s how we give directions out here in Alaska lol) and it was not only native owned, but contained some absolutely beautiful pieces of art. The owner of Tonsina Native Arts and Crafts also had a small case of historical items at the store, and really it was everything I had been hoping to find in a store. I ended up buying something for one of my nephews but there were many beautiful pieces I wish I could have been able to afford. They also had a basket full of pieces of moose horn priced from $22 -$35. Many people want a piece of moose horn to use in a craft or take back with them, and this is the first place I have seen the raw material for sale.
I could have spent more time in there, but Lee was getting a little restless, so on we went towards Chitina. This time we saw a moose right outside of town before we got there and we got a few shots of her as she crossed the road.
We didn’t linger in Chitina, but headed straight for McCarthy Road, which is right across the long bridge. The road has tons of warning signs, is completely torn up, and made us hesitate a bit before driving up it. After the first couple of miles though it was much better and it was obvious someone had graded the road through that section. I am not sure why they didn’t complete the job all the way down to Chitina but I am guessing they are actually trying to deter motorists from using this road. I had read that there were several small lakes between MM 12 -16 and a guest had told me he saw a moose there. We were not disappointed as we got to see our first bull moose who is growing his horns. He couldn’t have cared less about us, and since he was across the road, Lee got several beautiful pics of him feeding. So far the day was definitely exceeding expectations!
After the moose the road was still relatively decent until we reached the huge trestle bridge at Mile 27. The bridge is absolutely beautiful and there is a large pullout which we used to take some photos and eat lunch. The moose and the bridge were absolutely great, and I definitely recommend the first 27 miles of the road. That being said, if you just wanted a short day trip you could absolutely cross the bridge and turn around on the other side, because the road from that point gets significantly rougher. Not 4-wheel drive rough, but 20 mph rough, which is why a 62 mile drive takes at least 2 hours. A lot of people also just like to park on the near side of the bridge and then walk across and then back again. It’s not for the faint of heart, while it’s a very sturdy and solid, well made bridge, it’s also just barely wide enough for a single vehicle, and although there’s a low guard rail, there’s no waist high railing. And it’s very, very, very high, and long, with a raging river at the bottom in the gorge.
Next up was an abandoned trestle bridge near a narrow but fast flowing river. This one was really cool, as it reminded me of roller coaster tracks and Lee and I took several shots. Couldn’t help but go black and white on a few of them as it gives the feel of it.
The next section was unfortunately the worst piece of road so far and not much great to look at. There was a long lake at one point with a beautiful vista but largely it was just trees and no animal sightings.
Finally we made it to the end of the road and this is where it gets a little strange. There is a foot bridge across the Kennecott River that you walk over to get a shuttle ($5 each way per person). The shuttle runs every half hour and first stops at McCarthy and then at the Kennecott Mine. You can walk to McCarthy and pick up the shuttle there (3/4 of a mile) but I wouldn’t recommend it. The road was muddy and congested with cars, bikes, people, and 4 wheelers. We learned later there is a private bridge that businesses and locals can purchase passage on, but the costs runs as high as $500 a season to use that bridge so most people working there for the summer leave their cars on the other side. We parked in the visitors center (which was almost full) and then walked to the pedestrian bridge. It’s a pretty terrible system, but the roads are so bad it takes each shuttle just under an an hour to make the round trip drive from the bridge, to McCarthy, to Kennecott and back (which is right around 12 miles, round trip) and honestly I’m not sure how else they could do it. The foot bridge was cool though, with a great view of both the Root and Kennecott Glaciers.
McCarthy though was really disappointing for me and in the end we didn’t even get off the bus. The roads are mud and the buildings were ramshackle, probably because the place started out as a saloon/brothel town for the mine. Historically restored building isn’t that impressive when the original building wasn’t that great. Still, lots of young people found it interesting, and there were tons of hikers in and out of the place. We kept going though and finally made it to Kennecott in time to take the 3:30 tour.
I wasn’t really planning on taking the tour since it was $27 a piece and walking the town itself was free, but Lee in an uncustomary fashion put his foot down and said “I didn’t drive all that way to not do the thing.” OK then, we are taking the tour. I briefly considering passing, but the town isn’t large enough to keep me entertained for the two hours, so off we went on the tour, both of us feeling a little cranky about the whole thing. In the end I am glad we took the tour as that is the only way you can get inside the 14 story tall refinery building, and it was more interesting than I thought it would be.
Our tour guide was Nells and this was obviously not his calling. Sweet guy, but pretty dry. Later we found out he was a geologist who previously worked for a start-up geotech company. Once I understood he was a scientist I was a little more forgiving. He knew all the stuff about the rocks though which was neat.
After the introduction we wandered through the town seeing the supporting buildings (some have been restored and others have not) and heard a little of its history. The town was abandoned after the initial rich ore strikes were played out and sat empty for many years until in the 70’s an enterprising bush pilot starting conducting informal tours there. When the company who owned it found out they sent a man to burn it to the ground, but he ended up stripping it of valuables and largely left it standing instead. Finally, the Kennecott Mine company (which still exists today) donated it to the National Park Service and luckily for us they understood it’s significance. They hired a concessionaire to run the doors and have slowly been restoring buildings with the profits.
We didn’t tour the all of the buildings, but we did go into the managers office which Lee and several others on the tour liked. They found what looked like a passage to get into the ore refinery (although it was closed off) and a really old safe. Since they had to remove everything by train they only took what was cost effective to take, so most of the machinery was left behind. And speaking of the train, it cost 100 million dollars in 1909 to build the train tracks from Cordova, but they ended up making a profit of 200 million which is billions in today’s currency.
To start the processing tour we had to walk up a pretty narrow trail and a steep hill. There were plenty of breaks along the way, but keep this in mind if you plan on doing the tour. Also, there is large vegetation along that path that looks like huge Queen Anne’s Lace that we were warned would cause blisters if we touched it. I kept my hands in my pockets.
The climb was worth it though as we had really spectacular views of both glaciers and the town below. The National Park has reinforced the main walkway but you have to wear a hard hat when going through the building. You start on the 11th floor and then walk down 10 flights of very narrow stairs. The building isn’t heated either, and most of the windows are gone, so it can get quite chilly. Definitely wear a jacket.
We followed the processing process as we went down each floor which was actually pretty interesting. This is where Nells’ geological knowledge really came in handy and I ended up finding the tour interesting. Lee loved it.
After the tour we were starving, but we also needed to make the next shuttle, so we grabbed some food at a food truck, the Meatza Wagon (which was really quite good), and barely made it to the van in time. It was 6pm at this point and there were twice as many people as there was van space, but luckily we got in the first one while others had to wait 20 minutes until a supplemental van arrived. Then it was back to McCarthy and then back to the footbridge and the walk to the car then the loooong drive back. We didn’t get home until 10pm and although I enjoyed the day I will say we could have gone as far as the trestle bridge at Mile 27 then turned around and I would have been just fine. We were lucky enough to see Moose #3 on the way home though right outside the ranger station in Chitina where we think we saw the same moose the last time we came through. This one is pretty chill and I had lots of time to take some pics. A three moose day is never a bad thing though and I am very glad we did it so I can help our guests when they are planning a trip to the area.
On a side note, Lee took tons of video in the refinery but has not had a change to put it together for me. We have been having some issues with the local help showing up for work this week and he’s had to work some overtime. If he gets it done in future though I’ll mention it in that post and link it back here as well. Lee says it takes longer to edit than write!
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Thank you for your amazing detailed descriptions, photos and reports. We are planning a trip to Alaska next summer and what you are sharing is very helpful.
Awesome …glad to hear it. I actually worries I got into too much detail on this one, but the place is confusing, thanks for the feedback.
love the photos of the bridges
Thanks so much Tracey. Love your stories
Sent from Debi Marshall’s iPad
Great Post with wonderful pictures. With our knees we wouldn’t make it. Thank you for all the information and for taking the time to show pictures. It’s something we will never see.
Glad to see you guys made the drive and did the tour. Very interesting place for sure.
Great post. What an interesting place and I love the Moose pics.
Love the post and the pictures are wonderful. I especially love the pictures of the moose. They are wonderful. Great job. Love keeping up with your adventure. Have a great weekend.
Looks like a great field trip!!
Am I the only one who hears the theme to the TV show “Northern Exposure” every time I see one of your moose photos? 🙂
We actually started watching it again. When we got here I looked it up but cicely was shot in Seattle and is not a real town here. There is some speculation as to which towns it was based on though. We only have one radio station but unfortunately no Chris. That would have been cool.
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