Kennicott Mine in Alaska

If you're ever near Valdez in southeastern Alaska, we highly recommend a side trip through vast Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve to the remote Alaska ghost town of Kennicott and its abandoned copper mine.

We were fascinated to learn that copper was mined here until 1938, especially considering the hardships of its mountain location. And the 93-mile, 3-hour drive–so rugged that many major car rental companies don't allow their vehicles on it–was exciting.

The first 35 miles, along paved State Highway 10 (also known as the Edgerton Highway), took us to the faded boomtown of Chitina, the last point where fuel is available. As we continued along the narrow, gravel McCarthy Road, which is actually an old railroad bed, we watched for railroad ties that sometimes surface. At one point, bald eagles surrounded our car.

The former railroad bridge took our breath away–and not just because of the views! This 1911 trestle carries you 385 dizzying feet over the Kuskulana River gorge.

At the Kennicott River, we parked and crossed the footbridge, then hiked a mile into McCarthy, a once-wild town that offered miners all kinds of diversions that were outlawed in the company-owned town.

You can walk the 5 miles to Kennicott, but we took a shuttle van, then skipped the guided tour so we could explore on our own. We strolled along gravel paths past cottages, community buildings and the towering 14-story mill and other mine buildings.

Only guided tours are allowed in the buildings, some of which are near collapse. But even from the outside, we saw why this was among the nation's largest copper-mining operations, employing more than 600 people and processing some $250 million worth of ore.

Yes, this little-known nugget of the past was well worth digging into!.

MINE NO MORE. The old Kennecott Copper Mine mill (above) in Kennicott and the vacant McCarthy General Store (at left) are mute reminders of one of the largest and richest mining operations in Alaskan history. Note how the town and the mine share the same name but are spelled differently; mining officials misspelled the name of nearby Kennicott Glacier. The copper boom started here in 1900 when two prospectors found a large green spot on a mountainside between the glacier and McCarthy Creek.

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