July 8, 2015

A Memorable 4th of July in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

When we awoke on July 4, I was excited to see a bit of blue sky beginning to peek out from behind the clouds.  Even better, the previous day’s haze was gone.  This was a promising start to a day of flightseeing.  Tim and I arrived at the Chitina Airport (it was really no more than a dirt airstrip) and boarded our six-seater plane for the thirty-minute trip to McCarthy.  I sat in the co-pilot’s seat and had a bird’s-eye view as we flew over the Copper River and began our climb toward the mountains that dominate Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Even in the air, it was difficult to grasp the enormity and scale of this small section of the national park.  The Wrangell Mountains were not just snow-capped, they were totally enveloped with snow.  And the glaciers.  We seemed to pass one after another, one more splendid than the next. 

What a View!

Bill, our pilot, gave us a running commentary on what we were seeing, but I’m not even going to try and remember the names of the individual mountain peaks or glaciers that we saw.  Bill was especially excited as we approached Fourth of July Pass.  How appropriate to be flying through there on Independence Day.

The already-amazing scenery got even more awesome as we emerged from the pass and caught our first glimpse of the Kennicott Glacier.  This glacier is 27 miles long, and we could see part of its circuitous route as it made its way down the slopes of Mt. Blackburn.  We flew past nearby Root and Gates glaciers that merge with the Kennicott Glacier to form a massive sea of ice that terminates near the town of McCarthy.  Wow!  The views were simply breathtaking.  So much ice!  So much majesty!  So much beauty!

Kennicott and Gates Glaciers

Glacial Moraine

A River of Ice

Reflections Next to the Glacial Moraine

We landed at McCarthy and soon learned that the Fourth of July is the biggest day of the year in this tiny town.  We had somehow stumbled upon a down-home celebration.  People from all over Alaska were arriving for the festivities, which included a parade, games and general merriment.  We could feel the excitement in the air, and everyone seemed to be delighted to be there.  Many people had flown in on their own small planes, and it was quite a surprise to see a row of planes and tents at the airstrip.  We are finding out that things are different in Alaska – in the Lower 48, people go car camping; here, they seem to go plane camping.

Tim and I had some time to wander around McCarthy, and we really felt that we were in a frontier community.  We were disappointed to learn that we would miss the parade since we would need to catch an earlier shuttle to Kennecott.  This was not to be any ordinary small town parade.  We were proudly told that this one was a bit more unusual, maybe even a bit R-rated.  We later found out that the “costume” worn by our afternoon tour guide included a bare butt!

McCarthy, Alaska - An "End of the Road" Town

An Alaska Frontier Town

Ready for the Fourth of July

The shuttle took us five miles to the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, the major attraction for history buffs in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  Before I tell you about this site, let me address the question of spelling.  Which is correct – Kennicott or Kennecott?  That was a question I had asked.  The natural features in the area, including the glacier, valley and river, are spelled Kennicott after Alaska explorer Robert Kennicott.  The mining company, mines and mill town are spelled Kennecott, which is actually a misspelling of the local name.

Entrance to Kennecott Mines National Historic District

Kennecott was established in 1900 following the discovery of one of the world’s richest concentrations of high grade copper ore in the mountains above Kennicott Glacier.  Kennecott is considered to be the best remaining example of early twentieth century copper mining in the United States and is an amazing relic of America’s industrial past.  During its heyday, Kennecott was a self-contained company town, and it contained 100 buildings, including bunkhouses, a hospital and recreation hall for the miners who lived and worked in this remote and wild place.   

Kennecott from the Air

Ready to Spend the Afternoon at Kennecott

West Bunkhouse and Refrigeration Plant

When the company closed the mines in 1938, virtually everything was left behind, from the machinery in the mill to the dishes on the tables.  Kennecott became an instant ghost town, and it still appears to be virtually frozen in time.  Today, the buildings are in varying states of preservation, from completely restored to ruins.  The National Park Service has acquired many of the structures and is in the process of stabilizing and rehabilitating them.  What a mammoth undertaking that is proving to be. 

Before our afternoon tour, Tim and I took the time to check out the visitor center, watch the film and wander around to get a sense of the town.  We walked near the edge of the Kennicott Glacier, which is in the town’s front yard, although what you see today is the glacial moraine, not ice.  Although the town is within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, many of the buildings are still privately owned, and one of those is Kennicott Glacier Lodge.  That’s where we had lunch, and it turned out to be the best meal we’ve had since leaving Haines.  We never could have guessed that we would find such high quality food in the most remote place we’ve visited.

The Glacial Moraine Is Directly in Front of the Town

View from Kennicott Glacier Lodge

The most iconic and impressive structure in town is the 14-story Kennecott Concentration Mill, and the only way to go inside is with a guide.  I was surprised to learn that the National Park Service does not give tours.  Instead, St. Elias Alpine Guides has the concession, so we joined four other people for an afternoon tour. 

The 14-Story Concentration Mill Is the Most Iconic Building at Kennecott

The Power Plant Supported both the Mill Town and the Mines

I won’t even pretend to try and explain the process for concentrating, crushing and sorting the copper ore, although I found the description interesting.  Darren, our guide, did a great job in helping us make sense of what we were seeing.  What fascinated me the most was the building itself.  This is one of the tallest timber frame buildings in the country, and its construction on a series of terraces that stair-step up the 36 degree slope of a mountain is still mind boggling.  We were required to wear hardhats for the tour, and I am still surprised that the National Park Service allows people inside the mill building.  Maybe that’s why the tours are given by a concessionaire.  I never felt unsafe inside, but I did note that the stairs were very steep, some of the wood railings were rickety and debris was everywhere.  I’ve never toured any structure like this one, and I’m so glad we were able to see it.

This Is Where We Entered the Concentration Mill Building

Hardhats Required

Darren Was a Great Guide
Darren Explained the Process To Us

The Scale of the Machinery Was Huge
Everything Was Left Behind

Kennecott Copper Corp. - Kennecott, Alaska

A Great Tour of the Mill

Our time in Kennecott was way too short.  Had it not been for the cat, we would have spent the night in McCarthy or Kennecott.  It would have been great to hike on the Root glacier, but we couldn’t do that and our tour.  It was a tough choice, but I’m still glad we chose the mill tour. 

We returned to McCarthy for our return flight to Chitina.  This time we were in a four-seater, and I let Tim have the co-pilot’s seat.  Nice, aren’t I?  The sky was a bit hazy, but the scenery was still magnificent.  I had the back seat to myself and could easily catch the views on both sides of the plane.  Tim and I were really impressed with Wrangell Mountain Air and our pilots.  Bill and Martin were personable, knowledgeable and professional, just what you want in a bush pilot.  They also seemed to love what they were doing, and I’d fly with them again any day.

Returning Through Fourth of July Pass

Mt. Drum Was Visible

Planes of Wrangell Mountain Air - On the Way Out, and On the Way Back

Kitty Didn't Get to Fly with Us,
But Martin Let Her Try Out the Plane

Because we were tired from a long day, we decided to leave the RV parked at the airstrip in Chitina and just spend the night there.  It may have been a parking lot, but the views were great.  Without a doubt, this was the most memorable Fourth of July I’ve ever had.


  1. What an amazing flight! The snow covered mountains and the glaciers are just beautiful!!

    1. The scenery was truly incredible. Flightseeing offers such a great experience.

  2. Thanks for taking us on the flightseeing and the tour ... I've been intrigued by that beautiful mill building ever since I saw my first photo of it.

    1. You are welcome. The mill building is so distinctive and worth a tour.

  3. Thank you for taking the flight! It must have been awe inspiring - the photos are beautiful. You caught McCarthy on a better day than we. Such is the luck of travel. I'm glad you had a great time.

    1. You are so right about the luck of travel. Yes, we managed to hit McCarthy on the best day of the year, but you managed to snare a quiet, waterfront sites in Seward and Homer where you could enjoy the views. We seem to be too late to manage that. Some places are better early in the season, while others are just beginning to wake up. It's never possible to hit every place at the perfect time. I think we've both been very fortunate.


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