A pleasant drive the next morning with the hope of seeing moose –(no luck) saw us pass the turnoff to Anchorage and head south towards Valdez. Along this road is the opportunity to take the 100km detour into the Wrangell-St Elias National Park. Given that this is the largest unit in the National Parks system at over 13.2 million acres, we thought it was worth visiting.
Some other stats – 9.7 million acres of designated wilderness, the greatest collection of peaks over 16,000 feet and the largest concentration of glaciers on the continent. It’s big, but it’s also difficult to get to much of the spectacular country – it is designated wilderness after all. The road takes you past thundering rivers of grey glacier melt rivers and a couple of small communities before arriving at the end of the road where visitors can camp on the moraine or walk across a foot bridge and stay in a comfortable lodge. We stayed in the car of course.
Funnily enough, the park’s best-known attraction is not natural, but consists of a large group of buildings built in 1907 by the Kennecott Mining Company at the end of a rough dirt road! The mill town of Kennecott serviced the mine which was named after the Glacier in the valley below the town. Discovered in 1900, the ore contained the richest known concentration of copper in the world and from 1909 until 1938 the 5 Kennecott mines produced 4.6 million tons of ore that contained 1.183 billion pounds of copper, making the owners and shareholders very rich people!
The now partly restored ‘town’, funded by a special line directly from Congress, is a great place to wander and the information provided in the restored buildings is excellent and is an amazing example of mans’ ability to overcome any obstacles presented, in his desire for wealth!
A railway was built through mountainous country to transport ore and goods to and from the mine, 70 miles of subterranean tunnels, aerial tram systems between mines and a 14 story high concentration plant were built – all in a place that is covered in snow and ice for more than six months of every year.
All this is right alongside a glacier! What looks like mine tailings in the foreground of our photos is actually a moraine covered glacier. What’s more, the sun shone and the weather was great for our visit.