Explore the Copper River Valley

Scott McMurren

Visitors to the remote Copper River area of Alaska may be surprised to learn the river valley was one of the busiest transportation routes at the beginning of the 20th century.

After the Klondike Gold Rush, copper was discovered in the Chitina River Valley near McCarthy. A massive building boom ensued, with Wall Street bankers financing the Copper River Railway from Cordova’s port, up the river to the Kennicott Mine. During the 30 years the mine was operational, it was both the largest and richest copper mine in the world. In fact, the entire investment in developing the mine, building the railroad and the fleet of ships to carry the copper was paid off in the first trainload of ore which left the mine!

Today, the railroad is gone and there is a gravel road which runs over what’s left of the rail bed between Chitina and McCarthy.

Your first stop while exploring the area should be Princess’ Copper River Wilderness Lodge, which sits on a point overlooking the confluence of the Klutina and Copper Rivers. Look to the south and you can see the Trans-Alaska Pipeline snaking over the hills on its way to the ice-free port of Valdez. Look to the east and you’ll see three of the tallest peaks in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park framed in the lodge’s floor-to-ceiling windows: Mt. Drum, Mt. Wrangell and Mt. Blackburn.

You’re making a mistake if you come to the Copper River Valley and you miss going into the park. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the nation’s largest national park and there are many ways to explore the area. One of the most popular is an air tour of the mountains, glaciers and river valleys. Kelly and Natalie Bay are the husband-and-wife owners of Wrangell Mountain Air. The couple offers a number of air tours of the park. Naturally, the longer the tour, the more it costs. Don’t be surprised, though, if you see mountain goats or bears from the air, along with rock glaciers, remnants of the Kennicott Copper mine and much more.

Just up the road from the Princess lodge is the historic community of Copper Center. Local tour guides can give you an Alaskan perspective on the community’s strategic location for miners and travelers in the early 1900s. Copper Center was the main supply center for miners in the region. The trail to gold fields in interior Alaska passed through Copper Center from Valdez–and roadhouses were constructed for accommodations, meals and supplies.

Explore The Copper River Valley

Start at the Copper River Wilderness Lodge for a spectacular view of the Klutina and Copper Rivers. Just a short drive away is Copper Center, a historic community you won’t want to miss.

Go fishing, sea kayaking, or take a jetboat tour! These are just 3 of the many activities Princess offers in the Copper River area.

Naturally, the fishing is great along several of the rivers in the area. The Klutina River, which flows right by the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge, boasts a great King Salmon run in June and July. And the Copper River has a famous run of red salmon. In fact, some restaurants hire helicopters near Cordova so they can be the first to whisk the “Copper River Reds” from the river to the dinner tables in Seattle, San Francisco and New York. Don’t worry, though. There are plenty of red salmon who swim all the way up to the river around Copper Center. Local guides know all the hot spots and they provide rods, reels and everything you’ll need to land a lunker. All you need to do is purchase a local fishing license!

Even if you’re not an avid angler, sign up for a jetboat tour of the Copper River Canyon. Whitewater enthusiasts come from far away to float the canyon or take a jetboat tour. The jetboat option definitely is quicker! Folks who float the river from Chitina to Cordova should budget at least a week!

If you have not seen the mining town of McCarthy, make plans to take a tour of the town and the adjacent Kennicott mine. When the Kennicott mine was constructed in the early 1900s, it included many modern amenities, such as electric power, telephones, a school with an interior tennis court and a dance hall. These amenities were developed exclusively for mine managers and visiting dignitaries, though. The bulk of the mine’s workforce lived high in the mountains at the entrance to the mine shafts. These mountainside camps held hundreds of miners that typically worked for up to a year at a time without any days off. And the town of Kennicott wasn’t all dances and parties, either. The 14-story processing mill operated 24 hours a day, crushing and pulverizing the copper ore in a deafening symphony of water blasting the rocks through ever-smaller screens until the ore was loaded into 50-pound bags on the train for shipment to Cordova. Don’t miss the chance to take a walking tour of the mill building.

From the lodge, it’s an easy drive to Valdez for sea kayaking or a Columbia Glacier cruise. On the way from the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge to Valdez, you’ll drive over Thompson Pass and past a number of beautiful water falls on the way. It’s worth stopping at Horse Tail Falls and Bridal Veil Falls for pictures. Valdez local Stan Stephens operates the Columbia Glacier cruise and reminds guests that Valdez sits in the midst of the world’s furthest-north rain forest. It’s a much different climate than the lodge’s at Copper Center. But it’s what makes the beautiful water falls–and it also makes for colorful glacial viewing. Stephens will profess–and others will concur–that glaciers are prettier when it’s rainy or cloudy. Why? Because the cloudy weather allows the blue inside the glacier to shine through much more dramatically than when it’s sunny. So have your camera ready–along with your raincoat!