Alaska Camping 2008
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Days 4-6:   July 13-15, 2008
Wrangell Mountains and Thompson Pass
Our one day of California blue sky weather was over, and we packed up our camp at Kenai Lake on Sunday in light sprinkles (the first of many times we had to pack away a wet tent). Driving back to the highway, we were shocked and delighted when a bald eagle with pure white head and tail suddenly dropped out of a roadside tree and flew directly ahead of us down the road for a hundred yards before gaining altitude and veering off.
Figuring that the weather inland would be better, we headed for our next major destination: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  Our plan was to drive the 300+ miles to camp somewhere near Chitina, and then tackle the slow gravel McCarthy Highway the next morning.
Under gloomy skies, we quickly headed back to Anchorage where we stopped for more supplies and then went for a swim at the beautiful pool of the University of Alaska.  In the afternoon, we headed east on the Glenn highway, stopping at overlooks.  Huge glacial rivers were an impressive feature of this drive.  The weather gradually improved, and as we approached the town of Glenallen, we were impressed by the looming bulk of the snow-capped Mt. Drum volcano straight ahead.  Heading south toward Chitina on the Richardson and Edgerton Highways, the clouds would periodically part to reveal the impossibly high gleaming white summits of the Wrangell Mountain volcanoes:  Mts. Drum, Sanford, Wrangell, and Blackburn.    They towered up to 16,000 foot elevation, while our road traveled through the broad valley of the Copper River at about 1,000 feet.  We planned to camp at the Liberty Falls state recreation area, only to find it closed due to flood damage.  So we just pitched our tent in the deserted gravel parking area for the Liberty Falls trail, which we hiked to a high viewpoint on a rocky ridge.
On Monday, we continued to the end of the pavement at Chitina and then onto the McCarthy Highway.  This is one of only two roads that penetrate the interior of this 20 million acre wilderness national park - one of the largest in the world.  It follows the old railroad bed that once served the Kennicott mines from 1911 to 1938 - in its day, one of the richest copper deposits in the world.  There are many private land inholdings in the park with residents and vacation cabins along the road and in the town of McCarthy at its terminus. Although portrayed as a very rough road in many guidebooks and off-limits to the major car rental companies (but not to the local firm we used), we found that this road has been substantially improved.  Although still gravel, it is smooth with no potholes and little washboarding and you can easily drive it at the speed limit of 35 mph.  We set up camp on the moraine at the private “Base Camp Root Glacier” campground at the end of the road.
Now under “partly sunny” skies, we took the van shuttle to the old Kennicott Mill ruins and then started our afternoon hike up the Bonanza Mine trail.  This is billed in the Park brochures as the premier hike in the area.  It climbs 4,000 feet elevation in about 5 miles to the old mine perched on the ridge.  We were content to stop at a knoll with good views at about the half way point.  Returning to the mill, we then followed the Root Glacier trail out to actually step on the glacier.  Guides take groups on glacier hikes using crampons.
Tuesday morning there were even fewer clouds, revealing the full 7000 foot height of the Staircase Icefall in the Root Glacier.  We walked into and around McCarthy town and visited their fascinating museum.  We then packed up camp and headed back out towards Chitina. The Chugach Mountains to the south (toward the coast) were now completely clear.  We decided to take advantage of the sun again, and when we reached the main highway, detoured south towards Valdez.  We hiked the steep trail up the moraine next to the Worthington Glacier, and then hiked a service road along the ridge at Thompson Pass, with amazing views of peaks and glaciers in every direction.
We needed to get to Denali National Park the next day to use our reservation, so we doubled back north again, looking for a good place to camp.  There were more excellent views of the Wrangell Mountains, particularly of the nearly perfect white cone of Mt. Sanford as we travelled to the north side.   We pushed on to the Tangle Lakes campground on the old Denali highway, where it was nearly 10 pm as we set up camp.   This was the only time on our trip where the bugs - “no-see-ums” here instead of mosquitos - were annoying enough to use the headnets we had brought.  As we ended the day, the sky was nearly completely clouded over again.
2689-Matanuska River from Glenn Hwy north of Palmer
2692-Matanuska Glacier from Glenn Hwy
2699-Mount Wrangell over Willow Lake from Richardson Hwy
2703-Copper River from Liberty Falls trail
2706-Typical house in Chitina
2707-The Chitina Emporium is still in use
2710-Karen at Chitina River overlook, mile 5 of McCarthy Hwy
2715-Abandoned trestle along McCarthy Hwy
2719-Kennicott Mill
2720-Karen at Kennicott Mill
2725-Kennicott Mill and glacier
2727-”Blue Bells” were common along the trail
2728-Flowers along the trail
2729-Porphyry Mtn from Bonanza Mine trail
2730-Root Glacier below Donoho Peak from Bonanza Mine trail
2733-South to distant Chugach Mtns from Bonanza Mine trail
2734-Root & Kennicott Glaciers joining below Donoho Peak
2737-This “dwarf” Dogwood -about 3” high- grows throughout the state
2741-CowParsnip grows large flowerheads and is found everywhere
2743-Lower reaches of Kennicott Glacier are covered in gravel & rocks
2746-Snout of Root Glacier
2753-Kennicott Mill
2754-Kennicott Mill
2757-Porphyry Mtn over Kennicott River from footbridge to McCarthy
2759-These flowers were common on the moraines
2771-Stairway Icefall on Root Glacier, from near McCarthy
2763-Flowers fields near McCarthy
2767-Phil in McCarthy town, which consists of a few blocks of old buildings
2768-McCarthy town
2772-Stairway Icefall over Kennicott River from footbridge to McCarthy
2774-Fireweed was the most common flower we saw in Alaska
2776-Worthington Glacier over Richardson Hwy
2784-Worthington Glacier from moraine trail
2786-View south from Thompson Pass on Richardson Hwy
2792-Heiden Glacier from Thompson Pass on Richardson Hwy
2795-Mt Sanford over Copper River near Gakona
2796-Karen at Tangle Lakes campground, the one time we used headnets
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All materials Copyright Phillip Farrell.
Last revision August 10, 2008.