A Fall Weekend Driving the Nabesna Road
In mid-September of 2020, I drove to Devils Mountain Lodge in the tiny town of Nabesna along the rugged Nabesna Road. It was the beginning of my two-week trip around the interior of Alaska, chasing the aurora. I had seen the lights dance through the clouds the previous night; and although any aurora is a good aurora, I wanted more, and hoped that Nabesna would be the place for it.
The day was a bit cloudy, but still beautiful. There were snowcapped peaks everywhere, and I stopped wherever I could to snap photos, though I couldn’t adequately capture the area’s beauty with my camera. Driving east, I followed the Copper River until turning onto Nabesna Road at the town of Slana. Until now, my journey had been on paved roads, but I knew that this last stretch was going to be slow going. The Nabesna road is unpaved, only sort-of maintained, and bumpy, with dirt and gravel that scrapes the bottom of your car.
Those 42 miles to Devil’s Mountain Lodge took about 3 hours, but the remoteness, tranquility, and beauty of this place was heaven! Along the way, I stopped at a few places, including Twin Lakes at the Kendesnii Campground. I walked a trail near the edge of the lake to get a better view of a distant mountain, and the view improved the more I walked. The lake and Tanada Peak made for quite a photo.
Once at Devil’s Mountain Lodge, I was warmly welcomed and delighted to learn they were upgrading me from a dry (i.e. no running water) single room to a large cabin with a bathroom. This day had gotten much better!
The lodge itself is a fascinating place. The family that runs it, the Ellises, have been here since the 1950's and are great folks. There was always coffee and fresh-baked snacks in the dining room, so you never went hungry. Plus, two of the four other guests had just come back from a successful moose hunt, so we were treated to fresh-cooked moose every meal.
I turned in early that first night, in hopes of waking up around midnight and photographing the aurora. The skies were clear when I went to bed, and I hoped they would stay that way the rest of the night.
My alarm went off and I headed down to the airstrip, which gave me an unobstructed view to the north. When it’s so dark you can barely see your hand in front of your face—like it was here—you know it’s perfect for night-sky photography. Not only was the aurora out, but so was the Milky Way. It was truly amazing. I shot for 90 minutes or so and headed back for some more sleep. I had a busy day ahead.
The next morning, I had breakfast and headed out to explore on foot. It was a great walk on a cool, beautiful morning. There are two abandoned mines within a 2–3 mile hike from the lodge. The closest one is the Rambler Mine; a few miles further down the trail is the Nabesna Mine, which closed in 1947 after 10 years of mining gold.
Both mines had been ransacked a bit over the last 73 years, but there were some really cool artifacts left in the buildings.
I started with the Nabesna Mine, walking through the overgrown brush and trying to see as many of the remaining houses and structures as possible. The main building was the coolest; it housed all the mining equipment and miscellaneous tools, and there was an incredible view from the second-floor windows.
After exploring for a bit, I headed back toward the Rambler Mine. Reaching it involved hiking a steep incline—gaining 400 feet in elevation over a half-mile—but it was worth the effort. Metal bars blocked me from entering the mine, but I could still see one of the old mining cars still on the track just inside.
I could only imagine the smells and sounds that emanated from this mine when it was in production.
I had passed a fellow hiker earlier, who recommended I hike past the mine and go up the path toward the top of the mountain. I was glad I did: There were spectacular views of the Nabesna River Valley and the Mentasta and Nutzotin mountains inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, with its 13 million acres of remote, beautiful, wilderness.
It was a truly great way to spend an afternoon in Nabesna.
When I got back to the lodge, I had a little energy left and wanted to see some more of the area. The staff directed me to a mile-long trail on the other side of the airstrip that led to Jack Creek. It was a fairly easy trail, and I made my presence known to the bears, moose, and other creatures that call this area home. The last thing I wanted was to sneak up on an unsuspecting animal! I paused for a few minutes at the creek, thinking about how lucky I was to be here, exploring this incredible place. I couldn’t wait to share my photos and my experience with others.
That night, I set my alarm again in hopes of a second night of seeing the aurora in Nabesna. I headed back down to the same spot as the night before, and lucky me, Mother Nature put on another great show, including—once again—the Milky Way. I stayed out a little longer that night, because the next day would be an easier travel day with no hiking.
The next morning, I headed out of Nabesna, and the overcast sky added some texture and moodiness to the surrounding landscapes. I stopped again at Twin Lakes and took some more photos of the water, with Tanada Peak and the muted sun. The ride back out to the Tok Highway didn’t seem to take as long as it did on the way in, but I guess that happens. It was still a slow drive, which was good because my head was on a swivel the entire time, taking in this incredible scenery. Next stop? Delta Junction.